Sadly, it was time to leave Tash, KC and KC junior for the brighter lights of Port Hedland, a short 2 ½ drive up the track. When we arrived into town, we headed for the Port Hedland Port Authority to meet Paul Mackey, who has been helping me promote ECOCEAN’s visit to town. Paul had arranged for us to stay in one of their units near the beach so we did the usual ‘Kim and Kylie explosion’ unpacking trick and settled in.
The next day we headed to Port Hedland Primary School. Being the last day of term, I think the students (and especially the teachers) were glad to have the distraction of a 10m blow up whale shark at their school. Kylie joined the art class in painting the ECOCEAN trailer while I did presentations to two different groups of students.
The kids were quite interested in the breeding habits of the whale shark. I told them that we still don’t know where whale sharks breed and that whale shark pups have only been observed a few times before. Unfortunately, one of these times was in Taiwan in 1996. A female whale shark was found caught in a fishing net, already dead. When she was cut open, there were 300 babies inside! The pups were at different life stages, indicating that they aren’t born at once, but rather the female whale shark retains sperm from one mating and produces a steady stream of pups over a prolonged period. Whale sharks are ovoviviparous meaning that their eggs remain in the females body and she gives birth to live young (which are 40-60cm long and come out with their distinctive spots already). The kids were quite surprised we don’t know where the world’s biggest fish breeds. I agreed with them and said that it was one of ECOCEAN’s research objectives for the future.
Kylie and I spent the afternoon interviewing locals on previous whale shark sightings off Port Hedland. We targeted the skippers and helicopter pilots who work around the port and who we thought would be good ears and eyes on the water. Many of the workers we spoke to in Port Hedland are FIFO’s and hadn’t been working in town for a long time. No one had seen whale sharks off the coast in the past 12 months.
Port Hedland is one of the busiest ports in Australia. There are constantly 40 – 50 ships waiting to enter the port and load up with Pilbara iron ore, which is then shipped all over the world. In a 24 hour period, the cost of one ship being in port is worth $30 million. So you can imagine the cost to iron ore companies when the port was shut down for three days in February with the threat of Cyclone Rusty. Thanks to Paul, we had a tour of the inner harbor with the guys from ‘Go Marine’ who were responsible for monitoring the harbour’s activities. We got to see the ships being loaded up and led back out with the assistance of the tugboats. Apparently they try and have them in and out within 17 hours.
That night ECOCEAN had been invited to be the guest speakers at the AGM for local environment group CARE Port Hedland. This was a perfect opportunity to meet some of the locals and ask them about previous whale shark sightings off their coast. Turns out no one had heard of whale sharks off Port Hedland but they did offer to add whale sharks to their community monitoring program that they currently use for marine mammals – great news for ECOCEAN! The more eyes and ears on the water, the better 🙂