It's sunrise on a Kimberley cliff-top. All is quiet, bar some odd sounds: a thump, like the distant slam of a car door. And a far-off hiss, like letting-down tyres. The water has the answer. Across Pender Bay, the humpbacks are slapping their tails and pectoral fins and sighing from their blowholes, sending smoke-like white puffs into the dawn air.
Near the cliff edge stands an old caravan, its sides cut out for extra windows. Within an hour, volunteers from Australia, France, Germany and the United States will take their places in and outside the van and systematically record the whales they spot in Pender Bay. This survey, overseen by scientists and started in 2006, documents a little-known humpback maternity ward and resting ground 125 kilometres north of Broome.
There are many stories about environmental battles lost, about proverbial Goliaths triumphing over Davids, the victory of ''progress'' over not-in-my-backyard interests. But the story of Andrew Bowles, who founded the whale survey and funded it with $30,000 of his own money, is about how one man can change development's course, not through protest, but through science.
In 2006, the Western Australian government shortlisted a nearby headland to host a 1000-hectare gas hub for the offshore Browse Basin. The government and resources giant Woodside later turned their sights to James Price Point, further south, sparking an ultimately successful national protest.
But when the companies and officials started poking around his people's stretch of coast, Bowles, an Aboriginal man who is a long-term resident on this magnificent piece of the Dampier Peninsula, worried about the whales that were increasingly turning up in Pender Bay, many with babies in tow.
The humpback whales that migrate down Australia's west coast to Antarctica are distinct from those that east coast tourists may spot in places such as Warrnambool or Hervey Bay. They even sing their own songs. They were hunted down to about 4 per cent of their original population and numbered 600 in the 1960s. By 2012, numbers recovered to around 26,000.
Some local traditional owners, now dead, had told Bowles the area was an ancient whale ground, but there was little science on how they were using Pender Bay. So Bowles established a cliff-top survey - at first with Deakin University and later with the Western Australian Marine Science Institution - to document the humpbacks.
''Most of the people we have taken to the cliff are in shock about the numbers,'' he says.
The initial surveys found unexpectedly large numbers of mothers and calves and the Environment Protection Authority ended up acknowledging - in its advice to the government on the gas hub siting - that the local waters were considered to be ''of high regional significance for humpback whale cows and calves before southward migration''. In the end, industry and the government looked elsewhere.
''We are not anti-gas,'' says Bowles ''We are providing data to our decision-makers. We all use gas and we all use oil.''
Counting whales - from a cliff-top, boat or plane - is difficult because the same whales can surface, then disappear, then resurface. For this reason, the survey does not produce a specific number of whales spotted, although marine scientist Steve Blake, who co-authored the survey's latest report, says thousands probably visit Pender Bay during each whale season, from July to mid-November. But Dr Blake's latest results show that in 2012, just under 10 per cent of whales spotted were calves and each volunteer recorded, on average, two whale sightings in any five-minute counting period (each period is repeated four times an hour, for about 5½ hours a day).
The data shows that over the last four years, the whale numbers vacillate, probably because of ocean temperatures, food availability and other conditions. In 2012, sightings were down from a peak in 2009. ''When we first started at Pender Bay, it was mainly thought to be just a staging area, primarily for mothers and calves resting on their migration south,'' says Blake. ''But we have absolutely shown that it is also a birthing, breeding and nursing area in its own right. We've seen two births from the cliff-top and even whales mating. The humpback whales are using Pender Bay for a variety of purposes, it's home, not just a place they pass through.''
The base also helps fulfil a promise Bowles made to the local elders: to look after the younger generation. Nearby Beagle Bay - whose stunning mother-of-pearl-decorated church was a setting in the film Bran Nue Dae - has seen high youth suicide rates.
Bowles involves local at-risk youth in the survey; they get lectures from scientists and exposure to the international volunteers. He also takes them fishing and works with the indigenous ranger program and naval cadets. Bowles says he wants them to know that amid all the oil and gas exploration in Western Australia, ''there is this other world of monitoring, science and tourism they can get into''.
The sheer number of whales offshore - easily seen from the coastline - rivals east coast whale watching hubs such as Hervey Bay and Bowles believes it will become a tourism magnet. The state government plans on soon sealing the Cape Leveque Road from Broome, which will mean the Aboriginal landowners, who have already stepped up their efforts to tempt tourists down 4wd-only red sandy roads, will have a whole new market to cater for.
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