Tag Archives: Moreton Bay

A Right Whale in the Wrong Place

Last week a boat strike killed a southern right whale – maybe two – in Moreton Bay. One mangled carcass of a young female finally drifted ashore on Peel Island, where rangers from Parks and Wildlife dragged it above the tide line ‘as high as possible…to allow its natural decomposition to continue.’ Another whale was seen still alive, but with propeller injuries along the length of its body. The calf travelling with the pair has not been seen since Friday, but will surely die as well.

corpse of a right whale

Photograph by Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation

The death of this whale is particularly sad because although the number of humpback whales is rising, and they are now a common sight – even in Sydney Harbour – the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) continues to struggle and the species remains on the endangered list.

The reason for this lies in the evidence of that floating carcass. Unlike other whales, a dead right whale floats when dead because of its thick blubber, so to whalers, they were the right whales to catch. Not only did they yield more oil, but after harpooning, they could be tethered alongside a vessel, and processed at the whalers’ convenience. So right whales were hunted more than any other baleen whale, and their numbers dropped accordingly.

Whaling off the coast of Australia began virtually from the arrival of the first British colonists. Ships would dump their ‘cargo’ of convicts in Sydney, then head off into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales. Sperm whales were the most valuable, because of their spermaceti oil, but like all toothed whales they were dangerous too.

Slow moving baleen whales like the humpback and right whale were much easier prey. Humpbacks breed in tropical water off the Queensland coast, but right whales seem to prefer cooler waters. In Australia, that means in calm inlets in South Australia and along the Victorian coast.

So what were these right whales doing in the warmer waters of Moreton Bay?

There are no 19th century records of right whales migrating this far north. Lack of evidence, of course, doesn’t constitute evidence of a lack of whales, but given the colonists’ enthusiasm for harvesting any marine creatures they could profitably kill, including dugong, turtle and other whales, I think someone would have mentioned it. But in the last decade or so, small family groups of right whales have begun to appear off Stradbroke Island and now – disastrously – in Moreton Bay itself.

Mike Noad, an expert on whales at the University of Queensland, has a theory that they are following an old migration route, one that pre-dates the European settlement of southeast Queensland. Early colonial whalers targeted right whales so devastatingly that the southern right whale population had already collapsed by the time the Moreton Bay settlement was founded in 1824. There were no right whales left to follow this minor breeding route northwards.

It seems plausible, though there’s probably no way we will ever know for sure. At present the whales are heading south to the Antarctic, where they will feed on krill during the southern summer. They are slow moving because they can only swim at the speed of their young calves, which were born in the last month or so. For that reason, they need to rest regularly in sheltered bays like Moreton Bay.

But Moreton Bay is no longer a reliable shelter. The bay is a busy place these days. Ferries crisscross the waters, and hydrofoils and water taxis can’t stop quickly. Perhaps they should just slow down.

Boat strikes happen too often, to turtles and dugong as well as whales. What also worries me – as a historian of whaling – is the significance of that name. How many humpbacks and other whale species have been killed by boat strikes in Moreton Bay, but because they were not ‘the right’ whales, their bodies sank to the seabed unrecorded.

See Andrew Darby, ‘Slow down, whales crossing’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 2014.

Captured in the Museum of Brisbane

When I was in England a couple of years back, I met a woman who showed me a photo album her ancestor had collected during a sea voyage around the Pacific, from the Solomons to Fiji to Yokohama, some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. She knew the photos had an economic value – you often see old photos for sale on market stalls, or the 21st century equivalent, eBay – but she wanted my opinion as a historian. Did they have any historical value, and if so, where should they go?

I took a few photos of pages I thought would interest a colleague who works on Solomon Islands history, but the photos themselves didn’t turn me on. Most were obvious commercial pastiches, designed to sell to passing tourists like her forebear. They covered so many subjects, from Fijian villages to Japanese street scenes, that it was hard to know where they should go, and some were horribly racist. I particularly remember a picture of a Solomon Islander wearing nothing but a lap-lap painted with the Union Jack. Chortle.

I’ve just been to see an exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Brisbane, and I think I owe Sophy an apology for my dismissiveness. Captured is a sensitively curated exhibition of photos of Aboriginal people from the Moreton Bay district. Michael Aird has collected, researched and curated these photographs, and the collection is fascinating.  It’s a clever title of course, alluding to the way that images of these people were treated as commodities, but the people in the photos are subjects, not objects, and are treated as such by the curator.

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The photos come from several Brisbane photographic studios of the 1850s and 1860s. A new technology like photography always attracts new commercial opportunities, and as well as photographing the European settlers, these photographers found a niche market producing cartes de visite – small photographs printed in batches of 8 at a time. This mass production made them commercially viable in a way that individual, one-off portraits of Aborigines might not have been. Continue reading

The Mullet Run in Southeast Queensland

It was about 30 years ago.  I had been staying with friends in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane.  It was an overcast day in early winter, with only a few desultory surfers in the water, when 5 or 6 people arrived on the beach with a long net.  Two of them waded out into the surf holding the net and dropped it into the water, enclosing about 10-15 metres between them.

Then the whole group joined in to drag the net back to shore.  It was hard work, for the net was brimming with frantic fish, swarming and jumping in the surf.  They had caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sea mullet.

Locals in the know turned up with buckets.  They sold a lot on the beach and packed the rest in polystyrene boxes to sell later.  They backed a 4WD on to the beach, packed away the catch, and were off before the Fish Marketing Board could know or intervene.  From start to finish, the whole affair took less than an hour. Continue reading

Eventide: the end of benevolence

As part of its austerity measures, the new Queensland LNP government has announced (not terribly loudly, mind) that it is winding down a number of government-owned aged care facilities.  Some are closing altogether.  Just down the road from me in Sandgate, two buildings at Eventide are going. Seventy jobs will be lost, 80 old people will be dislocated, and an army of local volunteers who help there have been stripped of their purpose. Locals are up in arms, and there has been a highly political rally outside the Home.

The argument is that the facilities are old, and it would cost too much to upgrade them to meet new federal standards that come in next year, but it’s hard not to suspect that the State Government has plans to eventually flog the site off to developers.  The site is wonderful: seafront land looking northwards across Hayes Inlet to Redcliffe, and eastwards out to Moreton Bay.

In any case, it looks like the end of an era.  Eventide has been in the suburb of Brighton since 1946, but its roots go back much further, to its origins as the Benevolent Institution in the early years of free settlement at Moreton Bay, before Queensland even existed as a separate colony.

Continue reading

Thomas Dowse: Unaccompanied Minor

There is a lake in Sandgate, my suburb on the edge of Moreton Bay, called Dowse Lagoon.  It is named after one of Sandgate’s first European settlers, Thomas Dowse, (1809-1885) who settled here with his wife and family in 1842.  Thomas Dowse was an ex-convict.  In September 1824, at the age of 15, he was tried in the Old Bailey:

for stealing, on the 16th of August , at St. Andrew, Holborn , a coat, value 2 l. a waistcoat, value 5 s. a pair of trowsers, value 10 s. a handkerchief, value 4 s. and a shirt, value 4 s.

He stole these items and pawned them for 35 shillings.

This is where the story gets strange, for the main witness in the case was Catherine Dowse, a widow – and Thomas’s mother.  The clothes belonged to Tom’s brother (though technically they were Catherine’s, since minors could not own property).

So what was going on?  Continue reading

A Black Swan Event in Moreton Bay

The language of business can be surprisingly vigorous.  I love the bestiality of its bulls and bears and dead cat bounces.

A postage stamp of Australia issued 1954 -West...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve only just discovered a new phrase, this one with a tangential Australian connection.  A Black Swan Event, according to a newish book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and can’t be predicted but which in retrospect, could have been expected.

What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Taleb, in New York Times, 22 April 2007, quoted in Wikipedia

Now who am I to question someone whose book was on the NYT bestseller list for 36 weeks, but this sounds to me basically what we historians call contingent events, and which Dick Cheney more succinctly described as ‘shit happens’. Continue reading

On Shifting Sands

The British Library recently called for volunteers to help ‘georeference’ over 700 historic maps of London, England and Wales.  They digitized the maps but needed the assistance of real live human beings to read the maps, and link them to equivalent maps on Google Earth, in place, size and projection.

It’s yet another fascinating experiment in crowd sourcing – but I’m afraid you can’t join in, because they got so many volunteers that the work was completed within a week!  They now plan to load another 1000 digital maps.  If you want to get involved you can register and they will notify you when they are ready to roll.

According to the accompanying video, the technology of linking past and present geographical features seems fairly straightforward: they use the Tower of London as an example, and it’s been in the same place for nearly a thousand years.

Tower of London 1597

Other geographical features on a landscape are trickier.  Where is the Fleet River these days?  Rivers are particularly vulnerable – they are constantly being diverted by urban development, or silt up because of agricultural development upstream.

Coastlines change too.  Continue reading