Australia hopes Japanese can become whale lovers too
Sympathy for whales has been fueled by the many international conferences aimed at curbing the hunts.
Thu, Jun 17, 2010 at 01:31 AM
WHALING: As the humpback whale population thrives, it's regarded with increasing fondness by the Australian public, which is generally aghast at the Japanese hunts. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
It's mid-afternoon off Sydney Harbor and on the tour boat's bridge, anxiety grows. The whale-watching trip is well under way with only one problem: no whales.
Finally a fin pierces the sparkling waters, followed by another at its side. It's a minke whale and calf, a rare sighting, the announcer says with relief and some surprise. Cameras click and whir.
According to experts, minkes are seldom seen for one very good reason: they are still hunted, and killed in their hundreds, by Japanese fishermen south of Australia every year.
Not only are there fewer minkes, those that remain are fearful of humans and avoid boats, unlike humpback whales which appear in numbers in the crystal swells off Sydney.
"We do notice it quite a bit. If we see a minke whale, even though they should have the same behavior patterns as the humpbacks, they don't," said Will Ford, director of Bass and Flinders whale-watching.
"They avoid boats, they're quiet, they disappear. They're definitely a different kettle of fish to the humpbacks."
In Sydney, humpback whales are a relatively common sight. You can see them from the clifftops, from the ferries or even during a paddle on a kayak.
On this whale-watching trip, after the minkes disappeared the tourists saw another eight humpbacks, frolicking in two separate pods just a few hundred yards apart, within view of Sydney's skyline.
Megan Kessler, from Macquarie University's Marine Mammal Research Group, says humpback numbers have recovered to an estimated 10,000 after dwindling to just hundreds before Australia eventually banned whaling in 1980.
As the population thrives, it's regarded with increasing fondness by the Australian public, which is generally aghast at the Japanese hunts.
"People walking along the cliffs today could have looked out and seen them going past, so they have that real connection to the whales," says Ford.
"They're part of their life, they see them swimming past, so they don't want the whales they see swimming past hunted and killed."
So Australia's bold move to take Japan to court over whaling — greeted with caution by the United States and New Zealand, and strongly protested by Tokyo — has been warmly welcomed here.
"I guess everybody who works with whales wants to see them protected. I guess all these things (court action) help that," Kessler says.
"I would prefer not to see whales harpooned. You come out here and you watch them, and you see what amazing animals they are, it's hard to imagine that whales are in that situation where they are getting harpooned."
Australia's love affair with whales burgeoned in the 1990s, when Migaloo, believed to be the world's only all-white humpback, was first spotted off the east coast and quickly became a sensation.
Migaloo, meaning "white fella" in one of Australia's Aboriginal languages, was later given a special exclusion zone banning boats and jetskis within 500 meters and planes within 600 meters, enforced by a hefty fine.
Sympathy for whales has been fueled by the many international conferences aimed at curbing the hunts, while annual skirmishes between the Japanese fleet and militant activists has kept the issue in the headlines.
New Zealand environmentalist Pete Bethune is currently on trial in Tokyo for boarding a Japanese boat after a Southern Ocean clash which sliced the Sea Shepherd group's futuristic Ady Gil trimaran in two.
Ford says his whaling trips, which operate between May and December, become more popular during the whaling conferences. Among the tourists, up to 200 a day during weekends, are a smattering of Japanese.
"Some of them (Japanese tourists) don't know that the Japanese are actively involved in whaling, there's a bit of ignorance there," he says.
"Some of them don't really see the problem. But then others come along and say, 'now I've seen it, I don't want this to be done by us'."
While Ford supports the court action, and has welcomed Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett on his boat, he believes only public opinion will stop whaling by Japan, which describes it as research.
"Really the battle with the Japanese is not going to be won in court, and it's not going to be won with people trying to sink the whaling ships in the Southern Ocean," Ford says.
"It's going to be won in the Japanese public, in the Japanese community.
"Just like in Australia, America and England, we all had large whaling industries at one time and another, and it wasn't until the general public no longer agreed with it that it finished."
On the boat, seeing the graceful creatures first-hand has left the tourists in no doubt about their opinion on whaling.
"What they do in Japan is really quite cruel, how they slaughter them," says Bridget Davies, who is visiting Australia from Singapore with her family.
"You see them out here and you can appreciate this is their space and we've really got to keep them as long as we can and not let them go into extinction. They're such beautiful creatures."
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition