© Max Merckenschlager, 2011

Winner, 2011 ‘Poets by the Sea’, Harrington, NSW.

Whaling was SA’s first important industry. It was critical to the state’s early economic survival and growth, with Encounter Bay the focus of activities. In 21st Century SA, whales are still important to the economy, but in a more sustainable and environmentally-acceptable way.

The air was drunk and heavy as it idled round the Bay,
where whalers lounged and chatted on a warm September day.
Like dancing flames, the sunlight played on seas of polished glass
and frowning Look-Out spied the coast for spouting fish to pass.
A shout rang from the blacks’ camp stirring whalers in the shed,
as yonder whiff was hoisted high above Rosetta Head.

In rush to launch their wooden crafts, the headsman made it first;
he tested kegs of water lashed to slake their toiling thirst.
And cookie puffed with scranbags that he’d packed to give each crew,
with salted pork and jerky beef the hungry hands could chew.
The boats upon the rollers creaked as extras pushed them down
and every black was whooping in their camp outside of town!

They met each line of breakers, plunging onward for the deep,
the helmsmen carving furrows with a circle of the sweep.
And muscles locked in tension from the straining tug of oars,
on track for interception when they crossed Encounter’s shores.
A flagger waved to guide them out – they heard his distant shout;
below the boats’ horizon, hidden whales began to spout.

For lolling down the coastline came a lazy pod of five,
their graceful flukes suspended in each convoluted dive.
A mother nudged the newborn calf that nestled by her teat;
their world was finely balanced and maternity was sweet.
But then within her vision flashed a panic-stirring sign;
the leading boat was bearing down, with death upon its line.

They broke for open water to escape the jagged spears,
as sweating whalers cursing oaths confirmed their darkest fears.
The cow had started strongly, leaving daylight in her wake,
but separating from her son was risk she wouldn’t take.
So quickly now, a harpoon struck with cruel and sickening thud;
her precious child lay wallowing in crimson waves of blood.

The whalers call it instinct, but perhaps a higher drive
prevented her from swimming off, ensuring she’d survive.
By lingering in loyalty she chose to share his fate;
the tryworks at Encounter and Balaena had a date.
As bloodied dusk descended on the weary crews’ return,
her carcass rolled ignobly behind the leader’s stern.

Those whaling days are history; museums hold their lore.
Yet through the breakers peering still are lookouts on the shore.
They tune their car transistors in and scope with optics fine,
in flukish hope of sighting whales that frolic down the line.
And fingers press on triggers that will shoot the wondrous prey
they’ll store as album memories – Encounters in the Bay.

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