DOLPHINS FEATURE IN Dreamtime stories from around Australia. One from the Gulf of Carpentaria’s Groote Eylandt tells of dolphin leader Dinginjabana and his mate Ganadja who transformed into humans and became the ancestors of the area’s Aboriginal people. Such accounts hint at many historic and some ongoing relationships between dolphins and Australia’s first peoples. Byron Bay’s Arakwal have a dolphin totem.Victoria’s Wurundjeri regard dolphins as sacred.The Noonuccal of south-east Queensland’s Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) also believe they share an ancestor with dolphins.
Former University of Queensland researcher Dr David Neil, now at Hanoi University of Natural Resources and Environment in Vietnam, has written on cooperative fishing between Aboriginal people and dolphins. He says that, before European settlement, central east coast Aboriginal groups regularly collaborated with dolphins to catch fish. Minjerribah men, for example, would attract dolphin pods by ‘jobbing’ the sand with spears to make a squeaking that probably travelled well under water.They’d also slap the water with spears. Reports suggest dolphins would chase mullet towards the beach, where men speared or netted them.
Years ago, when Aboriginal people wanted fish, they’d wade into the sea, calling in their language and clicking boomerangs and spears, Aunty Margaret Iselin, an elder of the Minjerribah Moorgumpin of North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands, has recounted in a tale to the Queensland Museum.“When the dolphins heard the people calling out in their language, they then herded the fish into the shallows where the Aboriginal people would take enough for their tribe.The rest would be for the dolphins…To this day our Aboriginal people have never killed the dolphins.They are our friends.”
British naturalist J.K.E. Fairholme noted in 1856 that local people on North Stradbroke were helped to fish “in a most wonderful manner by the porpoises…a sort of understanding has existed between the blacks and the porpoises for their mutual advantage”. He described how men “with spears and hand nets quickly divide to the right and left, and dash into the water… In the scene of apparent confusion that takes place, the blacks and porpoises are seen splashing about close to each other. So fearless are the latter…they will take a fish from the end of a spear.”
Similar cooperative fishing was practised by the Bundjalung of northern New South Wales and in Eden’s Twofold Bay in the state’s south. Beyond acquiring food, historic accounts and cultural memories held by Aboriginal people today also suggest something significant emotionally and spiritually about the relationship they had with dolphins, David says.
These interactions set a precedent for modern dolphin feeding today in places such as Moreton Island’s Tangalooma and Western Australia’s Monkey Mia (see feature on page 64).
This plate from the 1813 book Field Sports of the Native Inhabitants of New South Wales suggests the fascination that European colonisers had for Aboriginal fishing practices.