The large dark skinned man is about to enter the secluded sandy pathway ahead of me, his friend, who is behind me, calls him back. They let me go on ahead, and they both follow closely behind to a place I’d never been before …
I decided to attend an Aboriginal ceremony at La Perouse. I’d seen a picture of an Indigenous Australian lady in a vibrant blue dress looking out toward the ocean, advertising a ‘Whale Ceremony’. Being an ocean lover, a whale admirer and wanting to increase my knowledge about Australia’s indigenous culture, I booked in. It’s only on once a month and this one was almost cancelled because I was the only person to attend (along with my two children), but the lady saw my eagerness, so agreed to go ahead, for which I was very grateful. She asked her two male friends to assist her in performing the ceremony.
As we cross the bridge that links Bare Island to the mainland, I can’t help but be impressed by the landscape, that is, until I glance down at the water below. There’s a mess of plastic bottles and shoes caught in the rocks beneath the bridge. We pass dozens of scuba divers, Muslim women in headdresses, an Asian dance group making a video clip and children flying kites. We stop at the entrance to a smaller path that leads down to La Perouse Beach, my host asks us to remove our footwear. We all remove our shoes and I roll up my denim jeans and follow the lady in the flowing blue dress, down along the narrow sandy track. The large man steps ahead of me, but his friend calls him, I look over my shoulder to see that he’s gesturing for them both to let us girls go first and they will follow.
I notice two things as the path opens up to show a beautiful tiny beach only about 150 meters in length. One: there are quite a few people on the beach and two: there’s rubbish everywhere.
The lady finds an open area on the beach and with her ornate, carved stick carefully draws a large whale in the sand, as we watch on. Then the quiet, larger man comes to me and gently takes my arm, he leads me around the whale and through it as if we ourselves are drawing our own artwork. He leaves me to stand inside the whale, in front of the lady and one by one, leads my daughters through the same path until we are in a line facing the woman, with the small waves and Bare Island backing her. She describes the purpose of the ceremony—it’s to wish a safe journey for the whales when they migrate along the coast.
Beach-goers casually stroll along the sand and don’t notice our sacred ceremony, they are about to step into our sacred site, I turn and stop them to protect this sacred whale beneath my feet and show respect for the importance of the ceremony. Some women near us are wearing G-string swimmers and deliberately bend over so they’re showing us their bums as they laugh to their male companions. The lady in blue guides us, “Close your eyes and listen to the sound of the waves. Envision the whale and his journey.” I have personally looked into the eye of a large humpback whale, he was just meters from me, he looked into my soul and he took away all my pain. He waved to me and he left me, in the ocean, healed. I had no trouble creating a mental image of a whale, I swam back into that memory, my heart filled and softened.
The lady’s blue dress blows in the gentle breeze, almost looking like blue ocean waves. She begins to sing, well, it’s not quite a song—it’s a mixture between a wolf howl and the sound of the loudest wind. If a whale could scream on land, this is the sound it would make. The note is long; it sends a chill down my spine. I imagine the other beach-goers are all looking at us with our jeans and caps, eyes closed, standing in our sand whale, but I don’t care, I feel honored to be part of this. My head rolls back slightly and I inhale the sound. The song of the whale touches my soul and she holds the note for so long, it has time to fill every part of me.
Eventually, we open our eyes, the water behind is vivid blue, but it’s full of rubbish. The beautiful waves are lifting up all types of coloured plastic. The sand is covered in filth and debris, bottles, tangled fishing line, straws … I’ve never seen a beach in Australia in such a disgusting, filthy state. I’m so ashamed. I’ve often heard our Indigenous people use the term ‘sacred land’ but we Westerners have not been treating this land as sacred, there’s nothing sacred about what modern civilization has done here. And everyone on the beach is sitting in the filth. I lower my head in shame, I am sorry I’m party to this.
The large man gently takes my youngest child by the arm; he slowly and silently weaves her through the whale pattern and stands her outside the drawing in the sand. As he returns and weaves my eldest child around the magical whale, I hear the sound of gentle waves crashing on the shore, but my eyes remain lowered, fixated on sand beneath my feet, a shell triggers a memory and I see myself at a recent interview I conducted, with another Aboriginal lady. She explained that around the Sydney Harbor foreshore, there are numerous ‘middens’. Thousands of years ago, her ancestors harvested shellfish from the harbor, they would leave the shells in large piles near the shore, so if other tribes happened to pass by, these newcomers would know that the area had been harvested and needed time to regenerate, it was a sign to eat elsewhere while the shellfish reproduced and grew large and strong. She explained that the oysters here used to be huge, but the Europeans went crazy and harvested all the large ones to sell and now the shellfish are much smaller.
My eyes flick to the numerous blue plastic bottle caps inside the sacred whale, they represent our western view, “Take whatever you want, because you are special, you deserve it. Don’t even think about the consequences of your actions, do what you want now, someone else will clean up the mess you make.”
I notice that beside the shell near my feet, there’s a tiny piece of decomposing plastic from a Mars Bar wrapper, a nauseating feeling travels from my stomach to my chest as I recall a study published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Microplastics were put into tanks with oysters. The oysters readily ingested the particles that were similar in size to the phytoplankton they usually eat, after two months of exposure, the reproductive systems of the oysters shrunk and slowed. Their babies would be fewer and smaller. And that’s after only two months of having microplastics in their water.
Soon a gentle, strong hand takes my arm, I let him lead me, and I’m in his care. My eyes remain lowered; I try not to step on the rubbish as we crisscross over the lines drawn in the sand.
I’m lined up with my girls and the large man gives me a gentle smile, the lady in blue joins us. The ceremony is concluding and for the finale, we’re invited to participate in an affectionate ritual. The lady approaches each of us and gives us a big hug, then when she’s finished, the next person is to make their way around the group and embrace each person, meaning we get two hugs, with everyone! My girls look shy and uncomfortable, probably because of my incessant talk about stranger danger, and now they’re hugging large men who were strangers to them. But I love it. I embrace each one of them with the hugest hug I can muster. I wrap my arms around each of them; my thoughts unfold, Thank you. Thank you for treating this land as sacred. Thank you for allowing me an insight into your culture. Thank you for not saying “for shame” when you saw the state of this beach. Thank you for letting us walk down the path ahead of you. Thank you for allowing me in.
I leave, knowing I have to return and clean the beach. I’m rarely south of the city, but I have an appointment nearby the following day. So I pack a large tub, garbage bags I had kept under the sink for years and a pair of tongs and return to La Perouse Beach. At first it looks a little cleaner, I think someone has removed some plastic drink bottles. However as I start to pick up the rubbish, I see that the extent of the problem is even beyond what I’d anticipated. There are piles of natural sea debris, but caught in them is a lot of plastic rubbish. I pick up hundreds of bottle caps, dozens of straws, a few tampon applicators, drink bottles and small fruit juice tetra packs, two syringes, one with the cap off and a small barnacle attached, a baby’s dummy, plastic cups, balloons, balloon ties, tiny plastic fish shaped bottles for soy sauce and lots of food wrappers. I pass by sun tents and people look at me as if I’m a freak (this is quite normal, people often give me this look). I overhear many different accents from around the world. One lady is exclaiming to a friend how thrilled she is to be at the beach and enjoying the day. There’s a plethora of plastic crap beside her, but she’s having a glorious time. A lady swims past, relaxed, doing backstroke, it’s a picture perfect scene except she’s swimming through plastic bags floating on the surface; one almost wraps itself around her. Kids play in the little waves as muesli bar wrappers circle their cute little legs and a Japanese couple is having pre-wedding photos—I bet the photographer will have quite a lot of Photoshop work ahead of him, removing the rubbish around their feet.
I’m only halfway along the tiny beach and my tub is already full. I find a bin at the far end, empty it and start making my way back up to clean the other half of the beach. A couple of people approach me and ask if I’m part of a clean-up group. “No, I was just here yesterday and it was so dirty I had to come back and clean it up. This is my first clean up, but there are groups you can join and I gave them the names of a couple and the name of my Facebook page, as I’m building awareness about this issue, from a consumer point of view. My tub is almost full again and I only have twenty minutes left as I need pick up one of my daughters. A girl in a bikini approaches and offers to help, I’m relieved and accept. Between the two of us, we get the beach to a state where you couldn’t see any rubbish. It’s such a good feeling. This is how I always have seen our beautiful Australian beaches. It completely baffles me that all the beach-goers here are acting as if everything is normal. The beach covered in syringes, hundreds of bottles, caps and tampon applicators next to their towels as they soaked up the sun. At what point did this become normal? How bad does it have to get before someone actually thinks that there is something so drastically wrong with the picture, that each of us needs to do something about it?
The bikini girl is from Italy, she tells me that when she arrived at the beach, one of her friends commented on the rubbish, but she can’t think of the English translation to describe what they said. I suddenly remember from my Italian lessons many years ago what the word is she’s looking for, Schifo, meaning ‘disgust, nauseate’.
As I head back up the sandy path, I see more rubbish in the shrubbery, but my tub is full and I’ve run out of time. I look over my shoulder, there was still rubbish riding the waves, I couldn’t collect it all from the water. But aside from that, the water looks pristine as the emerald waves curl up and crash upon themselves. My love for the ocean runs deep. I want to howl the song of the whale and wish him well on his journey, instead I whisper to the giant of the sea, “Please don’t swallow any plastic”.
I see the Italian in the bikini walk back up the beach as I lift my heavy tub. My arms wrapped wide, a big plastic embrace of crap. Beads of sweat drip as I labour to walk up the path. I dig my toes into the soft hot sand beneath and focus on my footsteps as I struggle up the hill. With each step I say a word, “left, right, left, right, left, right,” and then the words change and with each heavy footstep I hear myself saying over and over again:
Sacred land, sacred land, sacred land …