The 2023 season has been a bumper one with the incidence of mother and baby breaching the likes we have never seen here from basecamp at Wijingarra Butt Butt.
Mothers and calves have given us plenty to be in awe of as they use our waters to give birth and prepare for the journey back south.
Activity has been noticeable inshore compared to any other year of our survey, with the mum and baby breaching a poignant display of the socialisation between mum and child to form a strong bond required to be tight and on the game for the long journey which includes evading predators such as orcas and great whites that will seek to break this family unit en route to southern feeding grounds.
It’s not just in the day. At night the sounds of thumping and vocalisation can be clearly heard from the beach with activity within hundreds of metres of our camp.
In patrol on our boat we clocked a mother and child doing an impressive 40km an hour leaving us behind as they conducted training manouvres.
There has also been the typical and no less significant signs of mating and childbirth, with the humpbacks using the safe inshore waters of Isobel’s bays and inter-tidal waters.
Guests in the Lalang-Garram marine park have been beneficiaries of this bumper season, and with over a month still to go, we look forward to reporting more.
The pictures in this page captured by our team include a newborn infant near the Arraluli whale song heartland of Lungawurro, aerial shots of mother and baby and a taste of the impressive breaching that cannot help but keep us empowered to continue to protect this safe zone for our whales now and into the future.
Toad Zero sparks major concern for our native wildlife
The discovery of cane toads by eldest son Neil in April 2023 realised our worse fears.
And we are sad to say, these fears appear well founded as our local population of charismatic northern quolls, or wijingarras, are all currently MIA.
The local ecology is completely out of whack as the quolls are the apex predator in the local land-based chain. Strong observations of our many snakes and other mammals have bought some comfort as these are also at risk of death from the toxic toads that have no place in the natural order of this country.
The incidences have been reported to all relevant authorities but our response locally is our only means available, hand to hand capture and removal of the invaders.
Stay tuned for more on this but in the meantime, we are asking all smart bright and mammal loving humans to get your thinking caps on and help us find some solution to wiping out this plague from our country.
Photo captions: Two of the first wave found tagged and bagged and provided to authorities.
Photo caption: 2022 Christmas card star ‘Sparkles’ is missing, presumed dead.
In 2022 the whales of Lulim gave a demonstration of why they call our country the humpback nursery.
The 2022 season was one of the most active we have seen of mothers and calves.
Whether this means that there has been a big birth year, and/or the population needed to spend more time in country using it to get strong, we are not sure – but we are sure that it was a privilege to see, and be amongst.
None of the team can recall seeing so much family activity in the waters directly around our base camp.
The photos in this update are from a spectacular encounter we had at the heart of the Lulim Mundumbun whale dreaming songline as the family went back to visit Isobel’s mother’s birthplace.
Isobel’s mother was the last in her tribe to live in the country before forced relocation and this area, and the whale songlines, are a special part of the clan area history, and the obligations of Isobel and her family in keeping this land and waters healthy and for its purpose – a sanctuary for whales and all life indigenous to here.
“When we have days like this we know the country and all the life is happy to have us back in country. It is showing us that this power, the wungur, is still strong,” Isobel said.
On a number of days when we surveyed through the Montgomery inshore reef areas and islands, corridor to Raft Point and up to the north, we saw six mother and baby pairs or pods with mother and calf.
“Whales literally gave birth out the front of our camp right where we anchor our boat – we had to wait until they were finished. It was very special. There were a number of births in the shallows directly out front of our camp this year.”
Isobel said she was happy that boats were sharing information about whales in the area, not just for watching, but so everyone could be prepared when driving through the area.
“It is important we let boats know in the area if there is a lot of activity with the whales.
The tourism cruise operators we worked with reported some spectacular observations and Isobel was very pleased that the whales put on a good show for the visitors.
“We had some very special viewings when tours came to camp, from the arts shelter. Guests were really fascinated and over-joyed to see them.”
The year ahead will see Isobel continuing to work on getting the sanctuary zones more reflective of the whales and other wildlife activity.
“I am still going, talking up on this issue. The zones were set at the beginning and we said then that some uses did not reflect the values to be protected. The park management knows more now too so hopefully we can take this next step I have been asking for since the park was formed.”
Partnership adding detail to our history in country
This year we had some special visitors to country, working with Isobel and the family on dating the clan occupation of Lulim.
Isobel’s clan estate is already one of the oldest dated human occupation sites in Australia at around 50000 years.
“I am interested in knowing the science and what it can show me,” Isobel said.
“I also know that a lot or almaras (outsiders) don’t listen to us they only listen to this kind of thing, so it helps us show them too, like our Old People did, that we aren’t making stuff up.”
The team included Dr Sue O’Connor, who did the original excavation in this area 40 years ago.
Stay tuned for more reports on this work. We are not promising anything but the fieldwork was very encouraging and only enhances the existing information and picture of how long Isobel’s family lived and used this area.
Wijingarra under threat
The information we are receiving is the cane toads are continuing to expand westward placing our wijingarras (northern quolls) at risk of extinction.
The toads are a long term known problem, a failed biological control experiment.
Recent floods in the Kimberley may have transported the toads even further westwards.
Isobel is working closely with her wider tribal group the Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation (DAC) to monitor and protect the wijingarras.
“These are special animals in our dreamtime and also in this time. They live in the caves where my Old People lived. We live and share our camp with them out here. My grand-daughter and daughter have them living in the beams of their rooms! We will protect them by protecting our land and waters. They need our help and we will, with the help of others, be there for them.”
Plastics continue to be a drifting problem
Our regular beach patrols turned up more evidence of the issue of drifting plastics.
We continue to find a variety of plastic bottles that are not sold or available in Australia washing up on our beaches and mangroves.
This lot were products from as far away as China, Malaysia and Indonesia.
We feed our reports and information to the wider tribe and government including through Isobel’s role as a board member on the Lalang-Garram marine park.
Like the rest of the world, we have been living through the challenges of the pandemic but we can assure our followers that the humpback whales of the Arraluli sanctuary have not stopped visiting us.
The pandemic and other challenges we have faced have reduced the time spent observing the mundumbun (humpbacks in Worrora Aboriginal language) in country since we last updated you.
However, we have been keeping an eye on the migration as it reaches its apex in our country and keeping in touch with some of our contacts who also spend time in country, and population numbers and behaviours appear steady and consistent.
Some anomalies in inshore spotting and behaviours have been recorded but due to the limited statistics and observation patterns, we cannot read too much into this – except that these are amazing and sophisticated creatures who conduct business as individuals and a society when in the Arraluli waters.
We are waiting for the 2022 migration to start and promise to keep you up to date more regularly with what is happening in country.
Meanwhile here’s a couple of pics from the 2022 year where we continued to have some engaging experiences with this charismatic mega-fauna and the other amazing members of the extended family!
Check out some of our other important mammals
Miniwarra (flying foxes) minjarl (eat) our local bush tucker fruit and nuts.
They are also important pollinators and scientists have shown they fly long distances and are very important to the ecosystem, and with Arraluli country being famous for its beautiful wildflowers, and our eucalypt flowers a major food source, and eucalypt trees used for roosting, this just makes one more reason why we need to keep the land and waters of Isobel’s clan country as a refuge wilderness reserve.
\These large ‘fruit bats’ are undergoing population pressures in Australia so places like the Kimberley with its high wilderness values, is important to their survival as populations doing so well in other States.
What a whack-job!
From time to time we keep you up to date with the bad behaviours that contradict our values in country.
Imagine our shock when we turned on the television and saw this whack-job walking butt naked into one of Isobel’s most sacred family places!
Isobel had not given permission for this ‘naked survivor’ Ed Stafford to camp in her areas and would not have given it, as it is offensive to her culturally. Where he stayed is also a place that people don’t camp now or in the past in the way he did, which also makes this ingenuine viewing.
He also built a ‘shelter’ presumably from wrong cultural information he had received, and the building of this ‘shelter’ was again another offence, as it continues the mis-information that is being put out there about how Isobel’s mob lived! Of course, he probably thinks that it is OK as he appears from the show to have got permission, and a paint job (!) from some of Isobel’s tribe members whose traditional area it is not, which is sadly something we also have to face in our efforts to manage country. “You can always tell it’s not their country when they let things like this happen,” Isobel says. “No one from my proper mob would approve this. My old people would be really upset to see this. This is wumbirli (mocking) my people.”
My mother was born in this very location Ed filmed and has been recorded by serious academics and filmmakers when she was alive as the last custodian. We have saying for all of this ‘djian gardi’ which means ‘got no shame.’ It is when people break law or rules or good taste in a brazen way. Of course, when we contact them, these people always say ‘stiff cheese’.
No matter how much of this shameful media we face, we promise we are not going to stop protecting the country, the culture, the spiritual energy, and the amazing wildlife whose home this is. The world is full of enough profane behaviours without bringing it to our spirit country and wilderness. Sorry Ed if some of Isobel’s countrymen gave you the ‘bum steer’.
Despite the impacts of the COVID pandemic the Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project team visited country and observed the annual migration to Lulim and surrounding areas in 2020.
It is hard to believe this behaviour takes place within 100m of shore.
While we thought the whales would be enjoying some of the least boat traffic for many years, sightings inshore around the Wijingarra Butt area were not so evident when we arrived in August.
Unfortunately issues with the family boat restricted watching to the base camp at Wijingarra for only a month of observation this year.
Mothers spend long periods inshore with their infants in Arraluli waters
There were regardless many sightings of the behaviour that we have come to expect and love in this apex of the annual migration for Western Australian humpbacks.
Mothers and infants undergoing feeding, nurturing and training.
Bulls engaging in symphonic breaching.
Family groups cruising up and down the corridor north and south in between Montgomery and the mainland, including inshore visiting the many bays including Langgi.
We had some chats with recreational and fishing boats in the area during the month, and received reports of whale sightings at many known locations, which was good to hear.
Some observers like us, did note that inshore sightings in the area did appear to be down, particularly for the month of August which is typically peak visitation time. It is difficult given the short period of the observation to infer much from this, and whales were observed conducting all normal and expected behaviours around the base camp areas.
As always, and as if on cue, the whales did not fail to entertain us with a fabulous show on our last day, breaching and flapping only 100m directly out front of the camp.
The photos illustrating this page are taken from that session.
The Wijingarra, or northern quoll, is an endangered species. Our country is its home and our camp is its namesake. It is a very special law animal to us.
Bushfires upset country
Last year we experienced our own bushfire crisis, which was not discovered until the family visited to prepare for country.
Fires burned through a large section of land and the local animals and lizards and insects and birds were all very disturbed when we arrived later in the year to do our annual survey.
The fires must have been traumatic for them and several local birds with roosts in the area have not been seen this year, which is of concern. A family of kangaroos that lives around the camp is also missing and there were noticeably less sightings around the camp of wallabies, bandicoots and other animals.
It is disappointing that the fires which damaged equipment used to live in country, appear to have been human lit. We do not know if all of the fire that burnt out large areas of Luli country was similarly caused.
This big boss red wara (kangaroo) has been living in our country a long time. Kangaroo is a very special law animal.
Un-natural fire burning can cause more damage than good, particularly in areas of last refuge for animals, like in Arraluli areas, where at risk and endangered animals like the wijingarra (northern quoll), garimba (Golden bandicoot) and local wara or kangaroo populations live.
This big boss red wara (kangaroo) has been living in our country a long time. Kangaroo is a very special law animal
We are looking forward to 2021 season to see how the wildlife and country has recovered from the fires.
Plastics continuing to be a problem
Isobel with some of the rubbish left behind by trespassers. Human lit fires also caused severe damage to her personal property last year.
We found more plastic debris washed up on beaches this year, and sadly rubbish people left behind like these plastic bottles.
Our areas are one of the last untouched wildernesses in Australia and the world. These places are for animals and other wildlife. No visitors are allowed on land in these places.
Solar keeps our equipment going
Dally and Naomi with the generators that keep us powered at Wijingarra. Butt
We use solar generators for all of our electronic equipment in country.
Cameras, communications, phones, laptops, entertainment and rechargeable battery-operated equipment like torches are all powered using this set up.
It helps ensure our business is sustainable and makes sense when you working in extremely remote, but sunny, conditions.
It wouldn’t be one of the planet’s most active wildernesses without a little mystery to keep us tuning in to how the whales are visiting Lulim and adjacent areas we survey.
From our point of view, the 2019 visitation of humpback whales to our areas, and as we understand, the western Kimberley, appear on our data to be a marked difference to the previous year.
All operators we talked to reported less whale sightings in the peak migration months of July-August.
The Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project conducted its survey of the areas inshore between Montgomery Reef and Lulim, concentrating on the corridor that runs parallel to the mainland, and going up as far as Deception Bay.
General observations were less inshore visitors over a shorter visiting period.
Sightings of new born infants and mothers continue to predominate in these areas. There were plenty of mother and baby interactions, carrying out the behaviours associated with early training and socialisation of newborns.
A noteworthy early season observation was the presence of what we understand to be False Killer Whales in the areas in June. Unfortunately we did not snare any photos but experienced at least 3 interactions with ‘warli’ (or larger sea creature) fitting the description. Similar described sightings were confirmed by charter vessels and a private vessel that had sailed through from the north end of the park, between the Montgomery reef and islands, and the mainland areas. This species is not typically observed in these areas. It is listed by some as a humpback predator. This may have had some influence on humpback migration.
Remains of a large whale were found north of the camp. This may have been the large whale filmed last year heading towards this area, which is also a very sacred ground in the Lalai (Dreamtime) and for the Arraluli people, making this find of extra significance and contemplation of the deep spiritual foundations of our areas and the life that it is home to. Neil and team have been collecting the bones to prepare a resting place.
While there were certainly less obvious whale numbers, and they appeared to arrive later in the season, there were still plenty of interactions with our team and also the private and charter vessels that move through the area who we communicate with.
Big bulls in impressive breaching behaviours, rogue infants roaming inshore areas for days at a time, much to the disapproval of their mothers, and the constant thrashing of tails and flippers as the early lessons in life are learned in the relative safety of the inshore waters. Family business continues in the ‘nursery’.
This season followed one of the driest ‘wet’ (monsoon) seasons in half a century, there was much less water flowing through the landscape out to sea as a result, affecting nutrient levels in inshore areas.
Turtle sightings were strong as were reports from operators, indicating that the reef areas and islands remain a critical habitat for turtle conservation.
Mainland and island beaches remain important nesting places for turtles, which face disturbance from dingoes, crocodiles and humans.
“We found a number of sites that had been disturbed by all three. In regard to human disturbance, the majority of these areas you are not allowed to be on land, and it’s pretty easy to see nesting, and no reason if you are not a Traditional Owner or part of the approved science programs working with us, to leave these areas alone, especially if you care about wilderness places and animals. Touching them and walking all over them doesn’t help protect them.”
While dingoes continue to be a predator for turtle nests, this year we unfortunately saw a continued occurrence of domestic dogs being bought on to the nature reserves.
“This is one of the last places in the world these animals can live in the habitat as they have for too many thousands of years, why people want to bring their dogs into these areas doesn’t make sense,” Isobel says.
“It comes hand in hand to unauthorised access of our cultural areas, which is sadly a lack of respect for our culture and our land.”
Plastic a sign for action
Plastic debris along with other marine debris are a small but noticeable occurrence along the shores of Lulim.
This season shore patrols continued to log debris including plastic bottles of south east Asian origin.
The Arraluli clan supports all efforts here and globally to reduce plastic debris, which among other things, can be a hazard to marine life such as turtles.
Wijingarra welcomes more tours in 2019 season
The 2019 season was enjoyed with charter vessels visiting country to undertake tours with the family business Wijingarra Tours.
“The person to person relationships myself and my children have made with the staff of these companies and the thousands of tourists from overseas and interstate, is real reconciliation in action, with many visitors saying meeting us is a main interest of coming to these areas,” Isobel says.
“These passengers highly value our culture. They want to meet us Aboriginal people in our country and know we are in our country working like this. It makes them happy that things are moving for us despite all the bad news they see and read about for our people.
“My family has scientifically been proven to have occupied this area for over 50,000 years right where we operate. My mother lived in this country. After being nearly wiped out as a people, and forced to live in a town that was not our tribal country, where things have gone bad for our tribe, we are back on the country and running a small business to support us manage visitors wanting to come to country.”
No unguided access is allowed to the sites that are open for tourism in Isobel’s areas, Raft Point, which is called Numbree, Freshwater Cove, which is called Wijingarra Butt Butt, and Langii.
Wijingarraguides meet the charter ships in country, and guests are welcomed with ochre on the beach and a welcome to country, taken to the caves and sites where they see palaeolithicrock art, and are told stories and connections of the Arraluli clan to this ‘art’, and a smoking ceremony is then provided on departure: “to get you all home safely,” Isobel says.
Visitors behaving badly
Sadly this year we had even more trespassers in country causing a bit of humbug.
In some situations we understand it is the result of years of past behaviours leading to the expectation that trespassing to our cultural sites was the norm for visitors to our areas.
One of our wildlife cameras picked up trespass at least once every three days for a month.
This even picked up dogs on what is a wildlife reserve and last refuge for many vulnerable native species. This can put stress on native animals and also cause harm to dogs.
Some trespassers have been less than polite, even interrupting our family tour business, though typically most are understanding when we explain that these places are to be visited with us as guides only, and support Aboriginal people running business just like anybody else.
There was a major shock when a trespass was reported on Montgomery. The industry has worked with us to stamp out walking on Montgomery Reef, and no respectful person does it these days like they might have 15 or even 10 years ago.
Ourselves as the only surviving Traditional Owners of the Yowjabaia people (my Grandfather’s mother’s people), do not like to walk on the reef unless we have a reason, which has to be culturally or scientifically important, and as always, with our consent, the Traditional Owners of this country, not some otherAboriginal people from some other place. It is best in this time and age we leave these places alone as much as possible for the benefit of the marine life. We are also considering the spirits and stories of our old people, who we are still mourning to this day.
We look forward to working with the Marine Park board and industry and recreational groups to bring more awareness of the protocols in visiting country, including locations that can be visited within the park without guides.
We must all remember that our cultural places are our responsibility to protect, and we must manage them the best way we see fit. We thank everyone who has been cooperating and respecting our wishes.
What a joy the whales that visit Lulim continue to be. This year was no exception of steady use of the waters in and around Lulim to give birth, wean, train, and socialise as mother and infant, and as social groups, preparing to return to Antarctica.
The first of our sightings may, according to anectdotal evidence, have been one of the first for the year in this area of the Lalang-Garram marine park, and it was on welcome as the Arraluli clan returned to the camp for the season in late June.
The whale use of the area was steady for the season through to September when the survey was closed.
This year the project spent substantially more time on the water, with regular passage from Freshwater Cove through to Doubtful Bay. Surveys were also conducted around the Hall Point area, and in the inshore areas up to south west Augustus.
We also witnessed for the first-time activity of whales close up in and around west side of the Montgomery Islands.
Our survey activity remains concentrated around the use of the corridor north and south inshore Montgomery from Doubtful Bay to Hall Point.
We weren’t disappointed with a steady number of mothers and infants sighted directly off the camp observation position in the last week of June and through to the second week of September.
Some great interactions were had throughout country this year.
In one encounter, a lost infant was again re-united with its mother off High Cliffy Islands, captured on video by our crew.
In another, a group of up to five adults swum and dove energetically around a heavily pregnant female slowly moving to a sacred tribal water that is also known to be an area used by whales.
The range of behaviours was consistent with previous years’ observations, but we find each interaction each year also has its own variance and personality.
Natural reef formations around Wijingarra areas that have been noted in the past as significant guides for whale navigations, continued to be high activity areas.
We also observed a lot of activity at Foam Passage, in and out of Doubtful Bay, with regular mother and calf sightings.
Surveyed numbers appeared slightly less activity than last year, but we used some differing survey approaches and did not have a consistent sample period.
Several stages of birth observed in the inshore areas and bays between Doubtful Bay and Lulim Island, show that this continues to be an area for quite late pregnancies, where mothers often spend some time giving birth in shallower waters, where one was observed breaching just prior to going into final labour.
Overall Arraluli areas continued to be utilised by the humpbacks, or mundumbun as we call them, as a maternity ward, nursery, meeting and staging point. The presence is undeniable in the bays and inshore and island waters for more than 3 months it would appear from our recordings over the past 6 years. It may be more.
Caption: Mother inshore Lulim waiting to give birth.
Vale to more friends of the project – Michael Edols
The project and the Arraluli clan were sad to farewell good friend and filmmaker Michael Edols this year. Michael filmed two movies in Lulim, with the second (When the Snake Bites the Sun) featuring current Traditional Owner Isobel Peters’ mother Amy.
Isobel had retained a strong connection with Michael after catching up with him in northern Sydney for the first time since she was a child and appeared in a third Edols movie filmed in and around Derby.
The news of his passing came to us in country in the very areas he so fortuitously captured at the behest of the elders, documenting the land and waters as well as the complex social relationships that go with family, culture and country. In traditional Worrora fashion, a shooting star was observed the evening prior to receiving the news. Our thoughts go with Michael, his beloved wife Marion and his family, and of great times shared, and future times that will not.
One of Michael’s favourite lines after re-igniting his contact with country through Isobel, was “I am glad to have a skin relationship again.” Michael was referring to his tribal relationship to Isobel, which in skin system was father, given to him in the ceremony filmed in When the Snake Bites the Sun. Michael’s efforts for our family and tribe will always be remembered.
This picture is of Michael and Isobel.
Rock art – busting the mystery myth
Presence in country including guided tours to land sites in Arraluli areas, brings with it engagement with opinions and questions about the rock art in our country.
Firstly, these are places that are sacred and unique to us, we have stories for them, and we know how they place in our culture, and inside wider human culture. Secondly, the idea of a mystery race is a myth masked by pseudo-science and selective and abstract referencing coupled with stark and strategic omissions. In short, the theories of the mystery race are offensive on cultural as well as scientific grounds. This is not just the view of the Arraluli clan. It was the positions of the elders winning Native Title, and a position conferred by many academics including the Australian Archaeological Association.
The Arraluli-Worrora cosmology and history is supported by numerous studies across disciplines.
Bradshaw art is known as Gwion (Guyon) and elders created a specific educational product in the book Gwion Gwion to address the lack of recording and availability of their rich connection to all the rock art in the Kimberley, including these very old images in our coastal areas.
We suggest as a starting point that people access this book and understand the explanations of the elders of the culture contained in the ‘rock art’, and how it is special to the foundations of our culture, a culture recognised by the Australian Government, and that is not under any identity dispute.
We also encourage you to view this clip and associated notes put together in 2001 for public viewing and education where one of our senior lawman from the Ngarinyin tribe, representing all our culture, explains what Wandjina and Gwion are, and how we three tribes are connected to them through law and culture. We cannot say it better than this. Nor should we try.
In response to demand for coastal tour charters to access cultural sites in country, this year Isobel’s family started Wijingarra Tours. With the support of Dambimangarri Aboriginal Corporation, Tourism WA, the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) and Morrgul.
“We are following the model that was put together at Bush University by our elders before they died,” Isobel says.
“By talking to almara (strangers) in country, that is the way we can teach what our law and culture is. It has always been that way, and that’s why they taught us to do it this way, through tourism.”
The family staff that make up Wijingarra Tours – Isobel’s sons Neil and Bart, daughter Naomi, and fellow Worrora tribe members and close family Neville, Ishmael and Kerrieanne – spent time in between travelling to tours, and from base camp viewing points in downtime, conducting the whale surveys, with special mention to Naomi and Kerrianne for their work capturing early season interactions off base camp, Bart for driving the boat, and everyone contributing to the survey.
Photo caption: (left to right) Neil, Bart, Naomi, Neville, Kerrianne and Ishmael.
It is a privilege to see humpback whales using Arraluli areas to give birth and nurse their young.
And this year, like every other, the whales have used the area as their own for several months.
The inshore areas between Doubtful Bay, Montgomery Reef and the mainland tribal reserve in Arraluli country, is a special area where many mothers come to not only give birth, but then nurse, train and socialise infants for a journey back to the south pole.
August is considered the peak time for the migration and birth cycle, and for this month we conducted the first whale survey by traditional owners for several years.
Isobel’s daughter Naomi had already been keeping an eye on the presence in country in the lead up, relaying plenty of whales appearing along the coast for the month of July, running north from Doubtful Bay up towards Augustus Island, where they might head out back to the Buccaneer or return down through Doubtful Bay.
We set up the observation site for August on shore from the Arraluli area of Widjingarri Butt Butt.
This gives a fixed point with a view of several kilometres east and north, with viewing increased the further behind you walk up onto the ridge behind the camp. With large tides, it often increases distance to subject.
Over five weeks we watched the regular occurrence of the humpbacks moving up and down the water corridor between the reef and land.
Records were taken of the locations, directions and behaviours of the humpbacks.
Plenty of newborn whales were seen with their mothers and in social groups, and we even observed young whales playing together on several occasions.
The waters have dreamtime tracks where the behaviour synchronises with the formations of the land, making a wonderful viewing spectacle as whales mimic the creation dance of inter-tidal reef markers, islands and other natural markers.
It is also clear to us looking at the way the whales use the area, why the dreamtime stories are specific about young whales being protected in this area. There is a very observable social and biological function to the behaviour of the individuals and groups that use this area, including feeding on what are likely select diets for a dietary need.
“We never forget our old people and how they see these things, when we are out here. They knew a lot more than we do about how these things worked, and our stories in our culture tell us a lot about the dreaming of this place, where all the animals and nature is part of that story,” Isobel says.
“Every day for the month we saw whales come past, and on many days the mothers and young were right off the front of our camp, teaching their young ones how to move or behave.”
Observations included mothers showing infants how to swim, even rather dramatically chastising or commanding their attention on occasion, and groups in various stages of forming relationships and preparations to make the trip back south.
“We saw that little one they were teaching it how to use its flipper, its bibbi (Worrora word for whale flipper). The other one would do it and blow out its blowhole, and the little one would follow and hit its flipper and blow out of its blowhole,” Isobel says.
In one episode a young calf was observed by itself for several days, and was finally found by its mum a well-known bay, at the same timeas it was visited by Isobel’s sons Neil and Bart.
“We don’t know things like if the whale got lost from its mum or its mum was having difficulties.”
What we do know is that there is an incredible social interaction taking place as the new families form. By seeing whales at this stage of their life, you can see so much more of the individual situations that are taking place among them, and how needs are different as evidenced by behaviours.
“It’s amazing,” Isobel says. “This is what makes us want to be over-protective of them at these times. You know this place they are coming here for things they need.”
“They are coming so close, and we don’t want to have any obstacles, if you know what I mean.”
As if to make a point about what this place is all about, when we left in early September, an estimated 15 mothers and calves were sighted by helicopter along from the camp to Umida country, in the Worrora south.
And just like we have in recent years lost family and friends (and these were all of course noted in country), nature’s storyline delivered again. The season ended with a report of a dead whale, suspected of dying of old age, being eaten by crocodiles, and millions of online viewers, on Montgomery reef.
For us, this incident had a special consideration, because some of the biggest bulls ever witnessed, late in season, were involved in breaching activities in that very area, at the horizon line from the shore camp, heading out towards the land of the dead, in one of the most impressive duelling breach exercises witnessed in the month.It was an amazing spectacle, one that, at the time, made us think the possibility that one had gone so high, and hit so hard, that he never bounced back – and laid where he landed, in a favourite place, having made it once more here, crossed over to the other side his spirit returned to the land. This was just one of many wonderful whale moments this season that reminds us that this is such an important and wonderful part of the world, and a place that deserves our attention to its preservation.
Old friends and new projects – Another big year as we move forward
This year has been a big one for the Arraluli clan, the sanctuary area, and our friends and family.
Isobel at the signing with members of Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation and rangers. Isobel originally called for a marine reserve back in 2001.
To cap the year off, Isobel attended the final signing of the Lalang-Garram Marine Park.
This has culminated years of negotiations by Isobel with her fellow countrymen and the State Government.
“My clan areas are a part of the north parks and this is a big step for me and my other tribe family members for their areas, but we are following what our old people set up for us a long way back, and how they wanted us to go in this time.”
“I see this park as a respect for ourselves and the country. We are trusting as we move forward. The Parks and Wildlife people have said they really want to support us running it our way, and that’s what we have been wanting, what we have been working for.”
“We have talked up as a clan for our voice on the whales and the reefs, and as the park grows we will be working with the joint management board to further that, and incorporate our management plan based on the traditional system for managing this country – the wunan. This is a new wurnan, that is what our old people taught us. It is wurnan including armara (non-tribe).”
“I am happy that other areas are part of this and that there is a big picture park, and I am happy the park recognises from which area we all come from to make up the bigger picture of the areas on the table.
Isobel at the signing with members of Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation and rangers. Isobel originally called for a marine reserve back in 2001.
“If you want to go to the south with other mob at Horizontal Falls, or Cone bay, you talk to them how they want you to go there. If you want to come to Lulim areas or Jowjabai,
Isobel at her family beach at Lung-a-wurro, in Lulim, looking out on the whale dreaming line at Bibbi-ai.
you come and see us. This is how we are working. Supporting each other while at the same time making sure that our clan areas are looked after they way that we need to look after them.
“We look forward to bringing out more of the history of my people in this area as we open it up to the world. We are working on the new wurnan that the past of our elders put together for us
to work in this time, to share our culture and our country. When we follow wurnan everything works out, when we don’t things go wrong – and some of the biggest stories of our culture is about this.”
Isobel said the AWSP will continue to exist as a project in its own right into the future. “I still have a lot to go until we are happy that those areas with very high values are protected by all this paperwork.”
“We also want to start to bring friends of the Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project out to country to experience firsthand the environment and its diversity and continue our work as a clan mapping this.”
As we balance reflection on our past, and looking forward to our future, the clan and everyone at the AWSP note with particular sadness the loss of Dr Steve Blake to our world. Dr Steve had been a great associate and friend of the sanctuary project. Steve remains the only scientist to have contacted and worked closely with us in this time and paid respect to the Aboriginal point of view during the announcement of the ‘discovery’ of the whale sanctuary.
“He understood we were still living as a people and still looking after in our own ways the environment and the marine life and animals.”
To his credit as a person and as a scientist, Steve immediately warmed to our cultural view and saw it as subject to social and scientific ethics, which bought him into some conflict of viewpoint with others in his academic world at this time.
Isobel at her family beach at Lung-a-wurro, in Lulim, looking out on the whale dreaming line at Bibbi-ai.
Isobel with the Blake family at Widjingarri Butt Butt.
“He showed us respect in our Aboriginal observations and records as important knowledge in trying to understand this important place. Steve also got to learn about the politics we face as Aboriginal people and TOs.”
We will miss the many hours of conversation with Steve, and his contributions to marine science in our area. It was with much delight that Steve’s family, wife Janine and daughters Bianca, Zoe and Lucy, made the pilgrimage out to Lunga’wurro as per Steve’s wishes. It was over the songline of Lunga’wurro that Steve first bonded with our clan, and he relayed to us his profound scientific and personal experiences in and around this area, as a human and as a marine biologist. We both got a lot out of the work that was managed to be completed, and we thank Steve and his family immensely for his contribution to this area being recognised as a valuable and rare tropical marine ecosystem. We are lucky to have the media artefacts that Steve was such a big part putting together,
Isobel meets Michael Edols for the first time since she was a child. Michael made two movies in Lulim country in the 70s and 80s
that are the only pieces of reporting from the time that respected the true Aboriginal history of the area, the heart of the sanctuary, and it was fabulous to have his family in country to see how beautiful and significant the place that their dad fell in love with is. We will continue the work that Steve helped start with us.
We caught up with filmmaker Michael Edols this year.
“Michael’s series of films in the 1970s and 80s are films that feature Arraluli clan country, and my family including my mother in the movie When The Snake Bites The Sun,” Isobel said.
In 2015 a painting of Isobel’s hand on tree bark filmed during the 1975 movie Floating…like wind blow ‘em about went on sale at auction in London for thousands of pounds.
Isobel enjoyed Michael recalling the genesis of his films he made with her elders, and shared her own recollections from those times and the making of the movies.
“It was good to sit down with Michael Edols and talk about when those movies were made with my old people. I was there as a young child when this was happening.
“Lalai Dreamtime and When The Snake Bites The Sun both use my mum’s country for filming and culture stories.”
“When the Snake Bites the Sun is about taking my mum back to country to complete
Still from the movie Lalai Dreamtime of the Wandjina Namaralee as it appears in the Arr’a’luli (Art’arrda’lu’li’ee) clan burial chamber in Lulim.
a ceremony to clear up
the first movie, which had no-one from my mum’s
clan in but filmed the caves and places of my grandfathers. These are very sacred places and are burial places for my clan and for the Wandjina too.”
“They show a bit of how my people lived here for too many years, and also where our peoples are now, which Michael was
telling us about these discussions with our old people, talking that I remember as a young girl.
“This is my family so it was very special to spend time with someone like him who worked with them back then on these movies.
“They were smart people and knew what they were doing making these movies for us children to live in this time.”
We look forward to continuing the friendship we established with Michael and his wife Marion and thank the lovely staff and locals at Ku-ring-gai National Park who we met during our visit to NSW.
Each year new lives are born and created in our country. In the case of our well known migrating species the humpback, many come back and also, eventually, some never return. So too it is with our people. This country is where the whales are born and also where there spirits are caught by their parents. This is the way of all life in this country. As whales migrate to and from of our country each year, fulfilling the cycle of life, my peoples have their own journey across our country and sea.
This year we need to mark that two of our founding members and patrons – Paddy Nyawarra and Roy Wigan – have left us in this time. Anyone who knew these two men would need no introduction on what significant men and leaders of Aboriginal people, they were. They were men of high degree and stature in their own tribes, including representing their peoples in long negotiations with government over native title and other issues. They were active practitioners of traditional law and culture, and senior proponents of Aboriginal cultural heritage and maintenance in the Kimberley
They were also closely associated with Arraluli clan and country, the apex place where the mundumbun, or humpback whales, come to breed and swim eachyear. Both were senior authorities and repositories of oral stories and observations of the whales as they exist in the dreamtime, and in this time, observing over many years in the first half of the 20th century, humpbacks migrating to our waters, swimming among the islands, giving birth. Both spent time in country with the ancestors, living among this ‘newly discovered’ world of exceptional marine and terrestrial biodiversity. In Roy’s case, as a Bardi man, he saw whales over many years passing through his tribe’s country as they move north into Arraluli country, sometimes having their babies on the way in the bays north of Broome. He also observed them in Arraluli country as a young boy growing up with Isobel’s mothers and fathers.
Both supported the Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project from day one.
“Married to my mum’s sister, Paddy was the custodian of the song for the heart of Lulim country whales, Lungawurro, the epicentre of the Kimberley whales’ migration to and from country, from birth to parenthood, which Arraluli hold now in this time.”
“Although both of different tribes, they knew the significance of my country and spent time with the senior men and women in this country, my ancestors, before our peoples were moved, swimming, navigating small boats, doing Aboriginal law and culture business. I cannot speak too highly of them honoring my family and my country who they were part of in not only tribal relationship but as part of my family through marriage and family culture.”
These men also had very direct memories and observations of the whales in the country that in moments they shared to support our project in raising awareness of the value of our places, and as a place for whales to breed and give birth in the way they have since they started in creation.
Followers of the Arraluli project will remember when Isobel went out with the film crew from Channel 7 Sunday Night at the time the whale breeding area had been ‘discovered’, and Roy sung on national TV a song about the mother and baby whale learning the first steps of life. What many would not know is that Roy had stepped in for Paddy at the last minute on that trip.
We will miss both of them but their influence will also be with us keeping us strong and on track for a long time.
Lulim and its areas is a very significant country respected by all the Worrora tribe and all the surrounding tribes of the Wandjina and also the other tribes of the Kimberley.
We are also moving closer to our plans for managing country in the way that we want – that respects and allows to be supported by our culture and ways, as the traditional owners, the ways that old people like Paddy and Roy educated so many people, in their tribal ways, and to ‘armaras’ – or non-tribe people, strangers.
There is more interest in the land and sea country than ever before.
Because we have such big tides in our country, we are busy talking about how our rights can be incorporated with the government to allow navigation of the marine park. We have still a long way to go but are aiming to make sure there is clear rules for the tourism and research and recreational industries to navigate through country and to be able to hook up with us and our neighboring countryman for on ground access.
Having our own people directing on country is best for everyone. It makes sure that no damage is done and people get the strongest and real experience of not just contacting our country, but our culture that governs that country, and that is alive today.
Paddy and Roy both supported this. It is the way that the Old People want us people in this time to manage our country and keep some values of our old peoples’ ways alive, to benefit us, and the country, and its life, which we are connected to by our ancestors and our creators.
We look forward to more exciting news this year as we continue to support the humpbacks and other life that lives in our country and need our support.
It has been quite a while since we have provided an update on the Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project.
At the time of our last update Arraluli Traditional Owner Isobel Peters had just returned from visiting the whale sanctuary grounds with a documentary TV film crew and a Federal national heritage assessor.
Shortly after that the State government announced its intention to create a marine park that would encompass the AWSP areas, as well as other areas to the south. The Federal government also gave a national heritage listing to Montgomery reef.
These were two important steps in both State and Federal governments recognising the unique biodiversity and cultural and wilderness values of this area of Western Australia inside which the Arraluli clan areas exist.
“It made us feel good that there was some sense coming in about this area’s values. Even if the government seemed to not be directly engaging with us Traditional Owners properly through these processes, the message was getting through,” says Isobel who provided written submissions to both the State and Federal plans.
In early 2014 Isobel Peters accepted a board position on the joint management board for the Western Australian government’s Lalang-garram Camden Sound Marine Park.
“I accepted the offer to represent myself as one of the major traditional owners whose country makes up the marine park areas,” Isobel says.
Isobel will continue through her position on the park board, and as a senior member of the Worrora tribe and head of the Arraluli clan, to advocate for key issues that still need to be addressed in regard to the marine park.
“These are protecting areas from damage, particularly where the wilderness values are rare and are used for breeding cycles of all life including the humpback whales.
“There is still a lot of this going around the edges, and not listening to us as a Traditional Owner, even though we have been right since day one and proved it to them that we know about this area and how significant it is in marine science as well as for our Creation stories.”
The main priorities for the AWSP and the Arraluli is to continue to advocate for enforcement of their legal rights, which leads to the greater protection of the environmental values.
“Right now we want a few important things to progress, the first of which is fixing up areas in the marine park that are not mapped out properly and leave very sensitive places open for damage.
“The second, and just as important, is to stop all walking on reef and sensitive lands and islands in the area. Under Australian law anyone who does this in Arraluli areas is trespassing and can be prosecuted.
“What we want is cooperation from tourist operators and other users in changing their behaviour.
“We will then work with them to deliver a rich experience they will remember.”
World first whale research
When the AWSP members first started to speak to government and other stakeholders, none of them, not even the top funded whale researchers who later claimed the glory of discovery, even knew that Arraluli was a whale birthing and nursing ground.
“Originally the only people who knew this were my people and the people who worked for us and a few of the Captains who had spent some time in the waters and shared their knowledge with us.
In the process of engaging with the research ‘awakening’ and its push for a stake in the new wonder of Western Australia, the Arraluli have assisted in the first research from this area.
“The research is very limited, and has been done on very rough basis, but it confirms basic things like the indication of numbers and passage of whales from the end of the migration period, August to September, and how that is the period where the last of the whales are remaining in my area, mostly rearing their young.
“As the Traditional Owner our old people have shared with us many observations of the whales, and how they hang around in that area.
“These stories have led to our observations and dreaming song lines being provided for the direction of scientific research we assisted with, and then confirmed by the scientists we have worked with, about the ‘lifeforce’ around the Arraluli whale areas, exactly where we showed the scientists to look, that are the centre of the whale dreaming for our people, and they have found biota and food source at the highest levels on the planet, associated with intense life chain and biodiversity.”
Interviewed several years ago on Australian television in a story about the whale migration to the area, Isobel told how her old people had songs for the whales, and how elders in her tribe, who had spent time with her largely deceased family, sung songs in traditional language of the whales and their role in the creation of the unique formations and inter-tidal flows that mark this rich marine environment.
These deeds, recorded in song, champion the carving of the coastal rock, and the shaping of the tidal movements by the whale’s flipper. They are also actual observable natural forces creating what scientists today have observed to be the essence of the environment that builds the food chain that sees these creatures apex their northern migration from the depths of the arctic, to suckle and train their infants, newly born in the waters south to here once a year. In other words they have directed scientists to the discovery areasm, and in doing so confirmed the perennial tribal custodianship of scientific observations of the ecology of this area.
Preliminary data has indicated that the area is abnormally ‘productive’ in terms of biota not just for Kimberley standards but Australian and indeed, international- just as Isobel had informed them when they first begun their quest.
“It’s wunguud place. It’s been created like that, for those animals to feed and grow,” she said.
The Arraluli Whale Sanctuary Project (AWSP) was established to acknowledge the voice of the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Camden sound area – the Arraluli clan of the Worrora tribe – on the issues surrounding humpback whale conservation in this remote part of North Western Australian.
It built on the groups previous work in trying to encourage recognition of the need to get help in protecting their area’s rare cultural and wilderness estate.
During the last five years, this area has come to the attention of the world as a major humpback breeding ground. The natural and biological formations have much to offer the humpback for its calving grounds, unique and rich feeding chains that nourish these huge mammals as well as a plethora of other marine life including saltwater turtles and dugongs, temperature tolerant inter-tidal reefs that provide shelter, some of the last intact marine and terrestrial eco-systems not only in Australia, but the world.
Mindful of the problems that can be associated with announcing the existence of such rare environmental areas, and how it can merely stimulate a greater bloodlust for its destruction and development, the Arraluli have worked hurrriedly with key agencies and organisations to codify their traditional land rights into a wilderness estate. Stay tuned for more updates or to send isobel an email: