Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Marine matters

With a number of maritime events grabbing our attention lately, the sea has been on my mind quite a lot of late. Or rather, the things that live in it. Or die in it.

I took my son and his cousin to Melbourne Museum’s new Marine Life exhibition last Saturday, where we saw a number of things from the Museum’s collection – tiny preserved plankton and crustaceans in Petri dishes, dried sea horses and sea dragons, and a giant squid preserved in a glass case. Or was it a coffin? It was impressive, especially the effort made to have live fish in aquariums included in the exhibits – something this museum is good at doing, and my son certainly appreciated them.

What stuck in my head most was marine death rather than marine life: the sculpted models of deep-sea scavengers feasting on a carcass. Sea-hags and see lice inhabit the bottom of the oceans waiting for some giant animal like a shark, dolphin or whale to die and fall to the ocean floor, where they feed on the remains. Dead whale seemed to be the most significant of such feeding events – leading biologists to coin the term ‘whale fall’ to describe the event. The scavengers were ghastly creatures to look at, but I guess bottom dwellers are just that…

But the ‘natural’ (or rather ecological?) death of whales, and what is meant to happen to their carcasses, is certainly not on the agenda of another so-called scientific endeavour – the Japanese whaling fleet’s annual whale hunt in the Southern ocean is nothing but one of the worse acts of butchery and brutality against animals in our times. And it is certainly NOT science, let alone done scientifically.

Despite all the protestations that the whale hunt is for scientific purposes, and that the killing is done with little or no pain or trauma to the animals, the testimony – and photographs – from Greenpeace activists at the scene of the hunt tells us otherwise. The harpoons cause tremendous damage and pain, and often don’t kill the whale the first time it is harpooned. Death can be lingering. All this brutality is so that a few people in Japan can eat whale meat.

Here in Australia, Greenpeace has once again captured our imaginations with their current campaign against the Japanese whaling fleet, aided by their website and campaign blog. From the captain of Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise to the activist crew members, they report their encounters with the fleet as they try to physically obstruct the hunt, and recount the horror of what they see when the whalers manage to kill minke whales.

I hope that with these few key-strokes online, I can add my support and voice to those who are acting more directly at sea, and help the campaign to stop whaling!.

When a 21-year-old woman was mauled by sharks at Amity Point, on Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island, about two hours from Brisbane, I was also shocked. Being attacked by sharks is one of those horrors that signify the dangers of Australia’s wildlife – along with box jellyfish, venomous snakes, lethal spiders and crocodiles – but it usually doesn’t preoccupy those of us who only contemplate the seas and what they hold during summer. Idyllic beaches and gentle surf is what I want, not deadly creatures that attack from seemingly nowhere!

Apparently, the poor young woman was attacked by at least three bull sharks while swimming in chest deep waters at a popular family holiday beach on Saturday afternoon. (About the same time I was at the Museum's exhibit!) After she was mauled, she was pulled out of the waters and airlifted to hospital. She died anyway.

What really shocked me about this event – other than the poor woman's violent death – is that she was attacked in waters off a beach that I had camped at with my family! My partner, my then one-year-old son and I had camped there about four years ago – with a borrowed tent and equipment – a quiet little family getaway amidst our summer holiday with my parents in Brisbane.

Amity Point’s beach is sheltered from the rough surf found on the other side of the island, and the surf is perfect for lacklustre swimmers like me who are unused to Australia’s ocean surf. It was a wonderful holiday when our son was still young, we were prepared to rough-it and make our way around the island by bus and on foot, and the swimming was great! And I have been wanting to go back and camp there again! Until now.

As the news homed in on the story, I discovered – to my discomfort – that the area is quite a draw card for sharks, and subsequently has had shark protection for many years now. Which may be failing now. The woman was swimming in the afternoon, and had no warning. I don't believe there had been any specific shark sightings or warnings prior to the attack. Locals certainly believe the area to be shark infested.

Some would say it was random. Others say it is nature out of balance. Others again say this is just what sharks do.

All I know is, I won’t be going back to Amity Point till they beef up the anti-shark protection – preferably with a shark net.


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