The following article was originally published in Swedish as “Striden om knölvalens rike” in Deep Sea Reporter: https://www.deepseareporter.se/striden-om-knolvalens-rike/
The Battle for the Humpback Whale Kingdom
Ulrika Eriksson – Deep Sea Reporter (Sweden)
Ningaloo, off the west coast of Australia, is a unique coral reef. It is the world’s largest fringing reef and one of the few places where you can swim with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.
Adjacent to the reef is Exmouth Gulf, and to this enormous estuary over three thousand humpback whales come every year to rest and nurse their young.
At Ningaloo, you stand where the desert meets the sea. In front of you, you see a colour scheme of blue, a landscape where sky and sea meet. Behind you, a rust-brown, semi-desert landscape stretches out with low, prickly scrub that must survive 45-degree heat during the summer.
You are in the northwest corner of Australia, in the state of Western Australia, high up on a remote peninsula over 1200 km north of Perth. The region is called the Gascoyne, a sparsely populated area with a coastline facing the Indian Ocean that stretches for 600 km.
Your feet sink a little in the damp sand. With each wave that curls in, your toes, your heels, and then your whole foot are sucked deeper into the fine gravel of ground-up shells. It’s low tide. But in just a few hours, the sea will devour this strip of beach.
You take a few steps forward, pull on your mask and swim out. After about ten metres, a rarely seen underwater kingdom is revealed.
You have reached Ningaloo Reef. A 300 km long reef with corals and around 500 species of fish.
“Ningaloo is really an extremely unusual place both on land and in the water. It’s a kind of sanctuary for diversity”, says Australian author Tim Winton.
Tim Winton is a native of Western Australia. He has spent a lot of time at Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf. In addition to his writing, he is a great environmentalist, and he has been captivated by the rich wildlife of this place.
“Imagine swimming with whales, whale sharks, turtles, mantas, sea snakes and thousands of fish in one day. It is not only possible, but it is part of everyday life here.”
Ningaloo’s biodiversity depends, among other things, on the topography of the seabed. At Ningaloo it is first shallow and then it quickly becomes very deep. At its deepest places, it is around 1,000 metres to the seabed. The sea currents push sharks, whales and manta rays up towards the Reef and into the Gulf.
Ben Fitzpatrick is a marine biologist focusing on wildlife at Ningaloo and Exmouth Gulf.
“At Ningaloo you can be in a deep-sea environment while being close to land. You can literally say that we are where the desert meets the sea. All this makes Ningaloo so special,” he says.
Ningaloo Reef has been protected since 2011 when UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site, but this protection does not apply to Exmouth Gulf. As a result, many companies have knocked on the door over the years because they want to build something in the Gulf.
“In the last ten years, or so, I’ve learnt more about the Gulf and the more I’ve learnt, the sadder I am over our failure in 2011,” says Tim Winton.
The “failure” Tim Winton refers to is that the Gulf was not included as a World Heritage Site. All documentation was presented and the IUCN, which advises UNESCO, recommended that Exmouth Gulf be included in the listing along with Ningaloo Reef.
“The Gulf was removed from the boundary for political reasons. It was mainly because of lobbying from oil and gas interests and some local businessmen,” Tim Winton explains.
There are 340 active mines in Australia and half of these are located in Western Australia. According to the Australian Parliament’s website, mineral export growth has been phenomenal since the early 2000s. The world, especially China, has been buying Australian iron ore and coal as if there’s no tomorrow. And although Western Australia already has 21 industrial ports along its coastline, Gascoyne Gateway Limited wants to build a deep-water port in nature’s own paradise, Exmouth Gulf. The idea is that the port will open up a new gateway for various industries, cruise ships and also give the navy a home for its vessels.
But there is resistance. And it started, just like last time, in Exmouth.
The community of Exmouth with its 2,600 inhabitants is located almost at the top on the western side of the peninsula and faces the Gulf. Denise Fitch has lived here for seven years. She is the chair of the local nature conservation group, Cape Conservation Group.
Denise Fitch feels fortunate to live in one of the wonders of the world.
“The Reef is my backyard and Exmouth Gulf is my front. Being able to see so many of nature’s wonders every day makes me very happy and grateful – but it also makes me determined to protect it for the future.”
Exmouth Gulf is approximately 2600 square km in area. This can be compared to the size of two Vätternsjöar. Over three thousand humpback whales come here every winter to rest and to feed their young. They stay in the “nursery” until the kids have fed and are strong enough for the swim back to Antarctica.
Exmouth Gulf is said to be the largest nursery for humpback whales in the world.
“In the winter, when I’m in bed, I hear the splashing of humpback whales breaching. I also hear them breathe. It really is very special,” says Denise Fitch.
She goes on to say that just a little south of Exmouth, near Qualing Pool, you can see manta rays and dugongs from land, you don’t even need a boat.
“The sad thing is that it’s right here, at Qualing Pool, that Gascoyne Gateway has applied for a permit to build its one km-long port. It will destroy a huge amount of dugong habitat and change the Gulf forever.”
“And the Gulf has one of the last stable populations of dugongs in the world.”
Because the land around the Exmouth Gulf is rich in minerals, it is an ongoing struggle for the environmental group to try to get companies to realize the value of leaving the Gulf as untouched as it is today.
“Our challenge is enormous. It’s difficult for us to protect our natural resources,” Denise Fitch states.
Gascoyne Gateway’s CEO Michael Edwards understands the concerns surrounding all forms of construction and development in Exmouth Gulf. But he says their footprint from the marine infrastructure is 0.02 percent of Exmouth Gulf’s water surface.
“Our way of building 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 across the board; from design, to construction and on to operation.”
“We will also work to get green renewable fuel on the market, fix blue carbon by protecting seagrass that already exists and planting new grass on the seabed.”
When it comes to the alleged threat to the environment, he believes that both Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf are currently facing major challenges and that Gascoyne Gateway’s vision is to improve the environment in the Gulf, compared to today.
“We will regenerate nature and leave it, both on land and in the sea, in a better condition than it was when we got there,” promises Michael Edwards.
Gascoyne Gateway is not the first company to recently approach the Gulf. Companies come and go. The Norwegian global engineering company Subsea 7 wanted to build a 10-kilometre oil pipeline that would then be towed out of Exmouth Gulf through and the Ningaloo Reef to oil rigs.
“At first, it was only us, just our small local environmental protection group fighting against Subsea 7. It was scary and we were discouraged at times. We have such limited resources,” Denise Fitch explains.
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 historic Save Ningaloo campaign from 2000-2005.
“We reformulated the old campaign and instead of Save Ningaloo it became Protect Ningaloo.”
Since the resurgence of the Ningaloo campaign, the Exmouth group has been collaborating with two major environmental organizations; the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Conservation Council of Western Australia.
When these three interest groups merge, they can move mountains. This became clear when the EPA, the authority which assesses applications for new development projects, received more than 50,000 submissions against Subsea 7’s plans.
“Three years after we started this campaign, Subsea 7 withdrew its proposal. It was a huge win for us,” says Denise Fitch.
To stop future industrial projects once and for all, Protect Ningaloo and their campaign leader Paul Gamblin have started work to get Exmouth Gulf on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Paul Gamblin does not believe that the oil and gas sector will oppose them in the same way as last time.
“They will probably be much more careful. Everyone knows more now. Life has changed. More research has been done. The heritage listing has made the local population and the state government realize the value of untouched nature,” states Paul Gamblin.
Denise Fitch says that she and everyone in her environmental group CCG are very proud that Protect Ningaloo has grown into a national campaign, which is important both locally and globally.
“For me, it is a good sign that sends hope to other small community groups. We can make a difference,” says Denise Fitch.
Tim Winton, who at the time of writing is filming a documentary about the Reef and the Gulf, wishes that everyone who cares about these places would not have to constantly cast an eye over their shoulder to keep an eye out for threats on the horizon.
“The day Exmouth Gulf receives the protection status it deserves, then we get peace and quiet. Because, honestly, it’s stressful and destructive and exhausting for all of us to have to fight these opportunists year after year.”