I Pull the outboard motor out of the transmission and let the boat's swing swim away until we are dead in the water. Then I turn off everything – engine, sonar, even the radio – and there is silence. Not even the sound of water hitting the hull. Because it's breathless out here. The surface of the Gulf is silky. The sky is cloudless, a shadow paler than the water. And behind us, on land, the dry ridges and canyons of the Cape Range are mottled pink and blond in the morning light.
There are only two of us on board, and although the air and water are still enough to be dreamy, we are not at all relaxed. In fact, each of us clings to opposite sides of the boat, heads cocked, eager with anticipation.
We are waiting. One full minute. Then another. Speak only in mumble. Until our initial confidence begins to fade, there it is – Blam! – right next to the stern. And although we have expected this eruption, the scale and proximity of it scare us into screaming and cursing. With a single guttural explosion that ends in such a deep throats, it sounds positively subterranean, the whale breaks the surface and lies shining and shiny under its shell of stinking vapor. Then another, a calf, rises. It leans sideways and shows a white belly. He raises his pectoral fin for a moment as if considering a body roll, but others emerge nearby, encircling him, so he pulls his wings in and cuddles beside his mother.
We count seven of them, take a few photos. It's the same group from earlier in the morning. They seem to have taken a long swim towards the shallows and come back for another look. Only this time, they are encouraged. They park for a minute or two on the surface before spreading out for the ride.
Humpback whales are curious. Especially about other mammals. When they feel well, they will come to look at each other, singly or in pairs, then retire to regroup as if they are consulting each other. They often repeat the process two or three times, getting closer to each run until they are directly under the boat or spy-hopping is so close that they almost lean back into the cockpit to take a look. And today, as they roll on their backs to check the dimensions of the hull, we see the curls of their white bellies and the yellow beards of barnacles under their pines. Their movements stir the water underfoot and we turn a semicircle in the currents that they have made.
Then, when everything is quiet again and it seems they are gone, the biggest and boldest of them rises upright to check us. It is the cow. The sun shines on her knobbly head. Her inconspicuous eye appears old and vulnerable, somehow too small for the bulk of the body underneath. She leans forward to let us in, the top of her head at my own eye level, and I feel her trying to figure out how much of what she is looking at is a creature and how much is just a lifeless thing. No doubt she can make the difference between a mammal and a machine.
We have been doing this for a few years now, Denise and me. We know that after five or ten minutes the group's interest wanes. Pretty soon these humpback whales will march down the precipice and leave us in their wake. Unless, of course, we show ourselves right.
Sure, the mother dives and the group peels away. But about a hundred yards, they clean up and mill for a while. Then Denise takes off her shirt and shorts, puts on her mask and gets down the ladder at the stern. She does not swim to the whales – it's not just unwise, it's illegal. She just hangs there, arm through a rung to wait. She is hidden and hopeful. Her breath sounds a bit ragged in the snorkel.
And soon she has company. The calf is 20 meters away. Shortly thereafter, his watchful mother joined. After a few moments, they relax side by side, reading Denise with their sonar and literally feeling them with their bodies until they roll on their sides and lean towards them as if they were reaching out. So they lay awhile until the calf can not wait another moment. It dives and circles, then sinks vertically with its tail near the surface and its pecs spread like wings to stabilize in the water. And it takes Denise that way, right under her, while the adult hovers in the background. Five minutes, 10, 20. Closer. It comes in every possible angle. And it's like a dance. These two strangers. Teenagers and middle-aged. Turn and turn. Pirouettes, tilting, reaching, retreating. Breathe heavily, breathe small.
And this dance goes on and on until finally Denise gets cold and retires the ladder for a towel and a bit of sun. As she sits on the hull, buzzing and flowering, the two whales move away. But when I climb down the ladder, they are back in no time, right in my face: dark and massive, freckled and frizzy, smooth and gnarled. We're head to head, me and the boy. A little curious, I think. Surely excited. And from my end, just a little worried. Because even this little guy is bigger than the boat I'm holding onto. He was able to kill me with a skilful blow or a single blunder. In a heartbeat. But we turn our heads, he and I, looking each other in the eye, feeling the other's presence as best we can, as long and close as we dare.
How does it feel to face a creature whose heart is several times larger than its own body, whose eye is curious and watchful and whose intelligence is palpable? Despite how often I have done so far, the experience feels … well, it feels sacred. Yes, it feels sacred. It is a privilege, a pleasure. It's like being 10 years old again and it's a living wonder that the world around you is true. Such a meeting renews my spirit. It makes me happy to be alive.
When I finally climbed on deck and dabbed myself, Mother and Wade stopped for a while. But as soon as it is clear that no creatures bound by us come back in, they go on to join the capsule, which is still puffing and groaning in the distance. I lean against the railing for a while to let in the sun and the heat of the encounter, and that's long enough to think about where I am and what's at stake.
This is the Exmouth Gulf in northern Western Australia, one of the last intact estuaries in the arid zone of the world. In the shadow of the World Heritage in Ningaloo. I am grateful for this place and thankful for it. Because I have had the pleasure of swimming with its whales and dolphins for many years, and spent many hours watching its dugongs and manta rays. Paddling on a marlin, paddling through the lush mangroves of the waterway to collect crabs and go fishing for jack's, and on summer afternoons, I'm happiest in the shallows of an oyster. encrusted Rockbar, while hundreds of small coral trout go by to feed on the tide.
The gulf is a special place, a place of rest and regeneration. Not only for me, but also for the coral reef, which I defend for 20 years. This is where so much of the biodiversity of the Ningaloo Reef is produced, where fish and crabs and crabs are produced. It is Ningaloo's nursery.
But as I sit here and warm in the sun, my inner glow sinks a little. Because this remarkable waterway is no longer safe. Exmouth Golf is planned for industrial development. The Ningaloo Reef is already surrounded by oil and gas mines. Every year, the industry comes closer together: The flares of offshore installations are visible at night. This year, their supply vessels thunder across the Gulf like never before. But so far, the interests of fossil fuels on land have never gained a foothold. Next year, Subsea 7 Corporation plans to build a 500-hectare pipeline launch facility to service the offshore gas boom. Right here, on the empty beach behind me. And the local county and the chamber of commerce are all in favor. Just as they are looking for a new salt mine and a deep water port.
Places like Exmouth Gulf are lavishly valuable. They help to preserve our natural heritage and World Heritage Sites. They demand and feed our scientific knowledge. And they help to keep normal citizens healthy. Well, this development is a terrible prospect, a disaster in the making.
Yes, it is a very happy person facing a whale. And not all of us can snorkel on a coral reef or paddle through a mangrove forest. But many people heed the knowledge that such ecosystems and experiences still exist; their perseverance in a degraded world gives us hope wherever we live.
Ordinary citizens want to believe that there are some places that are too valuable to surrender to corporate interests, untouched places that should not be industrialized. We need to know that there is a line that we will draw and will not cross. Because a world entirely left to the engine of industry becomes a world no longer fit for human or other living beings; it becomes a world without hope.
Like whales, we humans recognize the difference between a being and a device, a creature and a machine, a community and an industry. We want to have the chance to face the enormity of life and to be reminded that it is precious and sacred. People need hope, reasons to be happy, to be alive.
This is one of those places and one of those reasons. One of those lines in the sand that we can not afford.
I put on a shirt. In the distance, a breath of air hangs in the air. A tail catches the sun. And they are gone.