Whales and the songlines of Undiri

During June of each year Southern Right whales (Eubalaena australis) begin to arrive in southern Australian coastal waters after a lengthy migration from Antarctica. Where as their stay in Antarctica is primarily concerned with feeding on krill and copepods, their preoccupation in the waters of Australia is breeding. Pregnant females are usually the first to arrive, giving birth soon after. Other adults and juveniles also gradually arrive singly or in groups. and eventually begin some of the most spectacular displays of courtship and mating behaviour that is possible to witness.

The Head of the Great Australian Bight is the primary Australian breeding location for whales, and it is here that the first major land-based study of the ecology and behaviour of Southern Right whales in Australia was commenced by Osprey Wildlife Expeditions in 1986. Up to 60 whales congregate at this location every year and are readily observed on a daily basis from as close as 20 metres from certain vantage points.

The specific research objectives of this project involve developing a comprehensive catalogue of all whales seen in the study area during each season, over 75 individual whales have been identified by Osprey so far. This will eventually reveal whether the same whales visit the study area in different years and allow a statistical analysis to more accurately estimate population numbers. Payne (1986) reported that aggregations of Southern Right whales tended to prefer specific locations in an area depending on the breeding status of the animals ie. mating groups were spatially separated from calving females. Detailed observations and cataloguing would reveal such site specificity occurrences in the southern Australian population. It would also indicate if any mixing occurs, from year to year, between south-eastern and western Australian populations.

During the early phases of the survey considerable archaeological evidence suggested that the close proximity of whales to land has drawn man to this location for thousands of years. Huge aboriginal stone arrangement images (most involving whales), caves with Sun and Moon beam calendars and intriguing aboriginal stone arrangement pathways or songlines are associated with vantage spots that have been described by experts as the best land-based whale/human interaction in the world.

As a central philosophy of Osprey is to encourage the contribution of traditional aboriginal expertise in wildlife surveys, the advice of the Mirning, the traditional aboriginal custodians and occupiers of the Nullarbor Region, an area they call Undiri meaning 'bare like a bone', was sought at the outset of the survey. With the interfacing of Aboriginal knowledge, both verbal and archaeological, and Osprey's own empirical observations to locate significant whale sighting locations, significant results have been obtained. The approach is extremely useful in predicting precise locations where whales are likely to linger for long periods, in fact one of the Mirning names for the Southern Right whale, Numbadda, means "to hang around wanting something". To the Mirning the whale is the all powerful rainbow serpent.

The Mirning believe that the whales Dreamtime treks though the landscape left an eternal living essence in a trail of words, musical scores and indelible physical footprints in the form of rock formations (both natural & man-made), caves, water-holes, and other features, permanently etching the whales' story on the earth. In one sense the immense plain of Undiri can be read as a musical symphony of songlines written in "braille". The songlines could also be visualized as a serpent, writhing this way and that, in which every episode is readable in terms of geology and natural phenomena. A totemic clansman can reliably navigate for days along these great Dreamtime tracks of stone, story and song. They would also sing with and to the whales from the clifftops.

To the "People of the whale", blowholes and caves are sacred because they are the aperture through which the whale ancestor made his first appearance on Earth, and continues to do so.

During special ceremonies men and women would gather and they would walk to Numbadda woman's sacred twin blowholes.

At a certain time when Djindu (the Sun) was half way through his daily travel across the sky the men and women would stand close by Numbadda's twin blowholes where the sound of Numbadda was heard. In the spray of Numbadda's water, a rainbow would appear in the mist thus linking people, whales, ocean, sun, air and earth.

The elders of the tribe walk to a special ledge overlooking the sea to sing (call) the whales to assemble in front of them. The whales would then perform in front of them dancing and jumping out of the water confirming the tribal connection between the people and the all powerful Rainbow Serpent.

Mirning Elders now wish to share their dreamings and provide insights on this phenomena of human/whale interaction and so have linked with Osprey that their experiential insights may be understood in the 'modern' world.

Numbadda Dreaming sites and associated stories have therefore given considerable insights into whale ecology and behaviour including its migratory movements between the east and west, courting/mating locations and places where birthing occurs. The east to west interfacing of the 'two' Australian whale populations mentioned in the "mythology" has been confirmed by Osprey with the appearance and identification of the white whale, born in 1989 at Head of the Bight, at Victor Harbor in June 1992 and seen again at Head of the Bight in August 1992. The birth of this white whale and existence of two others like it were first observed by Osprey Wildlife Expeditions and have been monitored ever since, verifying the interaction between whale 'zones' and suggests a potential unity of the Australian population. Recent appearances of a white whale juvenile in South Africa suggests an ever larger scale unity. These white whales are sacred to the Mirning and all other coastal tribes along southern Australia.

On these unique tours participants are taken along ancient songlines with a member of the Mirning tribe to listen, understand and explore some of their sacred places and stories. Descend via massive cave entrances (easy access, no experience necessary) into awesome "Gothic" chambers 300 metres below the surface to explore the largest underground space in Australia. Here, over 1/4km from the mouth of the cave, in the gloomy cathedral-like chambers we see huge Aboriginal monolithic stone arrangements and steles which create a sensation of deep archaic cultural significance.

These expeditions also explore Weebubbie Cave, "place of Hidden Feet', where the thrill of "space walking", and rafting in "liquid crystal" waters of the largest and most beautiful underground lake in Australia can be experienced.

Apart from meeting with the Mirning people these trips offer a special opportunity to interact with up to 60 massive Southern Right Whales, one of the rarest and possibly most boisterous whales in the world. As the sacred places of the Whale Dreaming correspond to a prime breeding habitat and with places where whales like to linger, participants are guaranteed to observe their behaviour from cliff-top and shore based vantage points as they court, mate and rear their young. The location is the major Australian breeding ground for the Southern Right Whale and as they can approach within 20 metres of observers at the sacred Whale Dreaming Places, these locations have been recognised by experts as the best land based whale/human interaction opportunities in Australia and possibly the world.

Participants can contribute to a new phase of our ground breaking research by simply being there and interacting with the whales. Personal impressions and experiental reactions of the phenomena of whale/human interaction are recorded and form an important part of research being conducted in conjunction with internationally recognised cetacean researcher, Dr Mike Bossley.

A love affair with the friendliest creatures of the deep is taking the scientist they call "Dr Dolphin" towards a greater understanding of the aquatic mammals. Dr Mike Bossley, lecturer at the University of South Australia and former president of Greenpeace encourages people to try to interact with the dolphins and whales to experience their "soothing abilities". He believes the feeling of joy dolphins and whales can create could be developed as therapy for ill people. Dr Bossley's research into the relationships between the animals, their environment and their behavior has led him to believe they can inspire euphoria in people. "It's the way they look at you, they look right through you". He believes this euphoria could be tapped as therapy for sick people. Dr Bossley hopes to work on the theory that the signals which dolphins and whales emit triggers the production of endorphins - natural painkillers - in the human body. The theory has been practically tested by other researchers on children with intellectual disabilities, but the dolphins and whales need to be kept captive for such testing, something which Dr Bossley opposes. "Seing them in the wild is the only way to see them," and the best way of communicating with the mammals in a controlled manner that is in harmony with the dolphins and whales behaviour.

The expedition base camp is located in a sacred grove of trees near an old ceremonial ground by a "sea" of towering white sand-dunes and within earshot of the nocturnal, above water vocalizations of the whales. This sets the scene and the mood for an unforgettable experience to be found nowhere else in the world that is truly a unique close cultural and wildlife encounter in an unspoilt natural environment (motel accommodation available).

Osprey Wildlife Expeditions
339 Longwood Rd. Longwood,
P.O. Box 738, Stirling S.A. 5152
Ph/Fax (08) 388-2552

Text: Iain Greenwood, Founder/Director