A rumour of whales.

Midwinter seems to be a time for ritual or regularity. A time for family or feasting. A time to shut out the mid-winter chills. This has to make sense. Autumn’s abundance is long gone and the warmth and longer days of spring are still distant. Drawing your family and friends around you, to remake the bonds of kith and kin, makes perfect sense as we approach what must have been the toughest time of year.

The dread of winter cold and the fear of spring famine have been left behind for most of us. Agriculture, technology and oil have pushed these wolves away from our doors. Although we may have lost the reason, the rituals of midwinter still survive. Some have become misplaced by the twist of geography. Christmas, an appropriated mid-winter feast transplanted out of season, is twice removed from its origin. And now mid-winter lies bare, and may pass unnoticed. So we invent our own rituals to replace those that have been lost.

For me mid-winter brings not the abundance of gifts and decoration out of step with time and place, but a trip to Wilson’s Prom. Like many rituals, its origins are beginning to become clouded. Is this the 12th year? The 13th? Surely not the 14th? It started before I was married, before I had kids, before I could vote for the government that takes my taxes. It started when I was nothing but angry and I had really stopped paying attention. It started a long time ago.

Small parts of this trip - this week in mid winter - have become important; the walks on Norman Beach and up to Tidal Overlook, where familiarity grows and the chances of surprise decline, but where I still manage to find new things to see. Evening trips to find wombats, first with other people’s children, now with my own. It matters little that the results of these nocturnal rambles are predictable, or that you keep a soccer score of wombats v possums - which incidentally the wombats normally win! What matters here is that you go and do them. That you know that you can find wombats bumbling around in the gloom, that you can find pink striped shells on the beach or that the view from the top will always look good. These become fixed points around which the rest of the trip can rotate, a kind of still polar axis that allows you to do other things elsewhere, but with the knowledge that you can always come back to the points you know. These small parts come together to produce a sum greater than their parts - the properties of the trip emerge from its component parts and the whole is greater than the sum.

Many years ago we walked out to Tongue Point and found whales. They were unexpected and we watched them until the light began to fail and we had to stumble back to the car, tripping on flat paths and stumbling over branches, rocks and once, even a wombat! The whale would probably have been unaware that we were there, as we watched and watched and watched. We returned the next day, but they had gone and the people with us were disappointed. They talked of whales they had seen in the past and how special the sight had been, and undoubtedly it was. They talked as if the walk to Tongue Point had been a waste without whales, that all we had spread was a rumour of whales and that they remained grey ocean going ghosts that they had missed.

This year - while standing in a queue to buy milk - I heard that a fisherman had seen whales that morning off the rocks that flank Norman Bay. Two or more, close to the shore, near enough to be seen with the naked eye, real whales, not a rumour. For the next five days I spent much time staring out to sea, waiting to see, hoping to see. Maybe it’s a little like staring into a candle’s flame - sea watching seems to slow down the heart, but let the mind race. The open spaces of the sea opening spaces within the mind.

As I was sitting there watching a question formed in my mind. Why were the whales so important? Why has seeing whales become such a touch-stone of environmental experience. Clearly they are a magnificent animal, which we pushed to the edge of extinction; clearly they are intelligent, warm blooded animals who share much of our biology. But is that really enough to explain their power? If mid-winter rituals were around hope, spring rituals a celebration of rebirth and resurrection, autumn about the preparation for death, then what role does whale watching play? Has seeing whales become some form of ritual - sometimes spontaneous, sometimes unplanned - that replaces other contact with the wild? To hear some people talk you would think whale watching approached a religious experience - and maybe it does - but what about everything that is going on around the whales? Is that not important too? Is a whale on its own more important than the water it swims through? Is a seeing a whale without seeing what’s around really what we need?

In the deep past people took the environment and built meaning into it. With stories and stones, with songs and wood. They built their understanding of the world as they built their own landscapes. In many cases things were placed in the landscape to make the meaning clearer, to separate the here from the then, the living from the dead, the waking from the dreaming. A landscape (which itself is a word invented in recent history) had understanding built into it - the landscape was in fact a made-scape, where the making brought knowledge. The landscape and its people were one, and the land was seen as a continuous thing, it was not something that was “over there” it was part of everything. ClichĂ© it may be, but things were seen as connected. A whale on its own is not connected - it’s a deconstruction of an environment into fragment parts, and while each fragment is valuable, the sum of the fragments is less than the value of the whole. So, does this mean I stopped looking for whales? Well, no! Did it mean I looked for other things as well? Well, yes.

In the water, by the rocks, at the edge of Whisky Bay, a dark shape moved in the water. Just a glimpse really. It was a seal, probably a Fur Seal from one of the islands that litter the coast. Farther out to sea, gulls glided and swooped, a few terns flashed white in the sun. But no whales. The girls with the RSPB branded binoculars seemed interested, but the seals didn’t come back. And in the end I was just looking out to sea. As the time passed I was thinking about the passing of time and how we mark its passage. In an age before watches (I’m sitting in a cafĂ© and I can see 12 different ways of telling the time!) did the tick of rituals help chart the passing of the year? The sun set and the first stars blinked on. The turning of the Earth moving us ever onwards. That night I photographed the stars and was aware more than ever of the passage of time. In the star trails you can see time passing by, the curve of the star paths overhead. Strange how we see the linearity of time in the curve of space. Looking out into space you can’t help but wonder if are we alone? It grew cold, the warmth of the day failing faster than a broken promise. I walked home to warmth and my growing children, and wondered where all the time had gone.


The sun is low and pink clouds lie scattered across the sky. Artfully arranged throw cushions, curtains of light, the signature furniture of an ending day. But this display does not last, the earth turns and within minutes the light has failed and colour is being stripped from the world. Only the highest clouds hold their colour, for a few moments more, for the last minutes of the day. As the light fails we enter a world of texture and edge. Where white and black and the eight zones between are all the information we have. In the end even this will be stripped back to just a few tones and little else, but for now, there is more to help guide me home.

It is a time that is not really night and not really day, dusk, a time for change. It’s time for the day workers to pack up their gear and head for home. The night shift, with furtive rustles and twitching whiskers makes ready for the long hours ahead. As I walk away from the bright lights of the office into the darkness of a growing evening I join the day shift on its journey home. Me to warmth, food and maybe a glass of wine - them to colder places, where the long winter nights will stretch out before them and morning will be slow in coming.

Birds call and gather in sheltered places, the calls reaffirming that they are still alive and the shelter offering a better chance of meeting the next day. Sparrows gather up the platform scraps and flirt with death on the rail lines. The high energy commuter snacks will build up fat in bird and man, helping the bird through the cold foodless night and maybe doing less good to the commuter. As the night passes the bird will burn off the fat for energy and warmth and it will meet the next day lighter, thinner but alive. In the long chill nights of a northern winter, some birds can shed almost 30% of their body weight.

On the platform the commuters are less busy, trapped in the hurry up and wait of public transport. Rushing for a train that will probably be late, but may not be. It’s never late on the days you are delayed! On rainy nights the windows cloud and fog, but never as completely as the winter night buses home from Wells or Bath where passenger navigation was more Zen than science. Most workers gather in small groups and maybe talk; late travelling students gather in noisier groups, pushing back their own darkness with shared jokes, illicit cigarettes and shared music. I never thought Melbourne had cold winters until I travelled by public transport.

The walk home is better than the train ride, if longer. The low angle of the sun sheds a new light on buildings and trees, colours can glow for a while. But what caused me the most surprise on winter evenings was the noise. A little over halfway home and already thinking about a cup of tea was a parrot roost. Hundreds of Rainbow Lorikeets would gather in the plane trees of a Surrey Hills junction. Even from a hundred yards away you could hear the stunning collection of noises these birds produced. And from all directions smaller groups would join in, calling as they arrived. The leaves of the plane trees are large, robust and seem to hang on to their tree with remarkable persistence. The birds gathered, sheltered, within the leaves for about a month, until at last the leaves were gone. The leaf fall was the final abscission of last summer’s warmth, and the parrots went elsewhere. Magpies and Currawongs call from tree tops and lamp posts, and as I walk past the glowing railway stations the alarm call of Blackbirds fill the air. A cat or possum or even an urban owl stirring up trouble.

Possums dash along street wires and crash noisily into bushes, nimble Ring Tailed and lumbering, but surprisingly fast Brush Tailed. The wires are marsupial motorways, possum freeways, between trees, houses and rose bushes primed with buds. Sometimes you see the young possums clinging to their mothers’ backs, hitching a ride. The wires offer no food and little interest, but they can move the possums at remarkable speed, with their acrobatic footsteps and swinging tails. If disturbed they pause to look down before dashing wildly away, forsaking any semblance of grace for speed. Possums are not renowned for their intelligence, and some go a step too far on the power lines, and light up for a moment - their final moment as a form of incandescent lamp! One Ring Tail did this just down the road from us and lost his head - literally. Close inspection with binoculars seemed to show a hole where its head should be - I can only assume that its demise was rapid! What is more remarkable was that it was still hung by the last few cm’s of its tail, swinging in the wind like some form of South African air dried meat snack. These ill-fated animals can linger on the power lines for weeks on end. At Point Lonsdale I have seem one last more than a year. Air dried indeed!

By day the bats also hang around - formerly in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, but now in riverside trees along the Yarra a little further north. By day they hang and sleep and squabble. By night they fly out in search of food in groups of twos and threes. Large Fruit bats - Grey Headed Flying Foxes - with a wingspan approaching a meter in length flap on leathered wings over the suburbs and land in trees with fruit or flowers. The flapping of the wings sounds like the flap of a beach towel being shaken free of sand, a long sound in the darkness. They talk to each other in short sharp clicks and squeaks and raise to flight in protest if approached. In a torch beam they look strange and ill adapted as they crawl over branches and up the trunks of trees, the finger wings flapping like poorly tailored clothes. I think it takes a real enthusiast to find them attractive.

If the distances are not too long, walking is preferable to waiting as a means of transport. And I pass the final train station on my way home - its light look warm and inviting, but I know this to be a lie. Train stations seem through some miracle of architecture to always be hotter or colder than the places around them. They defy some law of nature and in the winter are bitter and draughty places. The light from my own home does promise warmth and comfort, but I am struck by a thought as I push open the door.

I have walked home in the dark and have loved to see the wonder of it - but now I have to wonder about something else. Where is the man in his 50’s who tunelessly strums a toy guitar outside the Vic Roads office hoping for loose change or the man who sells The Big Issue outside The Body Shop. Do they share my wonder at the coming of the night? I somehow doubt it. For all the wonder it can bring it really must be the darkest time of the day for these people. And as I close the door and meet the kids, I wonder how they are doing.