THIS week we took a whale search cruise around Phillip Island. It’s early in the whale migration season and already the crew of Wildlife Coast Cruises have sighted 60 humpback whales heading for the warm waters of Queensland. These numbers are good, they say, and let us know the numbers of humpback whales are increasing every year.
For the last two seasons, I’ve been receiving text messages letting me know when and where whales have been sighted off the Island. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that they’re there and that, even with so much out of balance in the world, these magnificent creatures are holding to the steady rhythm of their migration cycle.
Today, though, I had a more direct experience of the whales. For almost an hour, four humpback whales played next to our boat, surging through the water, breaching and diving with their powerful tails lifting in the air. They too were heading east and were playing with each other along the way. They looked so full of the joy of life, it was impossible not to feel the same. (Watch Terry Melvin’s video of the humpback whales.)
I am deep in the whale zone at the moment. A few months ago, I was asked to design an intercultural arts program for the upcoming Island Whale Festival. With the help of a Bass Coast Community Grant, Destination Phillip Island, the Gippsland Singers Network and Community Music Victoria (thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you), we will be bringing together musicians and artists from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds who have been working together for many years in intercultural arts projects. Members of this community collaborate across cultures and art forms at festivals, conferences, schools and in an international cultural exchange between Australia and Canada.
Participants in this year’s festival include locally based and internationally known musician Uncle Kutcha Edwards (who has a heart the size of a mountain), whale songman Uncle Bunna Lawrie, legendary gumleaf player Uncle Herb Patten, Boon Wurrung elder and linguist Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir, traditional custodian, artist and ceremony man Steve Parker, Trawlwoolway artist and author Lisa Kennedy, percussion leader Steve Schulz, much loved singing leader Ruth McKittrick Chambers and other wonderful local artists and musicians.
The intercultural arts component will include a ceremony to bless the whales as well as story telling, community singing in Boon Wurrung language, whale soundscapes, drumming circles and Deep Listening circles. Local artist Camille Monet will facilitate the creation of a community-led whale migration mural using recycled materials and featuring whale artworks from Aboriginal men from the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Centre in South Gippsland.
Last year’s inaugural Festival attracted 3000 people. This year organisers are expecting 5000. By Sunday afternoon, the mural could be very long indeed.
For the last few days I have been bringing together a whale song cycle in preparation for the festival. In my song-writing, I work with elders and linguists from different regions and, following the local protocols, incorporate Aboriginal languages into songs. I write songs that are easy to learn so people can have the experience of singing the local languages and so the Country can have the experience of hearing these ancient languages being sung again.
On Boon Wurrung Country, I work with elder, linguist and author Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir. A few months ago, Aunty Fay shared with me the word for “whale” in the local language and with her permission I can share it here. The Boon Wurrung word is “Betayil”. It is a songwriter’s dream, rhyming as it does with the word “tail”. I knew that when I made the time and space, there would be some songs waiting. The new songs arrived this week and last night I sent off the whale song cycle to Aunty Fay to check that I had used the language she had gifted me accurately and to seek her permission to use the language in this form.
This morning, her email came back with her blessing and so today from the back of our boat, I sang to the whales some lines from the new songs. They’re still very fresh and it always takes a while for new songs to grow into themselves, but the whales have heard them now and so they are out there. They heard:
Sliding through the water With your powerful tail’
And from another song:
‘Tooroong Marnang Baany Dancing with the heart Dancing with the beat
Dancing with the heartbeat of the sea.’
I hope the whales liked them. If you have the chance to come to the Island Whale Festival this year, and I hope you do, you might get to hear them too and perhaps even join us in singing them together. It will be just one of many experiences on offer and it would be great to see you there.
Intercultural Arts Program, Cowes Cultural Centre
Friday July 6
10-10.30am Smoking ceremony
11am-12pm Blessing of the whales ceremony
2.30-4pm Songs of country and connection
Saturday July 7
10-11.30am Drumming circle and whale soundscapes
1-2.30pm Songs of country and connection
3-4.30pm Story-telling and deep listening circle 3
Sunday July 8
10-11.30am Drumming circle and whale soundscapes
2-3.30pm Story-telling and deep listening circle 2
Friday July 6 to Sunday July 8
10am-4pm Whale migration mural activity