Bob Brown: why I’m leading the Sea Shepherd to the Kimberley


by former Greens leader Bob Brown

James Price Point, on the Kimberley coast, has been in the news because Woodside — with a who’s-who of other drillers including BP, BHP Billiton, Shell, Mitsubishi, and Chevron — is set to build the world’s biggest gas factory there. But this ancient region has another story to tell.

It’s a stunning ochre-red headland located north of Broome, and culturally known as Walmadan. It’s an important area on the indigenous songcycle belonging to the law and culture of Goolarabooloo people, known as the Northern Tradition of Law. Since Bugarregarre, or the Dreamtime, their ancestors have walked and lived in this country.


One of the creator ancestor beings called Marala (Emu Man) walked this country bringing law and rules of behaviour for the people. We can follow his footprints along the coast. Marala also shows his silhouette inside the dark of the Milky Way (Iiwara). His head is located on the side of the Southern Cross known as Guwaraaara ba jina (the foot of the eagle).

Located within the Northern Tradition songcycle there are three emanation sites (songcycle birth places) travelling from this Sundown Coast and crossing the continent, two of which go through Uluru to the Sunrise Coast. Any damage done to the songcycle of the Northern Tradition will affect the entire songcycle system in Australia. That is why it is extremely important to protect the integrity of the Goolarabooloo’s songcycle.

The late Paddy Roe OAM, senior Goolarabooloo lawkeeper, opened up his country to everyone to share his culture and knowledge, establishing the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. For 25 years, thousands of people have walked the trail. It is a unique practical example of reconciliation. Pat Vinnicombe, an anthropologist working for the Department of Aboriginal sites, was given information by Paddy Roe about Marala’s footprints and when she compared the information to that of the paelentological dinosaur tracks they realised they were talking about the same locations.

The same footprints have become a global sensation in Western scientific circles. Since their “discovery” by Girl Guides in 1935, palaentologists have identified the tracks as belonging to dinosaurs which foraged in swamps here 130 million years ago. This is the only place on Earth where dinosaur tracks are the source of indigenous ancestral belief.

Recent studies identify many species of dinosaurs that foraged in this area, then swamplands, so long ago. The biggest footpads, 1.4 metres across, supported reptiles more than 30 metres long.

The only larger species to ever move on the planet are today’s great whales. In a remarkable conjunction, the Kimberley coastline is also the host of the world’s biggest humpback whale nursery, the so-called Group IV humpback population.

Experts think that up to 13,000 (or one third) of the world’s humpback population are off the Kimberley coastline, including James Price Point, right now. Many will give birth to calves before they migrate south again to Antarctica for the summer.

But 2012 may be the last peaceful season in this ancient nursery. If Woodside’s board seeks the final go-ahead from Canberra next year, and gets it, work will proceed in earnest on the gas factory and its port infrastructure on land and in the sea.

James Price Point is shaping up as another Franklin dam: a furore over natural and cultural heritage threatened by political hubris and, in return, corporate disaster. Just as the Franklin dam brought the downfall of Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission in 1983, so the Kimberley gas factory could bring about Woodside’s implosion in 2013.

The $45 billion project is planned to process $200 billion worth of gas which would be piped from beneath the sea in what geologists call the Browse Basin, 425 kilometres off the Kimberley coast. The gas would be shipped to Asia.

The Goolarabooloo people, traditional owners of the James Price Point (Walmadan) coastline, oppose Woodside’s project. However, the Kimberley Land Council, in a split vote, endorsed it after Woodside committed to paying the council $1.3 billion over 30 years.

James Price Point will become a transmogrified industrial precinct fed by a new highway from Broome. Hundreds of tanker ships will take the processed gas to China, Japan and elsewhere.

I revisited Broome in April and left convinced that if all Australians got to know about the destructive capacity of the gas factory, the resultant outcry would stop it going ahead. I have long admired the courage of Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson and his crews who have intervened on Japan’s illegal slaughter of whales in Australia’s Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. Sea Shepherd has been backed by strong anti-whaling sentiment across this nation.

Now that the same humpback whales’ nursery is being threatened within Australia’s own continental waters, it is natural that Sea Shepherd, with the invitation of the Goolarabooloo “Law Bosses”, is sending the SS Steve Irwin — a ship familiar to Australians for its anti-whaling activities in Antarctic waters — to draw attention to the whales’ plight.

Watson, who was arrested in Germany in May over allegations stemming from a high seas confrontation involving a Costa Rican vessel, has now reportedly left Germany. I suspect the powerful reach of Tokyo in the allegations as there is nothing the marauding Japanese whaling fleet would like better than to keep him out of the way. With Watson away, I have taken up the role of mission leader to the Kimberley.

The Steve Irwin left Melbourne on Sunday, bound for the Kimberley coast where a win-win outcome should be on the cards. I will join it in Broome on August 6 for a fortnight-long mission in the waters around James Price Point. We’re hoping to have some high-profile visitors and whale experts aboard.

Woodside could drop the gas factory venture. Or it could simply direct its pipeline further down the coast to the Pilbara where it already processes gas. Some analysts say this option is actually cheaper. Or it could process the gas out at sea as it insists it will do with its similar project off Timor-Leste.

I suspect Woodside is considering all the options; some of its venture partners are public-minded thinkers who want the factory moved. If it is moved, Woodside should ensure that the Kimberley’s traditional owners get the same dividend.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, who sees James Price Point as key to  industrialising the Kimberley, so that coal, uranium and other resources can be exploited in the Australian Heritage-listed hinterland, is every bit as gung-ho about the gas factory as Tasmania’s “whispering bulldozer” Premier Robin Gray was when he sent the bulldozers into the Franklin Valley in 1982.

In our robust democracy, the Kimberley’s future rests in national public opinion as Gray, to his dismay, found out about the Franklin River wilderness three decades ago.

Sea Shepherd aims to have the whales of the Kimberley heard across Australia, and we have invited every one of the 216 MPs in Canberra to come to Broome in August to see why this wealthy nation can, and should, keep the whale nursery, the dinosaur tracks and the traditional owners’ songcycles intact. Woodside, unlike the whales, can flourish somewhere else.