The Bugle App
The Bugle App
Your local news hub
Get it on the Apple StoreGet it on the Google Play Store
FeaturesThe Bugle: latest issue24 Hour Defibrillator sitesSportsWin StuffKCR
The Bugle App

Politics, Profit and a Whale of a Dilemma: A long-form essay

The Bugle App

John Stapleton

02 June 2024, 6:26 AM

Politics, Profit and a Whale of a Dilemma: A long-form essayA whale and its calf spy hopping. Photo credit: Anthony Crampton.

The whale watching season has begun, a ripple of excitement moving up the coast as enthusiasts perch on headlands and promontories to watch and record one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

The migration up and down the East Coast of Australia extends from May to November as the behemoths travel up from the Antarctic to their breeding grounds off the Queensland coast, and then follow a similar route back with their new born calves.

The hunting of whales began almost immediately after the European settlement. The export of whale oil was a major export industry during the 1800s, slowly dwindling in the 1900s as humpbacks were hunted almost to the edge of extinction. 

After years of impassioned activism by environmentalists, their killing was outlawed in Australia in 1978. 

Their numbers were variously estimated to have crashed to as low as 250 individuals, and have now dramatically recovered, with current estimates placing their population at around 40,000. They are believed to be increasing in number by about 10 percent each year.

At up to 10,000 kilometres, the whale migration route is one of the longest animal migrations in the world. Having evolved from land mammals that lived in warm salty waters about 55 million years ago, their migration patterns developed to such a length as the animals became separated from their seasonal food sources.

Manager of cruise operators Shellharbour Wild and Jervis Bay Wild, Bethany Vidler, said their tours have just begun. Tour groups mainly operate out of Jervis Bay, while most of the clientele out of Shellharbour are locals. 

“I think the fascination is just the pure size of the whales, and the breaches, and spy hop, where they poke their heads out of the water basically to look around, what they can do for the pure size of them.” 

“Especially on the long weekends, we get a lot of people from Canberra and Sydney come down to see the whales.” 

“They follow currents. If the currents are close into shore, they come in.”

These majestic, ancient, highly intelligent animals, the subject of myth and legend across multiple human cultures, provoke both deep affection and awe in the Australian public. There are those who think they can hear them in their dreams, as these giant animals, believed to be some of the most intelligent on Earth, pass us by.  

Keen whale watchers, cameras in hand, have already begun appearing at various viewing sites, including at the Kiama Blowhole, Minnamurra, Bass Point, Bushrangers Bay and Bald Hill at Stanwell Tops. 

Anthony Crampton, 76, a retired fisherman known as a “whale tragic” and highly respected amongst the whale watching community, has been out on the headlands photographing the whales virtually every day during the season since 2011.

He says he is at a loss to explain his obsession. “They are just magical,” he says. “It is their effort to survive. There’s thousands of people right up the coast watching for them, all crazies like me.” 

“There have been sightings over the last three weeks, just one or two, but it wasn’t until a few days ago they fired up in real numbers. I sight them here, and it alerts people further north if I post the pictures and they can work out when they are going to see them.”

“All the whale watchers, I would love to say, are all nutters. We are looking at something so special. It is a class of its own. Enjoy it while you can.”

Keen whale watchers, cameras in hand, have already begun appearing at various viewing sites. Photo credit: Anthony Crampton.

This year, the much-loved whales face their most serious threat since the suspension of hunting. The proposal to put hundreds of wind turbines off the South Coast has provoked furious controversy, and widespread concern about the future of the whale migration.

Despite thousands of hostile submissions from residents, an official declaration from the Albanese government of the South Coast as a designated Offshore Wind Zone is expected any day now, the next step in the process. 

Last August, at an Illawarra Clean Energy Summit, Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen announced a formal public consultation period on the proposed Illawarra Offshore Wind Zone, an area covering 1461 square kilometres.

“Australia is the world's largest island, without any offshore wind,” he said. “We lag the rest of the world, which has been developing this industry for years. This is something our Government has been working fast to fix.” 

“Offshore wind can help with energy security and resilience due to its power capacity and availability at times when solar power and onshore wind are not available. How we transition is vital, bringing people together and bringing them along on this journey.”

What followed was a public relations disaster, and Bowen made far more enemies than friends. 

The government held information sessions, so-called “community drop-ins,” from Bulli down to Wollongong, Port Kembla, Shellharbour, Kiama and Gerringong. The sessions did little but stir hostility. Residents, expecting to attend town hall-style meetings, were instead given a bureaucratic brushoff. Consultation was in name only. Being handed leaflets by public servants provoked a visceral response from many people concerned about the destruction of their coastline.  

As part of the community resistance, in a feat of local organisation, a number of intense and well-attended protest meetings were held.

Here are some random comments from those meetings to illustrate the mood:

“I have voted Labor for 45 years. I will never vote for them again.”

“They are already putting out tenders. How disgusting is that! If we stand together we can really make a difference.”

“No one knows about it. We have spoken to neighbours and friends, they had no idea.”

“Everyone loves to see the whales. I was out there fishing, and one came right up next to me. This is the peak of the whale migration off the coast. We see them all the time.”

“People have not been consulted. All the locals were expecting an open forum, a presentation and an opportunity to ask questions, none of which has happened. There are a lot of concerns about the marine life, and that no studies or research have been done.”

“The government has no intention of listening to anyone.”

A humpback's back flip caught on camera. Photo credit: Anthony Crampton.

As part of the community resistance, a number of Facebook groups were established, including No Offshore Wind Farms Illawarra, which has 8,400 members, No Offshore Wind Farms for the Illawarra, which has 4,700 members and the Coalition Against Offshore Wind Community Forum, which has 2,600 members. 

Quizzed on when an announcement of the Illawarra as a so-called Offshore Wind Zone, a spokesperson for Chris Bowen said the Minister was currently considering all submissions for the Illawarra offshore wind zone.

“Based on feedback from the submissions, the Minister can decide to declare all or some of the proposed zone. Before declaring an offshore zone, the Minister will balance the views of local communities and industries, including co-existence with existing marine users and interaction with the environment, as well the future energy security, supply for heavy industry, and job opportunities for the Illawarra region.”

Minister Chris Bowen and other officials have consistently reassured the public that wind turbines do not pose a threat to whales, emphasising that these intelligent animals will simply swim around them. This sentiment has been echoed by both Labor and the Greens.

Bowen has previously declared: “Whales are smart animals. They can navigate around oil rigs, gas rigs, cargo ships, cruise ships, offshore wind turbines.” 

Few people are convinced.

Anthony Crampton, for one, doesn’t believe for a second government assurances that wind turbines won’t hurt the whales. He thinks it a travesty that taxpayers money is being directed towards foreign corporations who, as he puts it, are bent on destroying Australia’s marine ecology. Around 300 wind turbines are proposed, each a height of some 260 metres.

“I would say to the government, pull your heads in, leave the whales alone,” he says. “There are many people around here just as fanatical as I am about looking after these creatures.”

“I am dead set anti-wind farm. They say they’re not going to hurt the whales, but I firmly believe the noise they make will harm them.” 

“So much money has been poured into protecting these things, and now they are going to put things out there in the ocean that are going to destroy them. I haven’t heard anyone saying they are going to be a good thing.”

The controversy is by no means limited to the Illawarra and the South Coast but has spread up and down the East Coast.

In March, Bowen announced the declaration of the so-called Offshore Wind Zone for the Southern Ocean region of Victoria, an area stretching from the Limestone Coast down to Warrnambool, but the area proposed was cut by 80 percent after massive community opposition.

Equally, on the other side of the country, at Geographe Bay in Western Australia, there are protests and disbelief at the proposal to install wind farms in the middle of a whale migration route.

Back in NSW, the protests have been just as vigorous up and down the coast as they have been in the Illawarra. Frank Future, a whale watch operator working out of Port Stephens, said: “We don’t like the wind farms. Most whale watch operators are opposed. It’s a huge part of our industry.” 

“This is a fishing and tourist community. At least 70 percent of the adult population of Port Stephens are opposed. We are all together in this, we oppose it.”

“The government had already declared the zone before the consultation. They weren’t very consultative. They didn't come to this community. You think of Labor as more consultative, but not at all.”

“To see such a huge creature is a wonderful sight, and it’s only in the last few years we have had the opportunity to see them. There aren’t many good news stories in the environment. Considering they are all born in Australian waters, we have a right to love them and look after them.”

Spokesman for Responsible Future Illawarra, Alex O’Bren, said there was growing concern within the community about the potential impact of the proposed Illawarra wind farm on these majestic creatures. 

“With Minister Bowen expected to announce the wind farm zone soon, the future of many whale seasons, cherished by both the local community and First Nations people for generations, hangs in the balance.”

“We must take these concerns seriously. If politicians continue to dismiss the real impact on marine life and whales as misinformation we risk a catastrophic situation here in the Illawarra.”

“If we do not heed the warnings of lifelong whale protectors and learn from international experiences, this could be one of the last whale migration seasons that the Illawarra gets to enjoy. 

“We have fought tirelessly for the recovery of whale populations and cannot allow a ‘renewables at any cost’-mentality to prevail. As a community that is a custodian for these magnificent creatures, we must ask questions and demand the highest level of environmental studies and one that is independent and not controlled or funded by profit making developers.”

Approximately 40,000 whales and their calves that migrate through this pathway each year. Photo credit: Anthony Crampton.

Significant concerns have been raised by both Sea Shepherd Australia, a name synonymous with the welfare of whales, along with Paul Watson, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, in company with activists up and down both the East and West Coast of Australia. 

In their submission to the government, Sea Shepherd Australia called for more thorough research into the risks turbines pose to marine life and stressed the need for stricter regulations on developers before any turbines are approved.

The submission underscored significant risks to critically endangered and other species, citing concerns such as unplanned spills, pollution events, pile driving, cable laying, artificial lighting, underwater noise, vibration, vessel strikes, blade strikes, and electromagnetic fields. 

Notably, a quarter of the submission focused on the risk of entanglement for the approximately 40,000 whales and their calves that migrate through this pathway each year. Entanglement risk is a major concern due to the kilometres of cables needed to anchor the massive turbines. 

Their report read: “On an assumption of floating wind turbines with catenary mooring lines being the preferred installation method in the Illawarra, there is likely to be a considerable network of lengthy underwater cables and lines and there is no research about what might happen to whales that might encounter this network, or their behaviour to seek to avoid this structure in their path. 

“The need for research about this is urgent particularly as floating technology has not yet been deployed anywhere else in the world at commercial scale.”

“We don’t know how a whale population of this size is likely to fare when passing through or around this cluster of mooring lines together with the cables to floating sub-stations, and to shore that will carry the energy created by the turbines. It has been suggested by some academics that whales will be able to navigate successfully through or around these cables and lines but there is no precedent elsewhere in the world for this number of whales passing this number of lines at these depths.”

Other groups have also expressed concern. The Organisation for the Rescue & Research of Cetaceans in Australia (ORRCA) have been monitoring marine mammals along the East Coast of Australia for more than 30 years.


Vice-President Jessica Fox said it is imperative marine mammals are included in any environmental impact assessments as part of any feasibility studies with relation to the wind farm project. 

“The proposed location is a migratory route for many species including the blue whale and the southern right whale, both of which are endangered species,” she said. “Any future developments on the ocean need to have more evidence about potential impacts.”

She said as the whale watching season began there was already significant concern over the number of boats and drones “getting way too close” to the whales.

There is a 100 metre exclusion zone for boats and drones, with that being extended to 300 metres for any whales with calves. She also urged anyone with concerns for the welfare of any marine animals to contact ORRCA, which operates a 24 hour hotline. 

Whales are uniquely sensitive to sound, which travels further through water than it does through air. 

In April, after the mass stranding of pilot whales in Western Australia, the Smithsonian Institute, one of the world’s leading scientific bodies, noted that “human-made noises at sea can disturb whales’ ability to navigate”.

Numerous studies, including by the US military, have found that whale beaching can be directly connected to human noise, be it from ships, submarines or recreational craft.

One thing everyone knows about wind turbines, not only are they just plain ugly, they create a lot of noise. 

“Whales live in a soundscape of fear, listening is as important to them as vision is to humans,” says Patrick Miller, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a joint author of research on why, when naval ships and other sea vessels use sonar, many whale species flee for their lives; some even stranding themselves on beaches in a desperate attempt to escape.

Scientists now believe loud sounds trigger the same fear response as when the animals hear calls emitted by their most terrifying predator: killer whales.

To hear unusual or loud human noises, such as sonar, triggers the same defensive reaction, Miller explains: “The whales aren’t confusing sonar with killer whale sounds,” he stresses. The cetaceans flee from sonar “likely because it is loud.” 

“They perceive it as a general threat, and that triggers their decision to escape. In time, susceptible cetacean species may learn that they don’t need to flee from sonar, but “they don’t have time to evolve,” Miller says. “All they know is ‘that sonar might eat me.’ And in their race to get away, they end up on a beach.”

You can bet if whales do start beaching themselves as a result of the noise from wind farms, both during their construction and their ongoing operation, no one in the Australian government will put up their hand to take responsibility.

Meanwhile, outrage in the community continues to mount as more and more people become aware of the broader issues surrounding wind farms and the extreme manipulation of the debate through various media outlets and government funded academics. 


Mark Fox, an enthusiastic local photographer at this time of year, is even more entranced by the area’s natural beauty than usual when schools of dolphins and humpback whales pass close to shore. 

“It sickens me to the core that they would destroy the pristine, picturesque coast line with an industrial eyesore development stretching further than the eye can see.”


“Wind farms are known to be an obstruction and danger for migratory whales. This will be an environmental, economic and tourism disaster for the region.”

He speaks for many.

As with everything to do with climate change, there are many billions of dollars involved, both in terms of money to be made by private corporations and taxpayer funds channelled into supporting the renewable push.

Politics, profit and passion all tied up together. It is a putrid mix. For the government it is a whale of a dilemma. 

Make no mistake, wind farms are highly political. The potential destruction of the migration routes of Australia’s whales may well destroy Labor’s environmental credentials and come to be seen as a significant breach of public trust. 

The next election must be held during or before 2025. The Conservatives, recovering from an historical defeat in 2022, can already scent blood in the water.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton visited Port Stephens twice last October to push against the Hunter Offshore Wind proposals, suggesting that the government had no idea what it was doing.

“It’s very clear to me this is fast growing into a national scandal,” he said. “I don’t believe the government has done the necessary work. They haven’t undertaken the environmental impact statements that need to be carried out in any other like development onshore. The rising level of anger is something that Australians really should take note of.”

Kiama Member of Parliament, Gareth Ward, is of a similar sentiment.


"The proposed Federal Government zone for offshore wind would be smack-bang in the path of endangered species such as whales and birds. This impact needs to be understood and we shouldn’t risk the future of critically endangered species without further serious evidence and proper analysis."


"I believe we need to reduce our emissions which provide for cleaner air, cleaner water, and a more sustainable environment. We do not inherit this planet from our parents, we borrow it from our children."

"My chief concern with the Federal Government’s proposed wind factory off our coast is the lack of information, particularly when it comes to our environment," he said. "The government should be transparent and accountable about environmental impacts alongside the zoning process; environmental impacts should not be an afterthought."

Controversy aside, this is a special time. Whale watching websites, most particularly the Shellharbour Whale and Wildlife Spotting group on Facebook, have lit up with remarkable images, including spectacular drone footage of whales swimming with schools of dolphins.

There are no reliable statistics, but it is estimated that more than 1.5 million Australians will go whale watching this season. 

We are all flecks in the great torrent of life, and for most of us all we can do is the best by the day. So why not go down to the shore and join Australia’s armada of whale watchers? 

If nothing else, these majestic animals stir the mystic in us all.