The battle for the kingdom of humpback whales

06 August, 2021

Ningaloo off the west coast of Australia is a unique coral reef. It is earth’s largest beachfront reef and one of the few places where you can swim with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.

Next door to the reef is the Exmouth Gulf and to this bay over three thousand humpback whales come every year to give birth to their young.

The Ningaloorevet and Exmouth Gulf are two interconnecting ecological systems. But now the sanctuary of wildlife is under threat. Gascoyne Gateway wants to build an industrial port in Ningaloo’s nursery, right on the Exmouth Gulf.

Photo: Anouska Freedman, Alanah Kilner, John Totterdell, Oceanwise Australia
Still: Tom Cannon 
Editing: Peter Löfgren

You stand at the breaking point where sea meets land. In front of you you will see a color scale of blue. It is a landscape where the sky and sea meet each other. Behind you, a rust-brown semi-desert landscape stretches out with small angry bushes that have to survive 45-degree heat during the summer.

You’re at Australia’s northwest corner, in the state of Western Australia, far up a remote peninsula, 120 miles north of Perth. The region is called Gascoyne, a sparsely populated area, but with a coastline towards the Indian Ocean of close to 600 kilometers.

Your feet are a little sunk in the damp sand. With each wave that ripples in, the toes, the heels, the whole foot, are sucked deeper into the fine gravel of ground seashells. It’s low tide. But in just a few hours, the sea will have devoured this part of the beach strip.

You take a few steps forward, pull on the cyclope, dive down and swim out. After about ten meters, a rarely seen underwater kingdom opens.

You have reached the Ningaloorevet. A 30-mile reef with corals and around 500 species of fish.

tropical fish
The researchers have found around 500 species of fish at Ningalooreet and over 850 in Exmouth Bay. The bay and the reef are in an ecological relationship with each other. Photo: Alex Kydd

“Ningaloo is indeed an extremely unusual place both on land and in the water. It’s a kind of haven for diversity,” Australian author Tim Winton said.

Tim Winton is Western Australia’s own author’s son. He has spent a lot of time at the Ningaloorevet and the Exmouth Gulf. Alongside his writing, he is a great environmentalist and he has been baited by the rich wildlife of the place.

” Imagine swimming with whales, whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, sea snakes and thousands of fish in one day. Not only is it possible, but it is part of everyday life here.

Ningaloo’s biodiversity depends, among other things, on the typography of the seabed. At Ningaloo it is shallow at first and then it quickly becomes very deep. In its deepest places, it is around 1,000 meters to the seabed. The ocean current breeds sharks, whales and mantas towards the reef and into the bay.

Photo: Tom Cannon

Ben Fitzpatrick is a marine biologist by profession with a focus on wildlife at Ningaloo and Exmouth.

“At Ningaloo, you can be in a deep marine environment while being close to land. You could literally say that we are where desert meets the sea. All of this makes Ningaloo so special,” he said.

The Ningaloore has been protected since 2011 by UNESCO listing the site as a World Heritage Site, but the protection does not apply to the Exmouth Gulf. Many companies have thus knocked on the door over the years because they want to build something in the bay.

“Over the last ten years, or so, I’ve learned more about the bay and the more I’ve learned, the more sad I get about our failure in 2011,” Winton says.

The failure that Tim Winton talks about is that the bay was not listed as a World Heritage Site. All the documentation was there and UNESCO had recommended that the Gulf of Exmouth be included, along with the Ningaloorevet.

– The bay was removed from the boundary line due to political reasons. Essentially, it was lobbying from oil and gas interests and some local businesses, Tim Winton explains.

Photo: Alex Kydd

In Australia, there are 340 active mines and half of these are located in Western Australia. According to the Australian Parliament’s website, export growth of minerals has been phenomenal since the early 2000s. The world, and preferably China, has bought iron ore and coal as if there has not been a tomorrow. And although Western Australia has 21 industrial ports along its coastal strip, Gascoyne Gateway wants to build a deep-sea port in nature’s own paradise, the Gulf of Exmouth. The idea is that the port will open up a new fairway for various industries, cruise ships and also give the defense a home for its combat ships.

But there is resistance. And it started, just like last, in Exmouth.

The community of Exmouth with its 2,600 inhabitants is located almost at the tip of the peninsula’s western side and faces the bay. Denise Fitch has lived here for seven years. She is chair of the local conservation group, the Cape Conservation Group.

shark diver
Photo: Samantha Reynolds

Denise Fitch feels fortunate that she lives at one of the wonders of the world.

– The reef is my backyard and Exmouth bay my front. The fact that I can see so many of nature’s wonders every day makes me happy and grateful – but it also makes me determined that we need to protect nature for the future.

Exmouth Bay is about 4,000 square kilometres in size. This can be compared to the size of two Lake Vättern lakes. Over three thousand humpback whales come here every winter to give birth to their young. They stay in the “nursery” until the cubs have eaten up and then swim on together to the South Pole.

Exmouth Gulf is said to be the largest nursery for humpback whales in the world.

“In winter, when I’m in bed, I hear the splash of humpback whales jumping over the surface of the water. I also hear when they breathe. It’s really very special,” says Denise Fitch.

Photo: Tom Cannon

She goes on to say that just a little south of Exmouth, at qualing pool, you can see mantas and sea cows from land, you don’t even need a boat.

“The sad thing is that it is exactly there, at the Qualing pool, that the Gascoyne Gateway has applied for permission to build its one-kilometre-long port. It will destroy a huge sea cow habitat and change the bay forever.

“And the bay has one of the last stable populations of sea cows in the world.

Because the land around Exmouth Gulf is rich in minerals, it’s a recurring struggle for the environmental group to try to get companies to realize the value of allowing the bay to remain as pristine as it is today.

“Our challenge is enormous. It’s hard for us to protect our natural resources,” says Denise Fitch.

The best time to go to Exmouth is during the winter. That is, during the Swedish summer. Then it’s just warm enough, around 25 degrees. Photo: Blue Media

Gascoyne Gateway chief executive Michael Edwards understands the concerns around all forms of construction and development in Exmouth Bay. But he says their footprint from the marine infrastructure is 0.02 percent of Exmouth’s water surface.

“Our way of building a green infrastructure follows the UN’s and WWF’s views on how to run a sustainable blue economy.

The plan is for the company’s marine infrastructure to be sustainable throughout the chain; from design, to construction and on to operation.

“We will also work on bringing green renewable fuel to the market, sequestering blue carbon dioxide by protecting seaweeds that already exist and planting new grass on the lake bottom.

snorkeling woman
Photo: Tom Cannon

When it comes to the alleged threat to the environment, he believes that both the Ningaloore Reef and the Gulf of Exmouth are currently facing major challenges and that Gascoyne Gateway’s vision is to improve the environment in the bay, compared to today.

“We will regenerate nature and leave it, both on land and in the sea, in a better state than it was when we got there,” Michael Edwards promises.

Gascoyne Gateway is not the first company to recently approach the Gulf. Companies come and go. The Norwegian global engineering firm Subsea 7 wanted to build a 10-kilometer oil pipeline that would then be piloted out of Exmouth past the Ningaloore Ore to an oil rig.

“At first, it was only us in our local environmental protection group who fought against Subsea 7. It was terrifying and at times made us discouraged. We have such limiting resources,” explains Denise Fitch.

The group realized at an early stage that they would not be able to cope with the fight against the company on their own. They therefore contacted their partners from the Save the Ningaloo campaign from the year 2000.

” We reformulated the old campaign and instead of Save Ningaloo it became Protect Ningaloo.

Photo: Blue Media

Since the revival of the Ningaloo campaign, the Exmouth group is collaborating with two major environmental conservation groups; The Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Conservation Council of Western Australia.

When the three interest groups merge, they can move mountains. This was shown when the authority, which looks more closely at applications for new development projects, received over 50,000 injunctions against Subsea 7’s plans.

“Three years after we started the campaign, Subsea 7 withdrew its proposal. It was a huge win for us,” Denise Fitch said.

Photo: Alex Kydd

To put an end to future industrial projects, once and for all, the Protect Ningaloo Group and their campaign manager, Paul Gamblin, have set to work to get the bay inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Paul Gamblin does not believe that the oil and gas sector will go against them in the same way as last.

“They’ll probably be a lot more careful. Everyone knows more now. Life has changed. More research has been done. The heritage list has made locals and the state government realize the value of the pristine nature, notes Paul Gamblin.

It takes 14 hours to drive from Perth to Exmouth, or two hours by plane. The community is located at the far end of a 30-mile-long peninsula. The nearest village of Carnarvon is four hours by car from there. Photo: Blue Media

Denise Fitch says she and everyone on her environmental group are very proud that Protect Ningaloo has grown into a national campaign, which is important both locally and globally.

“For me, it’s a good sign that sends hope to other small associations. We can make a difference,” says Denise Fitch.

Tim Winton, who at the time of writing is shooting a documentary about the reef and the bay, wishes that everyone who cherishes Exmouth would not have to constantly cast an eye over their shoulder and keep an eye out for bandits on the horizon.

“The day that Exmouth Bay has been given the protection status it deserves, then we will have peace and quiet. Because in all honesty, it’s stressful and devastating and exhausting for all of us to have to fight these opportunists year after year.

Text: Ulrika Eriksson
Stills: Tom Cannon, Alex Kydd, Samantha Reynolds, Blue Media
Video photo: Anouska Freedman, Alanah Kilner, John Totterdell, Oceanwise Australia
Editor: Peter Löfgren

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