Happy World Whale Day!
The 16th of February is World Whale Day, a chance to celebrate the majesty and mystery of the biggest animals on the planet. It’s also a day to recognise the ongoing challenges they face, especially in Australia, where deep-sea oil drilling by Norwegian energy company Equinor presents a clear threat for whales in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.
Why whales love the Bight
The Great Australian Bight is one of our great natural treasures, a vast marine wilderness where life interacts across grand scales, from microscopic plankton to schooling fish, seabirds, sea lions and the biggest animals on the planet: whales. It's home to iconic whale species like the blue and humpback, but it's perhaps best known for its population of endangered southern right whales.
Southern rights are unusual looking, with no dorsal fin, huge arched mouths filled with baleen to filter plankton, and heads covered in callosities—rough growths of hardened skin covered in whale lice. Scientists use these growths to identify individuals, which helps them keep a track of numbers and assess the health of the population.
They depend on the waters of the Great Australian Bight as a nursery to calve young, migrating thousands of kilometres from the sub-Antarctic to the Bight's warmer waters in late summer.
Between May and November, you may be lucky enough to see a southern right whale mother and calf playing together in the turquoise shallow waters of the Head of the Bight, one of the major nursery areas within the Great Australian Bight Marine Park.
You'll find the Head of Bight Whale Watching Centre, which is run by the Aboriginal Lands Trust, on Yalata land along the Eyre Highway that cuts through the Nullarbor in South Australia. And if they're not close enough to shore to get some good photos then you'll be able to identify them as southern right whales by their signature 'V'-shaped blow spray.
It's also a great spot to watch humpbacks breach, as they leap out of the water before crashing back down into the ocean. It’s still uncertain whether they do this to remove pests, or for pure fun. More recently, scientists were stunned when up to 50 blue whales were spotted in the region last February.
Clearly, there’s still much to learn about whales in the Bight, which is why it's so important to maintain it as a sanctuary for the animals, their numbers still recovering from being hunted to near extinction during the heydays of the whaling industry.
Many species were hunted intensively in Australia, the whale oil made from melted blubber valued as an ingredient in lamp fuel, lubricants and cosmetics. The southern right whale was prized for its considerable size, spanning 14 to 18 meters long and weighing the equivalent of around 50 cars. Unfortunately, their heft also made them an easy target because they were slow and easy to catch. Populations were decimated to the point that sightings became incredibly rare. By the time the industry collapsed in 1845, 75% of southern right whales had been lost.
Today, approximately 12,000 southern right whales exist in the Southern Hemisphere, and around 1,500 of them call the Great Australian Bight home. Only through strict protection have population sizes been able to slowly recover, with sightings increasing by 7% each year.
To support their recovery we must protect the Great Australian Bight; without stronger protections it faces being opened up for exploitation by the oil industry.
Equinor’s plans for the Bight put whales in danger
Unfortunately, measures to protect the Great Australian Bight have proved to be inadequate. NOPSEMA, Australia's offshore oil and gas authority, granted approval for the Norwegian company Equinor to drill within the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, a designated protected area for southern right whales and Australian sea lions. Equinor has admitted that pygmy whales migrate through this area, and that cetaceans will endure “some impact”!
Equinor’s approval means that the Bight's thriving ecosystem could be devastated in the event of an oil spill. Based on reports released by both Equinor and BP in 2016, an oil spill could have catastrophic consequences. The worst-case scenario predicts that 7.9 million barrels would spew into the ocean and pollute the entire south coast of Australia and beyond.
Not only would an oil spill here affect wildlife and marine sanctuaries, it could devastate beach communities, fisheries and tourism. And, if tapped and burned, the oil in our Bight would single-handedly blow Australia’s carbon budget—and our liveable climate.
Whales face additional risk when oil companies perform seismic tests to locate deep-sea oil reserves. The intense soundwaves produced by these tests expose whales to hearing damage and kill the krill that whales like the southern rights depend on.
Seismic testing in the Bight was postponed in 2019 following pressure from the Wilderness Society and its partners in the Great Australian Bight Alliance. However, in December, NOPSEMA approved Equinor’s proposal to deepwater drill in the Bight, placing the whales in danger once again.
What can we do about it?
Deep-sea oil drilling in one of our most priceless ecological reserves should be outlawed. Nevertheless, Equinor’s plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight have become increasingly real with the decision by NOPSEMA to approve Equinor’s environmental plan.
That's why the Wilderness Society has launched a legal challenge against NOPSEMA's decision to grant Equinor environmental approval to drill for oil in the Bight. With your help, we will protect the Great Australian Bight from reckless exploitation.
The Great Australian Bight deserves proper protection, not only for the magnificent southern right whales that call it home, but for all the life that depends on it.
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