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Fossil fuel company seeks to undo decades of whale conservation

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Fossil fuel company Woodside is planning a new project that will destroy the environment and risk harming whales (Screenshot via YouTube)

While Australia has been a leader in saving whales from commercial death, one energy company is planning an environmentally-destructive project that could harm the endangered creatures. David Ritter reports.

I’VE ALWAYS LIKED the opening couplet from the musical Keating!:

“Let’s go back to 1990,

It’s not so far away…”

It might not be exactly À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, but the lyric evokes so plainly the beauty and pain of the nearness of what is nonetheless irrevocably gone.

This weekend I experienced that feeling as the Rainbow Warrior docked in Albany to commemorate 45 years since the end of commercial whaling in Australia.

I’m from Western Australia. Born in South Perth. Grew up in Perth’s hills. I haven’t lived in WA for more than 15 years now, but I still expect the sun to go down over the sea.

Starting school at Kelmscott State Primary in Perth’s unfashionable eastern fringe in the late '70s, there was plenty to be excited about — Kim Hughes, Craig Serjeant, Dennis Lillee and the late Rod Marsh, for a start. But even as a little kid, there was another story that I was aware of, too — of bravery and determination and standing up for what you believed in.

Going back to 1977-1978, commercial whaling was still happening in Australian waters and Albany was the last whaling station. Although a five-hour drive away, the centre of the action always felt closer because the main motorway from Perth to Albany – Albany Highway – ran through our suburb. Pulling out onto the highway in the backseat of the family’s beaten-up hatchback, you knew that at the other end of that long road, something epic was taking place.

The story is well told in Chris Pash’s terrific memoir, The Last Whale, of how a group of community activists from WA, collaborating with others from elsewhere in the world, successfully campaigned for the closure of commercial whaling in Albany — which ended the industry in Australian waters. Chris was a cadet journalist for the Albany Advertiser covering the drama; his account is that of an eyewitness. Appropriately, Chris was among the guests at this weekend’s celebration in Albany.

But as a little kid in the late 1970s, nothing seemed certain. All I knew was that some brave people in really little boats were out chasing the whalers, trying to stop the carnage. And then one day the great news came through that the campaign had succeeded.

Before long, Australia became well known as one of the world’s great champions of saving the whale. It is a leadership of which Australians should be justifiably proud.

Some of those people who ran the campaign to end commercial whaling out of Albany were the founders of Greenpeace in Australia Pacific and Greenpeacers of today are endlessly inspired by their deeds.

There is perpetual inspiration and example, too, in the sovereign ownership of the place by the Noongar nation who stewarded and nurtured the sea country of the mighty mamang for thousands of years, until the violent interruption of invasion and colonisation.

Every year, as the whales swim past in ever-increasing numbers, we are reminded of the power and impact of environmental campaigning. The annual journeying of the whales encourages us to reflect that life fights for life. Given half a chance, the natural world will resurge.

Whale watching is now a major economic benefit in this part of the world and the welcome in town for the Rainbow Warrior and her crew was warm and wonderful. Together, we have celebrated and drawn inspiration from the spirit of Albany ‘78.

While there has been immense progress on many fronts, today the future of a world capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity is on a knife edge, turning on our collective ability to act now, at emergency speed and scale.

Saved from commercial hunting, whales now face new existential threats from industrial ocean usage and global warming.

On WA’s beautiful North West, whales – including the magnificent endangered pygmy blue whale – are threatened by Woodside Energy’s monstrous Burrup Hub expansion plans. The Burrup Hub expansion would be terrible for the climate – spewing out more than 12 times Australia’s annual domestic emissions if fully constructed – but would also directly impact on whales and other marine wildlife.

Woodside wants to begin seismic testing as soon as it can get permission to do so, which involves literally setting off explosives underwater that can deafen passing whales. And a deaf whale is a dead whale.

The year 1978 is not so far away, yet today it seems unthinkable that whales would be commercially killed. For the whales, humanity and all life on Earth, the time has come when opening new fossil fuel projects must also become unthinkable.

David Ritter is the chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. You can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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