It’s whale migration season as I write this – one of my favourite times of year. I live in a pretty good whale-spotting town on the NSW South Coast so I’m always assured I’ll see humpbacks putting on a show as they cruise north to have bubs. I get a bit anxious too though, because it’s also the time of year whales in distress often turn up on the news. Like on June 19 when two poor humpbacks became entangled in shark nets just off Main Beach on the Gold Coast.
A local tradie named Scott Clarke, who was working across the road from the beach, was the first to raise the alarm.
“We just seen the whales splashing around out in close shore next to the nets and looked like they were tangled up!” Mr Clark told the ABC, making sure to use the past tense ‘seen’ instead of ‘saw’ to indicate he had witnessed the event.
Fortunately the whales – an adult and a calf – were freed by Fisheries officers and a team of marine experts before swimming away apparently unscathed.
Like most people, I was stoked the whales didn’t drown while snared in human detritus. My greatest relief though, was that the magnificent mammals made it safely back out to sea before some clown in the media deemed it necessary to slap them with silly nicknames.
It is one of the things I most despise about the mainstream media; “What’s that? A humpback is in trouble? And humans trying to help it out? Quick! Call ORCA – then give the poor bastard a stupid nickname.”
It’s been going on far too long. Here are just a few humpbacks you might be familiar with thanks to the media:
Migaloo: A rare albino leviathan that has been cruising Australia’s east coast for years. Migaloo is an indigenous word meaning ‘white fella’. And I guarantee a white fella came up with the name MJ (for Migaloo Jr): Possibly, but not confirmed, the offspring of the abovementioned humpback. Strangely, this baby albino’s skin tone is similar to that another famous MJ – Michael Jackson
Colin/Colleen: Another infant of the species, Colin was originally named by some twit reporter at the Daily Telegraph after it was discovered trying to suckle a yacht in Sydney’s Pittwater. Three days after banging on and on about little Colin, experts quietly informed the press it was in fact a female. Suddenly it was renamed ‘Colleen’. Then it died. So did the story
Blade Runner : This unfor tunate humpback was cavorting in waters off Sydney when a ship ran over it. A propeller chewed through its blubber from head to tail leaving a scar that looked like a giant zipper.
Now, we’ve all seen enough National Geographic docos to know whales use high-pitched echolocation, sonar-like squeaks and songs to communicate. Reason tells us a typical whale name translated would probably read something like ‘Wooooiiiii’. That’s too bad, because somewhere out there in the Pacific Ocean right now the mighty and revered Haaaaaeeeiiii – a fabled warrior among his kind – is swimming about saddled with the thoroughly shitful nickname ‘Blade Runner’.
How do we know Blade Runner doesn’t translate to ‘Dumb Arse’ or ‘Rotting Porpoise’ in humpbackese? It happens! Many years ago I worked with a photographer in Hong Kong named Mark Round. Word around the office was his name translated into ‘Squid Balls’ in Cantonese.
All of this raises another question. Why don’t we name all creatures of the deep that are involved in notable news events? When whales and dolphins – ie mammals – fuck up, they get a nickname. But how many times have you read about a shark attack only to have the individual in question offhandedly referred to as ‘a three-metre bronze whaler’ or a ‘juvenile great white’?
Since the media loves a narrative replete with good guys (whales and dolphins) and bad guys (sharks), how about bestowing a name to fit with the script next time there’s a shark attack? As both a keen surfer and an erstwhile member of the fourth estate, I’d be perfectly happy with the following appearing in my local paper:
Surf Life Saving authorities have issued a warning to swimmers in the Illawarra after South Coast father of three Craig Henderson was killed by a shark late yesterday.
Shocked witnesses described how Robbo – a 3.5-metre great white – knocked Mr Henderson off his surfboard 50m from shore at North Narrawallee Beach about 5pm.
“Hendo was paddling for a wave when Robbo swam straight up and bit him in half!” said one shaken witness.
Or why not get creative and give the next shark in the news a bad-arse name to enrich the narrative?
‘Fisheries officers have called off efforts to locate killer bull shark Eddie the Ripper who mauled a swimmer to death yesterday.’ It’ll never happen of course. But as sure as there are plenty of fish in the sea, you can bet the media has a cutesy name ready to go the next time a hapless humpback comes to town.