This is the Second of a Three-part Field Report on the Shark Cull in Western Australia
PART TWO: VAGABONDING
While I prefer to travel light and plan little, I do think it’s a good idea to arrange at least one night of lodging to rest up after a transcontinental flight. Stepping off the bus in Perth, my traveling companion and I soon realized that we had booked a room in Fremantle and would need to take a train from Perth to get there. Fortunately the train station was only a block away, so we walked to it and hopped aboard. This particular train was nothing like the New York City subway; my first observation was that it was impeccably clean and unusually social. While New Yorkers are famous for their ability to avoid eye contact in crowded public transportation, as if it were a half-hour elevator ride, Western Australians on this train chatted with each other, said hello, and noticing our backpacks and bedrolls, asked where we were from. It was such a friendly start to the trip, and before we knew it we were easing into Fremantle Station.
The station itself is adjacent to the large commercial port where minerals, oil, and livestock come and go in massive oceangoing ships. I could see one of the boxy livestock carriers bound for sea, passing the buoys marking the inlet and the dubiously-named Rottnest Island, the site where a diver was killed by a great white in 2013 (The name itself comes from 17th century Dutch explorers who thought the little quokkas that run around everywhere were big rats). Somewhere I had read that these livestock ships throw their dead sheep overboard into the sea, and some locals speculate that this gory practice leads to an overabundance of sharks near shore. Whether that is true or not is a matter for the locals to debate with the shipping companies.
One boat in the harbor stood out among the others. At around three hundred feet long and with a large helipad protruding off the bow, she was bright orange. This was by far the cleanest, newest looking ship in the harbor, and when I looked up her name online I found she was an oilfield supply vessel. Yet another multimillion-dollar connection to extractive industry.
Fremantle itself is a tourist town, complete with hotels, yacht clubs, surf shops, a quaint little street called the “Cappuccino Strip,” and the fantastic Little Creatures Brewery. Our destination for the night was a room we secured through AirBnB, which turned out to be a five-mile walk from the train station. When we planned this first night of lodging back in the States, we had looked into a room at a hotel but soon found that to be far too expensive. Then we looked at a shared room at a youth hostel, which itself was thirty Australian dollars per person, per night. AirBnB featured a room for rent for sixty AUD per night, which we thought would be a nice way to meet a few locals and get our foot in the door for more serious shark research.
After a pleasant walk, we arrived at the address and were met by our host, Jenny, a delightful Irishwoman who welcomed us into the three-bedroom house she shares with her boyfriend and two other roommates. Jenny showed us to our room and made us feel right at home, offering tea and freshly baked muffins while she answered our many questions about Western Australia. She told us that during the week, most of the people around town left disappeared to “fly in-fly out” jobs as engineers, managers, and security guards in the mining industry.
“The prices in Freo are crazy” Jenny said. “Just in the last five years everything has gone through the roof. Because mining work pays so well, people can afford the high rent, so the prices of real estate, restaurants, and everything have tripled from when I first visited here.”
As Perth itself is a few miles inland from the beach and largely occupied by stone grey bank buildings, corporate headquarters, and riverfront parks, Fremantle has become the place where foreigners go for the five S’s of tourism: shopping, sightseeing, sun, surf, and where they can find it, sex. While the coastal town offers a free bus service that brings tourists from one café to the next, I wondered where all the servers, bartenders, bussers, maids, hosts, and valets lived, and how far they commuted into work each day. Not wanting to leave Fremantle because of the work opportunities, Jenny and her friends in the service industry relied upon secondary sources of income like AirBnB to stay afloat. With the hundreds of café’s, restaurants, marinas, and hotels I saw on the ride from Perth into central Freo, I figured there was a whole class of these “non-miners” that were caught in the precarious position of needing good work during the day, a cheap rent place to lay their head at night, and an easy way of moving between the two.
Continuing our conversation with Jenny, I finally brought up the issues of sharks.
“What’s going on with the shark cull?” I asked.
“Oh it’s a big deal here,” she said. “The town is completely divided on it; some are for it and some think it’s an awful idea. It’s in the newspaper everyday.”
This was a surprise. I had expected to hear stories about a dispute between outraged citizens and their government. Frankly, I thought Jenny’s words would mirror those of Sea Shepherd or WASC, who together paint the picture of a cut-and-dry conflict between a majority of conscientious environmental citizens, a few evil politicians, and innocent sharks caught in the middle. But the more we talked, the more this seemed to be what lazy logicians call a “deep disagreement.”
“People don’t like to talk about it anymore, especially in my line of work” Jenny said, “because if you let on that you’re for or against it, and your customers think the opposite and it pisses them off, its only going to get back to you.”
I figured at that point I had bugged her enough about the cull, so we said thank you again and turned in for the night. Jetlagged, we woke up before dawn, and our host had already left for work. I took advantage of the quiet morning to search the internet for information on iron mining in Australia.
China, as it turns out, requires a lot of iron. For the last decade, the emergent superpower has catapulted ahead with unprecedented economic growth, spawning a new middle class, new cities, and the many social and environmental problems that come with each. To forge the steel required for such physical and economic growth, the country needs great quantities of iron at the best price, and there is no closer, cheaper place for this iron than the rust-red Australian outback. As one Australian woman told me, “All you need is a spade and a good hat and you’re laughin’”
While the growth of the Chinese middle class has had a significant effect on the resurgence of shark finning worldwide (a trend that has been well documented in Rob Stewart’s excellent film Sharkwater (2006), I wondered if there was any connection between the importation of Australian iron and the changing behaviors of tourists, bureaucrats, or sharks in Western Oz. This little hypothesis of mine and the conversations required to shore it up required both time and money, only one of which I had in abundance in Fremantle.
After checking out of Jenny’s house, we moved into a hostel for a night. For those unfamiliar with such places, it is most definitely worth the experience, provided you know a little bit about what to expect. The best book on the subject? Any of the Fodor’s Guidebooks or perhaps Edward Said’s Orientalism. First off, when here, don’t plan on sleeping. These spots—normally older buildings decorated in some beachy theme—are terribly loud during the eight hours that most working people sleep. Most of the residents (the long term ones are the most interesting, or at least the most scenic) find work in various industries during the day from fruit-picking to childcare to bartending when the season is right. Those without work sit around and just live, blending into the colorfully painted walls with various colors and textures of their own.
(The following paragraph should be read in the voice of David Attenborough). Turning the corner into the kitchen, a dreadlocked Swede nods to us in silence as she butters a piece of burnt toast. Moving into the television room, we startle a Spaniard. Confused, his pale face emerges like a ruffed grouse from behind the hard-ridden couch and out of his mouth comes a humble, “Oy.” On the carpeted balcony overlooking the little tropical garden, two perpetually stoned boys in tank tops take long draws from thin cigarettes and talk about something that might just be important. We wonder if Breton’s Paris was something like this—dirty little pirate-themed establishments, structures upon structures overlapping in the arcade with young thinkers drawing on the same tight cigarettes with the same profundity. Of this, we can only wonder, for while these species are not endangered, their migrations are unknown to science.
The four-person room we booked was a slight upgrade from the typical eight-person setup, and featured two bunk beds separated by a remnant of carpet in the middle of the floor. Like fine perfume, the smell of the place was difficult to identify but suggestive of many things—fresh paint and stale beer being two of them. After a brief survey of the room, we locked our bags into the thin metal closet and set out for a walk around town. As we moved toward the exit, a German twenty-something scurried into the shadows of a blacked-out room.
As mentioned, the streets of Fremantle and Perth are squeaky clean. There is not a speck of trash anywhere. Either there is a monumental trash dump somewhere deep in the Outback, or these people have achieved a state of equilibrium that ecologists only dream about. In the touristy Cappuccino Strip, we ate breakfast ($32 for two egg sandwiches and coffees) and then went into a few surf shops to chat about the sea conditions. An employee in one shop was particularly friendly, so keeping Jenny’s words in mind, I carefully steered the conversation toward the shark cull after a few words about waves.
“Any news about the sharks? Will the cull be on again next year?” I said.
“Oh it’s a mess,” he said. “It’s all we hear about in the news.”
“Yeah. I think it’s pretty misguided,” he said.
“I do too, “ I agreed, hoping he would continue on when I made my own opinion known.
“The government is all about the mining, and this is a way to get the attention away from the things they’re doing to the Aboriginal people out there in the bush. They do something stupid like this, and all the protestors put all their attention into it, and their attention is drawn away from the theft of the land.”
“Seriously? I asked in utter amazement.
“Yeah, it’s a bad idea all around. I mean, some of my mates surfed with that guy that got taken down in Margaret River, and that’s terrible, and I get that something had to be done. But putting bait on drum lines near the beaches won’t help anything. It’ll only make it worse”
Wow. Could this guy be right? Was the State of Western Australia attempting to take the public eye away from their own projects of indigenous dispossession by dumping millions of dollars into a crusade against sharks? Was Premier Barnett performing the role of medieval lord, reifying the power of his own aristocracy by pitting the restless masses against a vicious dragon…or shark? Perhaps we were beginning to see the first strands of a twisted connection between the multi-million dollar mining industry and the shark cull.
Of course, to even begin to sort this out would take endless conversations, and so we bid farewell to our helpful friend in the surf shop and headed to the nearest café to record some notes and think it all over. We ordered two “flat whites,” (Australian for café latté), and the bill was twelve dollars. On a napkin, I calculated the cost of two more weeks of hostels, twenty-eight more flat whites, fifty-six more beers, and fourteen days of eating in the cheapest restaurants in Fremantle. Even if we cut out the beer and bought groceries, it was obvious that there was no way we could afford to stay here. And with stoic resolve, I argued that if we did cut out the beer, we would be throwing away our best opportunity to talk with surfers and other beachgoers about the shark cull in the casual atmosphere this particular issue demanded.
We returned to the hostel for an early bedtime, both of us feeling really low. In the doorway there were hundreds of brochures from various tour operators around the coast. I picked out the one that said “Whale Sharks” in big yellow letters, thinking that might be an excellent way to get out on the water and talk with divers and boaters about sharks. Turning it over to see the price, we got more bad news. It would be over $400 to snorkel with these gentle giants, and that was just for the boat fee. The rental car and gas money and lodging in the northwestern town of Exmouth would add hundreds more to that. Disgusted that we had come so far and could not afford to see these magnificent creatures, we went up to the room and climbed into our beds.
Sleep is a temporary cure for everything from abandoned adventures to more serious problems. Waking up twenty thousand miles from home in a stinky bed at three in the morning to the wheezing and gasping of an slack-jawed drunk in the opposite bunk as some stubborn force in their limp body tries to keep them alive is one such problem. I looked across the room to the other top bunk and noticed my traveling partner who lay just two feet above this snuffling monster was also restless. Using the light on my phone, I flashed the “SOS” pattern to her in Morse code and received a reply in the same sequence. What could we do but laugh and go back to sleep? As Kerouac wrote, “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
After only a few days in town and a dozen or so conversations with members of the public about the cull, this trip was becoming something of a salvage ethnography where the hides we set forth to save had become our own. But the next day, we would do just as that famous Columbia dropout suggested—rent a car and drive south to the Margaret River region, leaving Perth and Fremantle and all of the crushing dollar signs behind. We would spend the remainder of our voyage conserving our money in campgrounds, on beaches, talking to surfers about sharks. And we would find out if there was stronger evidence to suggest a correlation between the iron mines to the Northeast, the overpriced whale shark tours to the North, and the deep concern over great white sharks in the world-class surf breaks to the South.
This article will continue in Part 3: “Catching the Wave”
Check back soon!!