Sunday, 9 May 2010
A Sad Song of Courage
The day was breaking. The inky night slowly transformed itself from turgid grey-blues, through weak pinks to the promising orange of a fresh morning. The sea fog took heed of the warmth of the sun and slowly separated and secretly disappeared as the roll of constant waves beat their endless tattoo on the shore.
The shore itself was preparing for morning too, as singing honeyeaters called to assert their territorial rights whilst the welcome swallows ignored such claims and winged and scooped and soared in the morning breeze and caught insects on the wing.
Far out to sea a mother whale cautiously sonarred to shore. She read the answer; plenty of depth, rocky beach, others of the family close by. It was time.
As the contractions started she was joined by a female relative who kept close to her and nudged encouragement as her labour intensified. When her calf was born the mother let out a great snort of relief through her blowhole. She sank down into the water and gently pushed the calf to the surface. She sensed the baby had breathed and she relaxed for the first time for many weeks.
A pair of gannets flew overhead and wheeled down over the basking whales.
"Why are you here?" they called.
The mother whale only rolled over keeping an eye on her calf and dared not tell her secret. Birds would tell anyone who would listen of their adventures and what they had seen. They were not to be trusted.
As the new calf got stronger and fed and played by her side the mother whale kept a constant eye open both to the sea and to the shore. The land showed no sign of man. There were no buildings, no fishermen on the beach and no smoke. The sea was clear of boats and the family of whales in the bay seemed calm. All was well.
That night it blew up a storm, and the sea boisterously tossed the whales about, so they drew away from shore, and dived deep into the gulf. No storm could touch them there and in the morning they found the raging sea had abated to a flat calm so they cruised inshore again. Spouting and calling; leaping and crashing; and floating and flapping as was the way with whales.
Other mother whales calved and soon the bay was full of high spirited youngsters, splashing in the shallows, cavorting on the crests and playing around the pod. Our mother whale felt assured at last that this was a safe place to be. For many years they had calved in the bays on this coast but man had found them again and again, and had driven them further and further north. So many of their number had disappeared in a sea tinged red with blood and the sad song of despair was sung by those that could get away from the sea of slaughter. This year they were safe, but what of the years to come? Did she have the courage to keep on finding safe havens?
It was the Black Backed Gulls that told the men. They didn't say so outright but by their actions they spelled it out quite clearly. Gathering in greater numbers, following the whales and their calves, feeding off the flotsam and membranes from birthing, they told the men the news they wanted to hear. And these grizzly, rough spoken men, with their long boats and their harpoons and their iron pots and their fire and their foul smoky breath, found the new bay where the whales had sojourned.
With tracks and destruction and tree felling and fighting and with bravado and anger the men settled into a cove close the beach that lay inshore from the nursery ground that the whales had found.
It was with fists and fighting and booze and belching that the men awaited the whales the next season. Unknowing and unthinking the whales returned. Before they could flee the bulls and the cows were caught in their haven, and were killed at sea by cheering, jeering, swearing, dirty men as they shot, and they stabbed and they cut and they stripped and they boiled the carcasses down and they laughed as they recounted their exploits.
And they drank, and they swore and fought and they totted their money in hands smeared with grease. But not all the whales were killed, there was one not in calf that year that came late to the head of the Bight.
She sensed the terror in the waves, she tasted the blood in the water, she saw the gulls in the sky, and knew that she must leave at once and sing her sad song. And as she swam further away, even further than man could follow after her, she prayed in an enormous whaley sort of way that man would one day change his ways.
And perhaps he would.
Photo of Southern Right Whale breeching by Dave Watts