Stories Activism Save Southern Sea Country

Save Southern Sea Country

The ocean between Tasmania and Victoria, stretching west, is under threat from the offshore oil and gas industry. The communities dotted along those coasts are banding together to protect it.
The oil and gas industry are aggressively expanding across Southern Sea Country. Photo Jarrah Lynch

The oil and gas industry are aggressively expanding across Southern Sea Country. Photo Jarrah Lynch

It’s a rugged old winter’s day on the southern edge of the continent. There’s a wild wind blowing strong. It’s travelled a long way — from the far flung reaches of Antarctica, that remarkable glacial landscape of eternal ice, and across the deep blue waters of the great Southern Ocean. It’s ruffled the salty feathers of a huddle of Adelie penguins, shivered the great barnacled tail of a solitary humpback whale. Off the west coast of lutruwita the wind slowed a little, gently tracing the flight path of a pair of shy albatross. Then it picked right up and roared north across the strait, flying off the back of a screaming southerly swell and eventually colliding with the great salty kelp beds and ancient limestone cliffs of Keerray Woorroong Country. You can feel a change coming — something’s shifting in the air.

There’s a house set just back from the clifftop, tucked in behind the loops and curves of the Great Ocean Road. The southerly drops down a bit and you can hear the sounds of laughter and some seriously animated conversation floating through the open door.

“Just look at it! This coast is like nothing else on earth. It’s so special.” Belinda Baggs — global longboarding style icon, Patagonia surfing ambassador and ocean advocate with Surfers For Climate — stands on the deck and stares out to sea. She’s travelled a couple of hours south from her home on Wadawurrung Country to attend a very special meeting of campaigners and change makers. They’ve come from all over — from the far west of the state and across the Strait, from the big city lights of Naarm/Melbourne and just around the corner in the sweet coastal village of Port Campbell.

It’s a fine and diverse collection of brilliant, committed and passionate folk, young and old, united by their great love for the ocean. There’s representatives from grassroots organisations like OCEAN — the Otways climate network — and bigger organisations like Surfers For Climate, Surfrider Foundation, and The Wilderness Society along with local surfers and beach lovers.

Grassroots environmental groups and concerned locals recently gathered to share their concerns as one of the most pristine coastlines in the country is industrialised by the fossil fuel industry. Photo Ula Majewski

They’ve come together because the great Southern Ocean and its coastlines — these unique ecological and cultural wonderlands — are in danger. Massive, polluting, industrial gas drilling operations and what may well be the largest and most catastrophic seismic blasting project on earth are threatening to destroy these special and profoundly important saltwater places.

There’s a Victorian election on the way — which opens up critical opportunities to escalate the campaign and advocate for all sides of politics to make the right choices for our climate, local community and iconic marine environments. This diverse crew of campaigners have some bright ideas and compelling solutions to this crisis — and so they’re meeting to get organised and cook up a smart and practical action plan.

Yaraan Bundle is a whale dreaming custodian, a proud Gunditjmara, Yuin and Bidjara woman who is taking a stand against gas, the hazardous seismic surveying and industrial drilling projects that are threatening her family’s ancient sea Country. “Our Country is alive,” says Yaraan. “Our ocean is a living ancient ancestor and so are the whales, our sea Country kin. Our Country is backing us. Mother Earth is communicating, backing us First Peoples to do what’s right to protect Country. Our fight is not only for our sacred Country and our next generations. It’s for everybody — it’s for the future of the planet.”

“Any natural resource extraction corporation or organisation are the pirates of our future,” says Vicki Couzens, Senior Gunditjmara Elder and Yaraan’s mum. “These are the bad guys and must be stopped.”

The great Southern Ocean connects us. We are coastal people — surfers and fishers, clifftop wanderers and beachcombers, cold water swimmers and rockpool ramblers. We love the great outdoors. We live, work and play on the beautiful sea Countries — including Ngarrindjeri, Buandig, Gunditjmara, Keerray Wooroong, Gadubanud, Waddawurrung and Peerapper waters — of First Nations people right across the south.

We all come from different backgrounds and we think in different ways, but the ocean brings us together. Our daily lives are woven into the rhythm of the winds, swells and tides. We are people who care — we have a responsibility to look after the places we love. Our Southern Ocean is a beautiful and unique ecosystem that is a strong-hold for an extraordinary diversity of marine life and a wonderful array of species, like southern bluefin tuna, dolphins, leafy sea dragons and the very foundation of our southern food webs — Antarctic krill. It’s home to an ancient whale nursery and breeding ground and one of five known recorded wuulok/blue whale feeding ground sites in the Southern Hemisphere, and also forms a key part of the great migratory routes of the koontapool/southern right whale, orca and humpback whale.

“The Southern Ocean, and the waters that hit Tasmania and mainland Australia have circled the planet,” says Annie Ford, a scientist based in Lutruwita/Tasmania who specialises in marine and Antarctic sciences. “It’s the only stretch of ocean on the planet that isn’t touched by land as it circumnavigates the world, and then it rolls through our southern coastline. So few people understand that we have a Great Southern Reef — like we have a Great Barrier Reef off our north-east coast. This reef is just as abundant in life, it’s just as full of endemic species.”

The ancient coastlines of the south, all connected by the rolling swells and the deep blues and greens of the Southern Ocean, are like nowhere else on earth. “The west coast of Tassie is this pristine, wild and rugged environment,” says Ally King, marine advocate and President of Surfrider Foundation Tasmania. “Down here, we’ve got the cleanest air, the cleanest water and just so much wildlife. I don’t know many places in the world where you can get in a rockpool, pull out some abalone and some crayfish, cook that up on the beach and have dinner with your friends and family,”

Our amazing extended southern backyard — with its world-class waves, rugged cliff tops and sweet sandy beaches — gives us big salty grins and brings us hope, even in the toughest of times. It supports local families and businesses — our tourism and fishing sectors depend on a thriving marine environment. It’s also globally recognised as one of the most spectacular regions on the planet. Millions of people come from far and wide to visit the wild coastlines of Lutruwita, drive down the iconic Great Ocean Road, paddle out at Djarruk/Bells Beach, and feel their eyes turn into dinner plates from too much wonder.

Most importantly, it gives us life. “The Southern Ocean is one of our biggest oxygen producing zones,” says Belinda Baggs. “It’s essential for the planet and our species to survive. It also gives us, as surfers, the ultimate invigorating experiences.”

Linley Hurrell, coldwater shredder and Surfers For Climate’s Otway Gas Campaign Manager agrees. “It’s an experience you’d never have anywhere else. You’re surfing in solitude. You’re surfing amongst ancient cliffs and heavy water. It’s one of the most remote parts of the world. Often there’s literally nothing between you and Antarctica. There’s just all that energy. It’s shaped the entire southern coastline of the continent. It’s rogue, it’s beautiful, it’s rugged and it’s all of that in one go.”

Stretching from Bass Strait to the South Australian border, Southern Sea Country features some of the most iconic and unspoiled coastline anywhere in Australia. Photo Zoe Strapp

But right now, the great sea Countries of the south are under threat from dangerous industrial extraction projects on an enormous scale. “The biggest threat to our southern oceans is massive gas expansion,” says Belinda. Gas is a dangerous fossil fuel that threatens our climate and community. The science is abundantly clear — there can be no new gas, coal or oil developments if we have a chance of restoring a safe climate.

“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency and one of the world’s leading energy economists, stated, way back in May last year. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary general, agrees: "New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional."

We know that we urgently need to stop polluting our world with dirty coal and gas and supercharge a just transition to a clean energy future powered by the sun, the wind and other forms of renewable energy. But despite promises to take real and urgent action on climate, the Victorian state government and the Albanese government have chosen to support dangerous new offshore gas exploration and drilling projects in the south. Big Gas has already been given the green light to conduct industrial drilling operations just off the Great Ocean Road, next door to the globally renowned Twelve Apostles. Both governments are backing big dirty gas corporations — like Beach, Cooper and ConocoPhillips — and huge tech companies like TGS and Schlumberger, who are hellbent on turning the great Southern Ocean into the great southern industrial gas zone. More than 31,000 square kilometres of pristine southern sea Country in the Otway Basin has been handed over to the oil and gas giants to explore for new drilling sites in the past two years alone.

Gas exploration means seismic surveying. Explosive shock waves — measuring over 250 decibels or twice as loud as the sound of a jet plane taking off — erupt into the ocean every few seconds, for 24 hours a day and potentially months on end. Mega corporations Schlumberger and TGS are planning to conduct what may just be the largest seismic survey for oil and gas in history, covering more than 90,000 square km of seabed — an area larger than lutruwita/Tasmania — and lasting for over five years.

“Unfortunately, sound travels really fast and really far underwater,” explains scientist Annie Ford, who has also previously worked on seismic vessels as an expert Marine Fauna Observer. “It doesn’t attenuate over long distances, so it doesn’t only impact the seabed beneath the seismic airgun but it radiates throughout the ocean.”

“We’re learning that the impacts of seismic surveying are far-reaching. They’re displacing, they’re damaging and they are killing marine species that are in the vicinity. For example, recent research was conducted on scallops, which the fishing industry pushed for after witnessing a mass die-off event. The scallops were found to have a dose-dependent mortality associated with exposure — basically, the more seismic scallops were exposed to, the more were found to die. This resulted in enormous die-back throughout significant areas of Bass Strait, and millions of dollars lost. There’s also been huge reductions in flathead and whiting catches throughout the same area off Lakes Entrance. What’s more, these are only the commercially valuable species — there’s been no research conducted into the ecologically valuable species in the same area, and the interconnectedness of these impacts.”

The impacts of seismic blasting at the scale proposed by TGS and Schlumberger are terrifying. “Our ancient culture should be held in high regard by Australia and the rest of the world,” says Yaraan Bundle. “Our ancient knowledge systems support, nurture, and respect life. Our ocean — the breathing blue lungs of our planet must be protected. Companies like Schlumberger are completely disregarding us as the custodians caring for the future of our Country. It’s been scientifically proven that seismic blasting directly affects all cetaceans and sea mammals. So when we’re talking about the whale song line and the whale dreaming, this directly affects our kinship relationship to our sea Country kin. They’re our ancient family.”

“Future generations must have the human right to exist without psychological and environmentally-caused trauma,” says Robert Bundle, Yaraan’s dad and Senior Yuin Elder and Songman.

Down south in Lutruwita, Ally talks about the impacts that these dangerous surveys will have on local communities. “A lot of our little coastal towns have been built on local, small-scale fisheries that have supported families for generations. The limited science we’ve got is telling us that seismic surveying directly harms creatures like the southern rock lobster, and those impacts will flow across to the fishers and their local communities. For example, the King Island rock lobster industry brings in $22 million annually. We’re talking about a population of two thousand people and so that’s a huge contributor to the local economy — it keeps the whole island going.”

But local opposition to TGS and Schlumberger’s disastrous proposal is escalating right across the south, with critical concerns being voiced by fishers, tourism operators and thousands of local community members. Victorian councils in the Colac Otway and Surf Coast shires have officially passed motions to oppose seismic surveying in the region. Colac Otway Mayor Kate Hanson stated, “Numerous scientific studies show that seismic testing interferes with marine life, including plankton and rock lobsters. The fishing industry is vital to the Colac Otway community and economy, particularly supporting families and jobs in the Apollo Bay region.”

Ally King echoes these concerns. “People down here are angry and they’re upset. They don’t want our marine ecosystem harmed and they don’t want our beautiful coast turned into a gas field. On top of that, they feel like they’re just getting played by these huge oil and gas companies. The community feels like they’re getting pushed around.

“We don’t have confidence in NOPSEMA [the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority] and in the regulatory process,” says Ally. “We don’t have confidence in the politicians to look after our best interests. It’s really sad to see the government selling out our small coastal communities to big multinational corporations.”

Patagonia Global Surf Activist, Belinda Baggs, is not only leading the fight against offshore oil and gas development but advocating for positive climate action. Photo Zoe Strapp

“We need to just stop new oil and gas,” says Belinda Baggs. “Let’s invest in the smart technology that’s already there and give us all a chance to get beyond fossil fuels. We’re working towards a future where these small coastal surfing communities can take advantage of this renewable energy boom and have longevity in jobs that will provide for their families, far into the future.”

It’s time to kick big oil and gas corporations, and their dangerous industrial projects, right out of the Southern Ocean. The Victorian state election is on its way. It’s a powerful opportunity to push for positive change and encourage candidates and parties from all sides of politics to make the right choices for our climate, community and precious marine environments.

You can sign petitions opposing new offshore gas in the Southern Sea Country here and here. You can stand in solidarity with First Nations to protect Gunditjmara Sea Country here.

More Stories

Some Favourites

Related Stories