Aquatic Giants Resurface in Australia

The country's last whale-hunting outpost closed in 1978; now this blustery community is transformed.

Lured by tales of abundant whales, hunters - mostly from America - ventured to Western Australia's treacherous waters back in the 1830s.

One-hundred-forty years later, a conservation movement, led by Americans, converged noisily in the same area to vehemently denounce the brutal practice, inflaming local tempers.

Partly as a result of mounting international pressure - but mainly because of a slump in whale-oil prices - Australia's last whale-hunting outpost closed in 1978, causing near panic here in Albany where the operation was based.

Today this blustery waterfront town with a strong European flavor has undergone a transformation. Albany is again depending on aquatic giants for its economic well-being, but for a different reason.

Once thought close to extinction, two species of whales are returning to the former killing grounds to the delight of boatloads of tourists that have proliferated in the past eight years.

Conservationists, meanwhile, worry about whether the whales will be bothered by the increasing number of these recreational vessels.

From a spectacular rugged, granite coastline, people can watch the foaming water and spiraling, hazy mist where whales splash and "blow" in the ocean surf.

From a boat, a fortunate tourist can reach out and scratch one of the inquisitive, gentle creatures, or watch them breach - leap from the water, turn on their sides to expose their enormous bellies to the world, and crash into the waters.

Point Ann Beach, a 2-1/2 hour-drive from Albany, is regarded as among the best places in the world to see southern right whales.

This species of right whale was prized by 19th-century hunters because they were easy to approach, slow, did not sink when harpooned, and yielded abundant quantities of oil, used for lighting and heating.

Today, as many as 30 whales can be seen from the shore of the remote beach, according to Peter Collins, the Albany wildlife officer for the state's Department of Conservation and Land Management.

"The whales come in very, very close and the water is crystal clear," Mr. Collins says. "This is something on our doorstep which, in worldwide terms, is highly significant."

Of the existing 78 species of whales and dolphins in the world, 33 can be seen off Western Australia's 10,200 kilometer (6,375 mile) coastline.

Albany's two main nautical visitors are the southern rights, which weigh up to 80 tons, and the much lighter humpbacks, distinguished by their long dorsal fin.

All southern rights have distinct patterns of white, horny growths, or "callosities," on their heads that scientists use to distinguish individuals when photographing and counting them.

The humpbacks, known for the musical humming tunes they sing to one other, have different white patterns on the underside of their tails that distinguish them.

Both can be seen in this region from May to early October.

Southern right whales started to make a comeback in Albany in the 1970s, swimming so close to shore that people feared the animals would beach themselves.

John Bannister, a world expert in whales at the Western Australian Museum, recalls, "People were phoning the museum, saying, 'There's a whale in the surf line; for heaven's sake, do something!' "

He estimates that southern rights have grown to number about 800 off Western Australia. Humpbacks, hardly visible in the 1960s, number at least 3,000.

But with the animals' comeback, there are fears that the tourist boats will scare them away.

"There are too many people getting in on it. Once something starts, everyone rushes in," says Albany resident Stan Austin, who's whaling ancestors immigrated here from America.

Peter Collins agrees there is a need to start regulating the industry and limiting the number of boats.

"We're only just starting to see more whales coming back and we have to be careful about the charter operators and private boats that want to go whale- watching," he says. "There's a worldwide interest in the whales, and we have to manage that interest."

The controls are welcomed by Les Bail, who manages a whaling station-cum-museum, Whaleworld. "We need to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the whales," he says. "We are very fortunate to have the whales [and] we have to put their welfare first."

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