Conserving an ancient culture
Wally Franklin reckons that the way to look after whales is to look after humans.
"To get it right for the whales, we've got to get it right for ourselves," he told The Echo. "We need the same thing, a healthy planet. We must realise that we are a part of the fabric of life."
Wally and his wife Trish were recently presented with a Lifetime Dedication Award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare at an awards night in Brisbane. The awards are presented to Australians who have made an outstanding contribution to animal welfare.
Wally and Trish, who live at Belongil, have been migrating to Hervey Bay in Queensland every winter since 1988 to research the humpback whales that swim up from the Antarctic for mating and birthing. They founded The Oceania Project which is dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales, dolphins and the oceans and both Wally and Trish are using their research as the basis for a PhD through Southern Cross University.
For 23 years they've run the project's whale research expedition where information is gathered by them and paying participants.
"We charter a vessel each year and we spend six to 10 weeks amongst the whales," Wally said.
People help fund their research by paying to be aboard and assisting in the actual research.
"The real powerhouse behind the research is Trish," Wally said. "She came up with the concept of the study. She did all the observation and photography. She's brought these whales alive. We now have information on 3000 individual whales and life histories on 600 whales."
The pair's fascination with whales was triggered by Peter Shenstone's story The Legend of the Golden Dolphin in the mid 70s. They consequently became aware of the huge slaughter that had taken place from 700AD right up to the 1970s.
"We were horrified at the huge impact this 1200 years of whaling had had - with hardly any awareness among humans," Wally said. "We virtually wiped out all the great populations of slow-moving whales - the sperm, bowhead and humpback whales."
The slaughter rapidly increased after the Second World War when ships had the technology to go to the Antarctic where great populations of whales feed.
"We did in 25 years what it had taken 700 years for others to do," Wally said referring to modern whaling techniques that decimated whale populations.
Having lived in Belongil since 1987 ("We bought when you could afford to buy here,") Wally is well aware of the irony of living on the very street where Byron's whaling industry took place.
"The train would pull the whales up for flensing (gutting and cleaning). It was a tourist attraction," he said. "Whaling only stopped in eastern Australia because we ran out of whales. In '59, '60 and '61, the Russians took 25,000 humpbacks from the Southern Ocean that they didn't report to the IWC. That brought about a collapse of whaling on the east coast of Australia. They were near extinction. The Australian group of humpbacks were down to 150 individuals at the end of whaling. There are now 14,000 but there's a long way to go to get back to anywhere near the original number."
In the mid-80s the Franklins became involved with the First Fleet Re-enactment Voyage with Wally as the executive director.
"We learned a lot about sailing ships and whales. In fact, the core of the First Fleet was two British military ships and nine whaling ships.
"We learned that the most potent way to experience whales was to get on ships. We used sailing ships from the re-enactment in our research for the first five years we went to Hervey Bay," Wally said.
"Our first encounters with humpbacks in Hervey Bay had a profound impact on Trish and me. These whales were evolved to their present form 12-23 million years ago. They'd figured out how to live in a harmonious relationship with their environment. We've much to learn from them. We're dealing with an ancient culture," Wally said.
Many of the dangers facing whales are the same ones facing humanity - impact on food supply by climate change and the destruction of habitat through pollution.
"There are also worrying increases in the number of whales being caught in fishing lines and whales being struck by vessels," he said. "And the acoustic environment - our activities are creating incredible noise in the ocean which is affecting their communication. We need to be totally aware of our actions on the fragile ecosystem of the whole planet."
For more information on The Oceania Project (and the whale research expeditions) visit www.oceania.org.au.