Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sea Meadows

 Seagrass meadows, I think, are like the frogs of the ocean. When they are flourishing, the place is going okay.

Last night we netted at the eastern end of the harbour and checked out the meadows. They offered up little yellow clusters of flowers.
At the western end of Princess Royal Harbour, an invasive algae is on the march, victualled by the town's nutrient run-off. The algae is slimy and khaki and it spreads through the shallows, smothering the sea meadows. Probably, it was introduced by ship's ballast from some exotic port, then successfully distributed in the advent of trailered dinghies. (Like us.) No flowers there.

Oyster Harbour, on the other hand, doesn't have the same problems with algae, doing away with my trailered boats hypothesis. Maybe its health is due to the estuary being fed by two fresh water rivers. The seagrass there is dusty with silt from the Kalgan and the King, brown rather than bright green, but it is thriving.

Spider crabs cultivate seagrass on their crowns. So cute, an emerald tuft growing from their heads, a ruse to disappear into the meadows.

These pictures were taken at Two People's Bay. The water is so clear, a joy after a winter in the murky inlets (though a bit frightening after weeks of an easterly onshore that rolls the swell in mountainous, sloppy deckie traps). The seagrass at Two Peoples Bay is a different species, smoky grey green rather than bright green, and I didn't see any flowers when I was there last week. See how the meadows sway and weave into rows as the currents divide them, curling them over each other like a woman's hair ... or meadows of soft, soft grass in the wind.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"We Need the Whales. They Don't Need Us."

This was the first time Captain Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd infamy, visited Albany. He stood before a jolly roger lectern and behind him loomed the skeleton of a blue whale. The blue whale's bones are suspended from the purloins of a shed at Whaleworld, where they used to cut whales up and then boil them down.

Paul Watson nearly made it to Albany once before, but on a different agenda. Had he not just been kicked out of Greenpeace, the renegade, self proclaimed pirate who specialises in 'direct action' claimed that he was to lead the campaign against the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, here, in 1977. Now Paul Watson is hoping that the Japanese will one day be as passionate defenders of whales and dolphins as the Albanians are.

Tonight's gig at Whaleworld was more than a pep talk for protecting the ocean dwelling mammals though. Impian Films have big plans for Tim Winton's book. Shallows is a story of whaling in a town called Angelus, commonly recognised as Albany, spanning from the 1830's to that day in 1977 when the bikies, the flensers, the gunners, an ex-deputy prime minister, federal police, Greenpeace and Catchalot and Co all descended on the whaling station for a bit of a barney over the whales.

Impian Films is attempting to incorporate a third age of whaling into the film; the current Japanese activities in Antarctica, the Australian Economic Exclusion Zone and the Australian Whale Sanctuary. That's where Sea Shepherd comes in. But there were other reasons for the gig tonight. Before Watson spoke, Sea Shepherd's man in Australia Geoff Hanson talked about the possibilities of starting a chapter in Albany. Whilst standing under a dead whale in a place where they used to cut them up. Delicious. I love a good irony. I can't think of a better town for a Sea Shepherd chapter.

Hanson showed a promotional movie of Sea Shepherd's campaigns that began with a testosterone sound track and showed protesters against sealing in Canada, a shark finning campaign and of course, the Antarctic whale defence, complete with Japanese water cannons. The promo concluded with a quote: "I'm not here to watch them kill whales. I'm here to stop them," by Captain Paul Watson. It hit the collective g spot and drew lots of applause. If I'm sounding wearied, it's because advertising of any sort leaves me cold and this was so slick ... it was downright blubbery with slickness.

However. There were plenty more interesting enough things said to make the evening worth writing about.
Like, once anti-sealing protesters started daubing the young seals with dye to make their pelts worthless, the Canadian government brought in the Seal Protection Act. This Act does not protect the seals. It simply keeps the public (protesters and/or documentary makers) further than half a mile from working sealers. A year in gaol acts as a deterrent.

Paul Watson got up to speak and boy, can he speak. Thank goodness Paul Watson is giving splendid orations for the Whales and not to Stop the Boats or Dig Up All Our Uranium and Flog It to the Dodgy Generals.
He speaks quickly,  full of anecdotes and one liners. He has more than a couple of ripping yarns to tell. Forty years of wandering around the world in his line of work will do that. Here's some grabs:

"In 1979, hunted a pirate whaling vessel, well it was a Norwegian vessel but it had no flag so we rammed it and sank it. Later the captain was interviewed in television and asked how he felt about his ship getting sunk. He said he'd never thought about killing whales before, just killed them. Then he saw these guys putting their life on the line to protect them. It changed him. He didn't want to kill whales anymore ..."
... a bull leaped out of the water after his cow had been killed. The gunners knew he'd do that and they shot him at point blank range. Watson, sitting in his little zodiac at the bow of the ship, met this whale's eye ...
... the Russians kill whales and use their oil for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Have a quick think about that. "We are insane," was what Watson came up with ...
... sank five Icelandic whalers in one season ...
... never been convicted of a crime, never been sued. Got kicked out of Iceland though ...

"They like to call me a pirate. the way I see it, in the 17th century everyone was making money out of pirates in the Caribbean and they were too hard to shut them down. Took a pirate, Henry Morgan, to clean the pirates up. That's what we are doing."

"Steve said I was on Interpol's most wanted list. But I'm not. Japan's put me on Interpol's Blue File. That means that every country I go to, they can't arrest me for anything but they can harass me at every point. Slow me down.... took me three months this year to get an Australian visa. They wanted me to get an all clear from the FBI but the FBI don't do that. They only give out criminal records. Last year it took me four months to get a visa, even though I don't have a criminal record. Bob Brown sticks up for me. The Greens have been helpful. Garret is not." (Bob Brown was the only person who really kicked up a stink about the Spy Planes issue last year, saying that if Australian ports were closed to Japanese whalers, then why are Australian airports open and ready for business? See my Spy Planes tag below for background.)

 ... they have a replacement for Ady Gil. They decided to call her Godzilla but then realised that the only thing scarier than Godzilla was Godzilla's lawyers ...

When I asked Watson about Japan using Antarctic whaling to prop up territorial boundaries and quotas, he said that Japan may have to give up their blue fin tuna quotas if they were not also whaling in the area. Whaling is not profitable anyway. He said that Mitsubishi are stockpiling blue fin tuna in huge freezer complexes, for when they are so rare a species that the price will be astronomical. "Humans work constantly to adapt to diminished species. Not only does this mean they move on to killing other species, it means that the endangered species becomes more valuable, the less of it is around."

I asked him if he ever did find out the identity of Taz Patrol, the anonymous crew of an old boat who got a bead on the whalers last year and messaged the coordinates to Sea Shepherd. He laughed. "No, never did."

When Watson has been criticised in the past for some of his direct action techniques, something that others would call 'direct violence', he answers, "We don't care. We don't care what people think. We are not acting for people or trying to protect them. Our clients are the whales, the seals and the sharks."

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Something that always amazes me when reading stories of shark attacks is that the survivors consistently and immediately go to the defence of their attacker. After facing annihilation by some 'other' than us, survivors of shark attacks seem to possess a compassion that goes beyond hunger and food and who belongs where.

Only recently when someone was attacked in metro waters, the public salivated for great white blood like Pavlov's Dog to the media bell. And boy, did they drool. I'm not mentioning names of the dead in this post but when a man was killed a decade ago during his extremely civilised morning dip at Cottesloe Beach, the footage of the guilty shark lounging around in the shallows just offshore ('I'm digesting, mate. Gimme a break will ya?') whipped up a lot of anger against the only minister who could authorise its execution. He was in a meeting apparently.

Cactus Beach, South Australia, is a roadhouse of the Southern Ocean for great white sharks. On one side of the peninsula, the locals from the windmill-strewn farms a bit north pull up their caravans and leave them there. At the jetty the plaque to a young boy killed by a shark is enshrined with a pair of goggles, flippers, seashells, red strands of sea weed, sea urchins. The shark net makes a triangle of the jetty and the shore. Despite how shallow and grotty the water is, swimming outside of that net induces certain insecurities and Does Not Feel Safe.

The other half of the peninsula is owned by a bloke called Ron. He bought the place in the 70's for a song after working as a brickie's labourer in Queensland to get the cash together. Ron's an Aquarian after my own heart. He's a bit of a hermit and became an environmentalist once he lived this patch of land for a while and saw its frailties. When I met him it was his birthday. He told me that not long after he bought the place, they staged the first RipCurl Classic there. Hundreds of people came, ripped up all the wood in the place, left toilet paper everywhere and trashed the sand hills. After that, he brought firewood in and started looking after the peninsula, acknowledging that surfers would always want to come visit one of the best breaks in Australia.

Two young surfers have died at Cactus by shark attack and this brings the peninsula toll up to three, plus the others we don't know about. On the headland looking over the Cactus main break is cemented another plaque and a familiar shrine to the Noah's supremacy in these parts. Like I said, no names, but some joker (probably a local with a sense of humour) had rubbed salt away from the brass, so that the only white, salt-stained letters left of the victim's name read 'Ron's Meat'.

Here is where I segue from the Southern Ocean to our northern waters, and from sharks to crocodiles. This is because I've just read Val Plumwood's story Being Prey and it reminded me to re examine my thoughts about shark attacks and the way us guys think we are somehow above the whole concept of being edible.

I've just discovered Plumwood and it feels like my discovery of the writer Michael King when I arrived in New Zealand. I encountered a writer whose work and life resonated so beautifully and perfectly and from whom I learnt from so quickly, only to realise they'd died a year or so before. Both of these revelations quite devastated me! Val Plumwood died in 2008. I hate to label her but she could be described in academic circles as an environmentalist/feminist/philosopher. She also was a relatively innocent party to a crocodile roll and that is the subject of her amazing essay Being Prey.

Plumwood's rendition of being dragged out of her canoe in a Northern Territory tributary by a hungry crocodile who wanted her for dinner is one of the most terrifying and lucid pieces of writing I have ever read. She was rolled, thinking she was going to die, not once but twice and then dragged out of the tree that she'd clung to when the crocodile tired, only to be grabbed and rolled under the water again.

As in the repetition of a nightmare, the horror of my first escape attempt was repeated. As I leaped in to the same branch, the crocodile seized me again, this time around the upper left thigh, and pulled me under. Like the others, the third death roll stopped, and we came up next to the sandpaper fig branch again. I was growing weaker but I could see the crocodile taking a long time to kill me this way ...

Val Plumwood's story is an amazing read but not because she describes the attack itself. In Being Prey, she applies her eco feminist philosopher's lens to the subject of whether or not humanity's supremacy automatically negates us from being the wagyu steak or sushi for other apex critters. And she is dogged in her dissection:

This denial that we ourselves are food for others is reflected in many aspects of our death and burial practices - the strong coffin, conveniently buried well below the level of soil fauna activity, and the slab over the grave to prevent any other thing from digging us up, keeps the Western human body from becoming food for other species. Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: Horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood and alien monsters eating humans.

Now I get why sea lice falling out of the nets and biting my toes upsets me so much.

Plumwood dragged herself up a slippery clay bank and started walking. She lay down bleeding in the floodplains. I hoped to pass out soon but consciousness persisted. It's a bastard, that consciousness. She was rescued many hours later and began the thirteen hour trip in the ambulance to Darwin.

My rescuers discussed going upriver the next day to shoot the crocodile. I spoke strongly against this plan: I was the intruder, and no good purpose could be served by random revenge.

When I talked about this across-the-board-attitude of victims towards their sharky attackers to a surfer friend, he said, "Well. Obviously. Most people who are attacked are people who hang out in the water. They are surfers, abalone divers, skin divers. They get it. They know the place belongs to the sharks and the fish. They know it doesn't belong to us."

And Plumwood saw in that universe of the crocodile roll that she had no more significance than any other edible being. She dismantled the 'monster, master narrative' in Being Prey. Her clarity and precision on the subject of how easy it is to be eaten, whether you are human or cow or rabbit or fish, is truly terrifying and kind of edifying all at once.

All italicised passages are from the article 'Being Prey' by Val Plumwood.

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's Out!

Yes, it is out! The bulky blue book was delivered to my doorstep by courier early in the morning. Holding this book in my sweaty hands was an exciting enough moment to get Storm Boy out of bed before 7am. He has been traumatised ever since, poor child ... 
Anyway, I'll give you the blurb: 

"This year's Best Australian Essays offers riveting snapshots of the nation's 'current loves and angers, its art and myths and amusements and gender concerns - and its propensity for bushfires.' From Alex Miller's on the creative imagination to Mark Dapin on crime myths, from Amanda Hooton on Miss Universe to Tim Flannery on the inner lives of animals, this is a collection that takes the pulse of the nation's writers and thinkers and finds them in rude health. A deeply satisfying collection for that long summer read."

 From Yours of Rude Health.

Here's the link:

Friday, November 12, 2010

San Patricio

Yes, I am an Irish Music Tragic but an Irish/Mexican knees-up, celebrating the tale of the Irish American soldiers who crossed over to fight for the Mexicans in 1846? My giddy aunt!

"During the Mexican American war of 1846-1848 Captain John Riley and a small battalion of soldiers abandoned their pasts and futures in the burgeoning United States of America and followed their conscience - or their fortune perhaps - crossed the Rio Grande to fight side by side with the Mexican army under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Reviled by the Manifest Destiny minded America of the day as traitors and deserters, they have largely been forgotten in the retelling of history. But to generations of Mexicans and Irish they are remembered to this day as heroes who fought bravely against an unjust and thinly-veiled war of aggression ..."  

Paddy Moloney, The Chieftains.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dogs of the Sea

This morning, pulling crab pots, the dolphins came over to check us out. 

The dog smells their mammal breath and knows they are his kin.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Pelican

Grievous and Blunty worked out where their nets were going while Grievous’ quiet mate looked on. The river mouth was the hardest set because it was straight across the mad wind that just arced up but it would also be productive and there was no way the perpetually hungry Grievous would miss out on a few dollars.

‘I’ve seen you out in worse weather anyway,’ I told him.
He nodded. ‘That’s because you’ve been out there too!’

Grievous clad himself in wet weather gear and started the motor. He was beautiful to watch in a boat, lithe and graceful. He shouldered the dinghy into the waves and started throwing his nets into the murky water. Blunty took off to the lee side of the estuary, churning an olive wake behind him.

As I fell asleep that night, I heard a flock of swans fly over, singing their songs to each other. I heard Grievous return in the early gloaming, talking with his deckie as they passed by my tent to the boat. I heard them bail out the dinghy and the motor start. Their wake chattered against Blunty's aluminium tinny. When I woke again, it was Blunty through the canvas walls: ‘You up, Toa?’

This morning was red all over from the smoke hanging in the sky. Molten sun climbed crimson over the sand bar. Blunty hauled in nets in the shelter of paperbark trees. Their ghostly figures danced against the ochre cliffs and grey green bush. 
A sea eagle watched us from her paperbark eyrie.
‘You’ve got a pelican in the net.’
‘Nah,’ said Blunty. ‘Never happens.’ He screwed up his sleepy face. ‘Hang on. It does. I know who that is.’

At first it looked like a stump or stake in the water and there are plenty of those at the inlet. Plenty of pelicans too, ‘but this guy is sick. He’s got a hole in his neck and he’s a bit desperate. Poor bugga swallows the whole net to get at a fish and then he can’t throw it up again.’
We drew closer to the pelican. Blunt pulled fish out of the net and and they thumped into the bins. He’d set on the second channel, where the mullet come down at night. The wind would have helped. It always gets the fish meshing, oxygenates the water.

‘Wally’s got an injured pelican in Wilson’s,’ Blunty said. ‘He calls him Wobbles, ‘cause he’s got a busted wing. He feeds him every day, makes sure he gets fed ahead of the other greedy ones.’

This pelican looked meek and didn’t struggle as the boat came closer. It was so still I wondered if it had died. It’s beak and wings were wound up in the net, so it looked like an ungainly giraffe trying to drink.
We pulled up alongside. ‘You have to grab him and I’ll get the fish out.’
The bird had a large gash on one side of its neck, from fighting or something. The wound must have gone straight through to its throat, because a small black bream surrounded in nylon fishing net poked through the bloody hole. Blunty was right. 
I held the bird’s wings and beak while Blunty yanked out the fish quickly, got it out of the mesh and chucked it into the water. I thought he was quite brutal, until I realised how much distress and pain I would have caused, faffing about, trying to be gentle.

‘Don’t wanna keep that bream.’
‘But it’s already cooked!’

He pulled the fishing net away from where the bird had entangled itself and then sat the pelican gently on the water like a baby. We watched it paddle slowly away. ‘Poor bugger needs a bullet,’ Blunt said. The sea eagle hadn’t moved, had watched the whole rescue.