Whale escapes from crocodile infested river

Wrong turn: The giant humpback making its way back to open water © Parks Australia

But is this really news? The story of the whale and the crocodiles made headlines yesterday all around the world. Why? Wasn’t this just a non-event? Or does it have a deeper significance?

The rangers in Kakadu National Park could hardly believe their eyes. There in the river, 18 miles from the sea, was one of the largest creatures on Earth: a humpback whale, as much as 50 feet long. The danger for it and holidaymakers was terrifying. If it became trapped — or overturned a boat — it would be feeding time for the crocodiles that infest the East Alligator River.

The whale was one of three believed to have taken a wrong turn while making their annual migratory journey to Antarctica. The other two had quickly turned around and headed in the right direction, but the third carried on.

Although the crocodiles were unlikely to attack something so much bigger than themselves in open water, the worry was that it would end up stranded in the sandy shallows. “There's no way we can lift a 12-to-16-meter humpback whale off the sandbar,” scientist Carole Palmer explained, “and that's potentially when the crocs would kick in.”

On top of that, the murkiness of the river water meant that the whale might hit a boat without even seeing it, spelling possible death for the passengers.

Fortunately, things did not come to that. The authorities managed to clear the area of boats, allowing the whale an open passage back into the Van Diemen Gulf. There, it continued on its southward journey, apparently in good health. According to Dr Palmer, “This is the very best outcome we could have hoped for.”

For the media, the incident was a godsend – a piece of good news that would capture the public imagination and provide much-needed relief from depressing reports about the pandemic, climate change and political oppression.

They recognised, too, that whales have a powerful hold on our imagination, partly because of their enormous size and partly because they inhabit the depths of the ocean – a dark, mysterious region which few of us have ever glimpsed.

We also feel a special connection to whales because, unlike most sea creatures, they are mammals, breathing air and nursing their young as we do. They have the largest brains that have ever been known to exist, and they communicate with each other by making noises we can recognise as a type of speech.

Whales have inspired remarkable literature through the ages. In the Bible, Jonah survives for three days inside a whale. In Anglo-Saxon literature, the sea is sometimes referred to as “the whale road”.

One of the greatest 19th-century American novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, focuses on the maniacal Captain Ahab and his obsession with hunting one particular whale. Heathcote Williams’s book-length poem, Whale Nation, was enormously influential in rousing public support for the ban on commercial whaling announced by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986.

But last year Japan announced a decision to ignore the ban and to resume whaling. Marine pollution is also a threat, and environmentalists warn that several species are in danger of extinction.

So is the humpback’s escape really headline news?

Crocodile fears

Some say, no. There is nothing particularly unusual about the story: whale migrations take them past Australia every year, and sometimes they go off course. This one could have been attacked by crocodiles, but it was not. A news story should be something of national or global importance, concerned with big issues such as war, the environment or economics.

Others argue that many of the planet’s problems stem from humans thinking that everything revolves around them. We need to recognise that we are part of a much bigger structure and that what happens to other creatures is equally important. This event was one full of drama – a huge whale threatened by smaller but incredibly vicious crocodiles – and we are right to be fascinated by it.

You Decide

  1. Should Japan be punished for breaking the whaling ban? If so, what would be an appropriate penalty?
  2. Is it right for humans to protect one wild creature from another, or should we always allow nature to take its course?

Activities

  1. Do a painting of a whale, a crocodile and a boat containing people, showing their relative sizes.
  2. Divide into groups of three or four, each representing a different newspaper, real or imaginary. Decide who your target reader is, and choose the five main news stories for your next edition. Give a five-minute presentation to your class explaining your choices.

Some People Say...

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.”

Herman Melville (1819–1891), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that whales evolved from land-based creatures tens of millions of years ago; their nearest relation is the hippopotamus. The blue whale, which can grow to almost 100 feet in length, is the largest animal ever to have existed. Whales generally prefer very cold water but migrate to warmer regions to give birth. They can travel for thousands of miles without feeding. Some have such highly developed hearing that they can survive even if blind.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns how much protection we should be giving to whales. They were once widely hunted for their meat and blubber, and at one point in the last century the number of North Atlantic right whales sank to a few hundred. The North Pacific grey whale is still considered to be critically endangered. Critics of the IWC say that its ban on commercial whaling is not nearly as effective as it should be.

Word Watch

Kakadu National Park
Situated in the Northern Territory, it is Australia’s largest national park, with an area of almost 8,000 square miles – about half the size of Switzerland.
Humpback whale
Humpbacks are particularly known for their singing. The males have a song which lasts for up to 20 minutes; they repeat it for hours at a time.
East Alligator River
Almost 100 miles in length, it flows through an area celebrated for its Aboriginal art.
Van Diemen Gulf
An area of sea at the very north of Australia. It is named after a Dutch colonial governor, Anthony van Diemen, who backed the explorers Abel Tasman and Frans Visscher. Tasmania was previously known as Van Diemen’s Land.
Breathing air
Whales have enormous lungs which allow them to remain under water for 90 minutes or more. They take in and breathe out air through blowholes on the top of their heads.
Anglo-Saxon literature
A type of riddle called a kenning was popular in Old English. The term “whale road” appears in the great poem Beowulf. Another example is “sky-candle”, meaning the sun.
Herman Melville
Born in New York, Melville went to sea aged 20 and worked for a while on a whaling ship called the Acushnet. Moby-Dick was published in 1851 but not recognised as a masterpiece until after his death.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.