Fish­er­men’s friends

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Be­fore the ar­rival of the First Fleet, many of Aus­tralia’s coastal Abo­rig­i­nal groups had close re­la­tion­ships with pods of dol­phins, some even part­ner­ing with them to catch fish.

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.

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