Great Australian Bight

Great Australian Bight

The Great Australian Bight connects desert with ocean. It has a long past—make sure it has a living future.

It’s not just the scale of the Great Australian Bight that’s awe-inspiring—massive cliffs winding into the distance, a region where most of the lifeforms are found nowhere else on Earth. It’s also the Mirning people’s living connection to this ancient landscape and the ocean beyond.

Humpback whale. Image: Rita Kluge.

The Ngargangurie / Bunda cliffs or the Nullarbor are the edge of the continent, where the desert plains end in deep ocean. This dramatic border between sea, sky and land stretches for hundreds of kilometres, forming the longest line of sea cliffs in the world, some up to 120 metres high. It’s an unforgettable, ancient place, its colour palette ranging from ochre to grey/green bush, bright blue sky into the deeper ocean blue.

An astounding diversity of marine creatures live below this surface, sheltering in the kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef. From here the Southern Ocean stretches off into the horizon until it meets Antarctica, a pristine marine environment quite unlike anything else on the planet.

“It’s a really wild coastline and the Southern Ocean has so much biodiversity; you see whales, dolphins, seals and pelicans. Out on the water I’ve been lucky enough to see southern right whales close enough to hear them breathing.”—Freya, Goolwa, South Australia.
Australian sea lion. Image: Tim Watters.

Leafy sea dragons drift past, disguised as weed. Giant cuttlefish spawn, and colonies of endangered Australian sea lions raise their pups. This is where southern right whales stop to rest, breed and give birth on their annual migration from Antarctica. Hundreds of these magnificent creatures are now seen along this stretch of coastline every year, back from the brink of extinction.

A prehistoric landscape

The Nullarbor is the largest stretch of limestone Earth. Just below the surface of the desert lies a secret world frozen in time with the skeletal remains of the marsupial lions, thylacines and devils that once thrived here. A continued source of knowledge for the Mirning for more than 65,000 years, the caves are a window into Earth’s deep past.

The Mirning have a living connection to this land, sky and sea. From the Nullarbor’s ancient seabed to the limestone coast and water, all of it is within the realm of Jeedera, the ancestral dreamtime white whale that created this Country.

When exploring the Great Australian Bight, you’re surrounded by deep history – from sinkholes to whale song and reefs of golden kelp. Connect with this place, and see into its living future.

A marine paradise saved

The film below celebrates the efforts of Lindy and her daughter Freya, who worked with their community to protect the Great Australian Bight from fossil fuel giant Equinor. Their passion mirrors that of thousands of people along the south coast who want this remarkable marine environment protected for good.

Remarkable biodiversity

Southern right whales use the Great Australian Bight as a nursery. Image: Peta North APWA

The iconic cliffs may be the area’s most recognisable feature, but it’s what lives in the deep waters below that is truly astounding.

The kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef stretch along this coastline, part of a link connecting a band of extraordinary biodiversity that stretches from Western Australia to Queensland. This remote pocket of ocean supports an amazing array of marine life. There are many threatened and endangered species: great white sharks, southern bluefin tuna, Australian sea lions, white-bellied sea eagles and albatross, as well as more than 36 species of dolphins and whales including humpbacks, blue and southern right whales. These waters are an important marine nursery where Australian sea lions raise pups and southern right whales nurture calves.

There is a staggering amount of biodiversity found here, with more than 85 per cent of the species found nowhere else on Earth. The creatures of the deep are even more mysterious, with the ocean floor hosting a unique but largely unexplored community of plants and animals.

Take a look at some of the Great Australian Bight’s wonderful marine life in the gallery below.

Mirning Country

Koonalda Cave rests below the vast limestone country of the Nullarbor Plain, a submerged sacred place of the Mirning people. Koonalda is the foremost heritage site in South Australia—history says that presence is at least 65,000 years and the Mirning say since Creation.

“If you listen, learn, understand and observe, then you will receive wisdom and knowledge. For this is the Mirning way.”—Senior Elder and Whale Songman Uncle Bunna Lawrie.
Uncle Bunna in ceremony. Image: Bill Doyle.

The Mirning have a deep and continuous connection in this sea and land Country. From Nullarbor to Ngarganguri, the iconic Bunda Cliffs where the plains rise majestically from the billia mocalba, the Great Australian Bight. All is within the realm of Jeedera, the great Dhoogoor, Dreamtime creator. The ancestral white whale came from the Yirrerie, the Milky Way, and created Mirning Country with all the creatures for whom this is home; leaving his bloodline in the Mirning and in their family the whales.

The Head of the Bight has one of the World’s most significant breeding populations of the endangered southern right whales. This is the sacred ceremony place of Miranangu, where the Mirning still honour and call the whales as family.

Wilderness Journal Issue #009

Wilderness Journal Issue #009

Peter Owen joins Mirning Elders on a remarkable journey into Mirning Country, in issue 9 of Wilderness Journal. Plus discover the unique biodiversity and history of the Nullarbor.

Protecting the Bight

Ultra-deepwater oil drilling is a high-risk operation that caused the world’s biggest oil spill accident, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, when 800 million litres of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Just a month after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, only luck saved Equinor-Statoil from a major disaster at its Gullfaks C platform in the North Sea. The Great Australian Bight waters are deeper, more treacherous and more remote than the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea.

With your support we have averted the potential catastrophe of a spill in the Bight. We've been helping to protect the Bight for a decade now, with lots of victories along the way. Thanks to the public pressure our campaign has built—BP, Chevron, Equinor and now Santos have all pulled out of the Bight.

One of our biggest fights was against Equinor. In December 2019, Australian offshore oil and gas authority NOPSEMA granted Equinor environmental approval to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

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.

That's why the Wilderness Society launched a legal challenge in January 2020 against NOPSEMA's decision to grant Equinor environmental approval to drill for oil in the Bight. Thousands of people from across Australia chipped in to make this legal challenge a reality, and experts believe the extraordinary public opposition to the project and the legal challenge were contributing factors in Equinor abandoning its plans.

From travelling to Norway to take the campaign to Equinor’s shareholders and public, to mass paddle-outs around Australia, it’s a victory for nature and wildlife that’s been years in the making.

Taking on Equinor and winning

In February 2020, Equinor backed out of the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight. And in 2021, Santos has also abandoned its plans. For our climate, coastal communities & wildlife, we must keep this beautiful area safe.

The latest fossil fuel giant to pull out of oil and gas exploration in the Bight was Santos on 16 July 2021. It again proves that communities can stop the mindless expansion of the fossil fuel industry. We are calling for an end to the senseless annual release of oil and gas exploration acreage around Australia's waters. Nearly 13,000 of you signed our petition to put an end to this mindless government practice.

But we won't stop until this thriving marine sanctuary is protected from the fossil fuel industry for good.

Our vision

Image: Darren Longbottom

Our oceans don’t just provide food. They work to recycle nitrogen, carbon and water—the building blocks of life. Most of the air we breathe is produced in our oceans. By supporting life in the Bight, we’re helping ourselves.

We’ll challenge every single drilling application. We’ll commission more independent research. And we’ll make sure Australia’s regulatory body pulls its weight.

Our fight for the Bight won’t be over until the permits are cancelled and this thriving marine sanctuary is finally protected from the fossil fuel industry.

We think the Bight deserves World Heritage protection, and we are commissioning independent research to assess the breadth of cultural and natural values presented in the Bight.

What we’re doing:

  • Challenging deepwater drilling permits.
  • Countering fossil fuel industry spin in the media.
  • Publishing independent modelling and research.
  • Helping to fix the regulatory process.
  • Supporting the communities standing up to Big Oil in SA and beyond.
  • Standing up for intact marine ecosystems and the jobs they provide.
  • Championing a swift transition to clean, renewable energy.
  • Commissioning independent research to assess the Bight's cultural and natural values