EACH weekend last winter, Lisa Schonberg and Alia, her 10-year-old daughter, packed their cameras, their balaclavas and a full set of thermals and set off to join the tourists on the whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island.
While the tourists watched from the relative comfort of the cabin, Lisa and Alia were outside, eyes fixed on the water ahead for the blow of a whale or the tail slap. “You can miss it in a second, then the whale can dive and you’ve lost it,” Schonberg said.
Once, while trying to get shots of a dolphin surfing the bow of the ship, she leaned out so far she nearly fell overboard into the freezing waters. “It’s difficult because the floor’s wet and you’re trying to keep the camera dry. The boat’s going so fast and so is the dolphin. The camera must be on high speed and a continuous setting.”
If they didn’t spot a whale on the four-hour trip, they stayed on the boat for the seal tour (Wildlife Coast Cruises introduced season tickets at their request), making six hours in near-freezing conditions, waiting for that perfect shot.
Schonberg works in community health, but her passion is photographing the whales and dolphins of Western Port. With the state government planning to make Hastings a major container port, capable of handling the world's biggest cargo ships, it’s also become her mission.
Having seen some 200 whales in the past five winters, she wants the politicians, bureaucrats and scientists to understand that the bay is a vital part of the whale migratory path.
The difficulty is in getting people to take an interest. Even many Phillip Islanders remain oblivious to the potential impact of a major shipping channel just a few hundred metres from their coast and beaches.
Schonberg, who lives at Cowes, has loved the ocean for as long as she can remember. When she was a kid, her family holidayed at Wilson Prom each summer. Her parents built a holiday house on Phillip Island when she was 17, and she joined the Woolamai Beach Surf Life Saving Club and did patrols on weekends. “I was studying at university and I would jam my subjects into three days so I could spend more time on the island. I just loved the water.”
As a child, she was fascinated by whales and sharks. She remembers her class writing to the Japanese government to stop whaling. “It was always my dream to see a whale as they were nearly extinct in the 1970s.”
But her first serious encounter with Phillip Island’s marine life could well have been her last. In her late teens, she was behind the Woolamai Beach breakers on a rescue board when she noticed a large dark shadow underneath her. It was so big, she thought at first it was a reef, then looked up to check whether it was the shadow of a cloud or plane. Then, to her horror, she recognised the shape and size of a shark.
“I realised it was much larger than my board and was moving with me. I took the first wave in and didn’t venture out the back for a few years. This was the great white shark – about six metres – that Vic Hislop caught in the 1980s.”
She stayed close to shore for a few years but she never gave up her fascination with the sea. Late one afternoon in July 2001, when she lived at Ventnor, she was sitting on her balcony looking out for whales when she spotted a small aluminium dinghy being swept out with a fast tide. She noticed two figures clinging to a shipping buoy. She contacted her neighbour Doug Stewart then called Triple-0 and helped co-ordinate the location. With night falling, the water police rescued two very cold and frightened city fishermen. The temperature was just four degrees, with a vicious wind chill, and police say it’s unlikely the two young men would have lasted much longer.
“They were very lucky to survive as we were the only two permanent residents in those days,” Schonberg says.
It was not the first time she had saved someone’s life. Several years earlier, she used CPR to revive a young girl who had drowned at Crown Towers in Surfers Paradise. Remarkably, the girl made a full recovery.
These days, Schonberg is accompanied by her daughter on all her marine adventures, including Queensland whale trips in a Zodiac. Alia has also swum with dolphins in Port Phillip Bay and enjoys underwater photography. Their favourite spot is close to home: McHaffies Reef at Grossard Point, Ventnor. It’s great for whale spotting, because you can see through to French Island and south to the Nobbies.
It’s also the closest point to the shipping channel, which, if the port development goes ahead, will handle 25,000 containers a day, more than are handled in the whole of Australia at present. It will also necessitate major dredging to accommodate the bigger cargo ships that now ply the world.
Schonberg laments the new threat to the bay just as an older threat has diminished. “Ten years ago you couldn’t see McHaffies reef under water. But Western Port is so clear the last few years as the Koo Wee Rup swamp run off has finally been managed and more sea grass has returned.”
Tomorrow night, when the CEO of the Port of Hastings Development Authority, Mike Lean, addresses the Phillip Island Conservation Society at a public meeting in Cowes, Lisa and Alia will be in the audience. After their years of documenting the whales and dolphins and sharks in the waters around Phillip Island, they’ll be asking a few searching questions.
“The adventure continues and the fight is now in full swing,” Schonberg says. “I’m so glad we started taking photos five years ago. We’ve got so much evidence of what’s actually in the bay.”