Tim Winton makes the case for protecting Ningaloo’s amazing wildlife

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Author Tim Winton’s compelling nature documentary series is not just a three-hour montage of beautiful wildlife footage, though it’s certainly all of that. Orcas, humpback whales, loggerhead turtles, manta rays, the cartoonish golden ghost crabs and all manner of birds and lizards have been patiently, perfectly captured in their elements breaching, mating, singing and generally scampering around.

But Ningaloo Nyinggulu is far more than pretty pictures – it’s a carefully constructed argument for preserving a distinctive peninsula 1200 kilometres north of Perth, protecting it from the ravages of mining, drilling and fishing.

Tim Winton at Coral Bay in Ningaloo.Credit: VIOLETA J BROSIG/BLUEMEDIA EXMOUTH

Using the soapbox afforded him as one of Australian literature’s national living treasures, Winton presents as narrator, writer and executive producer. He’s long been campaigning on behalf of the Ningaloo area, leading thousands of protesters through the streets of Fremantle two decades ago.

Winton tackles the area in three parts, likening it to the three-toed track of an emu foot. First there is Ningaloo Reef, a 260-kilometre stretch just offshore, that is home to 500 species of fish and 300 species of coral. It’s healthy, boasting the highest coral growth rates of any reef in the Indo-Pacific.

Then there’s Cape Range, a labyrinth of canyons and caves forming a limestone spine along the peninsula. It is home to hundreds of native Australian species.

Thirdly, Winton takes us to Exmouth Gulf, the last intact arid zone estuary of its size on the planet, a vast expanse of mangrove forests and tidal wetlands the size of 50 Sydney Harbours.

Instead of being perched behind a desk tapping away at his latest novel, we see the author in surf mode kitted out in shades, scruffy sun-hat and shorts.

Tim Winton makes a carefully constructed argument for preserving the distinctive peninsula.Credit: Denise Fitch

The likes of David Attenborough have set the bar high in terms of getting up close and personal with the wildlife they’re documenting. Winton accepts the challenge, particularly in the case of the dugong, an animal that Winton says lifts his spirits like no other.

On the water with a research team, Dr Christoph explains how they are going to tag some of these 400-kilogram marine mammals to learn more about their movements. “Catching a dugong by hand is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in life,” Dr Christoph intones ominously. They employ the “rodeo method” which, as we see, involves Winton joining the researchers in the sea wrestling an adult dugong towards their boat where the tag is attached.

Up so close the creature seems alien, Winton says, yet familiar. “When you look into its anxious eyes and feel its breath in your face, you know it’s a relative.”

Similarly, Winton puts his body on the line joining a speleologist (aka a caver) slithering through gaps in subterranean rocks to search out the remarkable blind gudgeon, a species of fish unique to Ningaloo. Squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle is how Winton describes the process: “A middle-aged camel that wishes he hadn’t had beer and pizza last night.” Up to their necks in water in the dark, Winton sighs: “I don’t know what my mother’s going to say when she sees me doing this.”

Winton grew up in Albany, which had long depended on whaling. From those days, he tells us, he knew well the smell of rendered flesh and blubber, before adding bitterly: “There’s nothing like it.” By the time the industry shut down, the whale population was almost wiped out.

He knows the damage that can be done, and cherishes the opportunity Ningaloo represents to preserve an ecology and reflect the values of its traditional owners.

Tim Winton puts his body on the line in Ningaloo Nyinggulu.Credit: ABC

The area has been protected by its remoteness, but the Exmouth Gulf is yet to be granted World Heritage status. This beautifully crafted series makes an eloquent case for ensuring the whole region remains a place nature can flourish.

Ningaloo Nyinggulu premieres on the ABC, Tuesday, May 16, 8.30pm.

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