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The last time I saw Don Johnstone

Sydneysider: A personal journey

I was a permanent seasonal ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the historic Quarantine Station on North Head in June 1985 when there was a big stranding of false killer whales at Crowdy Head.

The senior ranger came looking for a volunteer to accompany ranger Keiran Murphy on a Mission from God – get the service’s newly acquired whale lifting sheets up to Crowdy Head that night.

We drew straws and I came out with the shortest. I had my wetsuit and diving gear rushed from home in a taxi, and Keiran and I set off.

Driving at the speed limit all the way, we arrived well after dark. Already the little man-made harbour, ringed with floodlights, was holding a few whales that had been ferried by truck from the beach.

Four rescuers were up to their chests in the freezing water, holding dispirited whales afloat and rolling them over every so often – which was apparently the thing to do.

Two fresh divers waded in to take over. One of those being relieved was a big, boofy, heavily tattooed, bikie type. He was crooning softly to the big beast when they told him his shift was up. Shivering violently, he waded out of the water and turned to watch his replacement. Just a kid in an ill-fitting wetsuit, she was almost out of her depth and handled the whale’s head clumsily.

“Geez, not like that! Gently, gently! Can’t you see she’s hurting!” the bikie yelled.

I was to learn that whale rescues are full of cameos like that.

Before we bunked down in the surf club, Keiran asked around about Don Johnstone. The legendary retired director of the NPWS (who I’d never met) lived not far from Crowdy Head and was rumoured to be taking a close interest in the rescue. Keiran seemed anxious to meet him.

We toiled all through the next day, loading the remaining stranded whales onto trailers and ferrying them to the harbour, where it was hoped the pod would regain cohesion. Divers swam the whales around in circles and an old female, dubbed the Alpha Cow, emerged as pod leader.

On the third day there was an ill-fated attempt to herd them back towards the sea. Unfortunately, the whales left the harbour and headed straight towards some of their still-beached companions. I found myself in a scratch team of wet-suited rescuers who rallied to a jet boat to heard them back to the harbour.

The jet boat was about six metres long, and having no propeller it was good for close-in work with the whales. We were about to clamber aboard when the boat’s owner screamed at us: “I don’t mind a few greenies on my boat, but no communists! No Coms!”.

We eyed each other suspiciously. How would he be able to tell?

The spell was broken when a young woman stepped confidently into the boat. Maybe she was a Young Liberal. Everybody piled in behind her.

For the next 15 minutes we tried desperately to herd whales away from the beach, mostly by banging our fins on the water. The Alpha Cow led most whales back to the harbour, but nothing could dissuade three from heading into the beach.

The jetboat kept cutting them off until suddenly a huge wave bore down on us. “Everybody out, Jump! Jump!” the captain screamed. Six of us leapt overboard as he slewed the boat around into the wave and roared off to safety.

I wasn’t wearing a weight belt so my thick wetsuit buoyed me up and made it impossible to duck under waves. I felt like a beachball in a washing machine. Tumbled around by the surf, it took me about ten minutes to reach shore.

It wasn’t the last time I nearly drowned. When all the surviving whales had been assembled in the harbour, the moment came for the final (wonderfully successful) attempt to coax, and herd, the pod back to sea.

Keiran and I were assigned to the Alpha Cow. We were each to hold one of her pectoral flippers  and steer her firmly in the direction of the open sea. A line of boats were positioned blocking the way to the beach.

When they opened the harbour entrance, the Alpha Cow baulked at first. We steered her around for a second go and she baulked again. At the third approach we felt a sudden surge. She’d decided to go.

As she cleared the harbour and and turned towards the open sea, she started performing like a whale: diving a couple of metres – dragging us with her – before surfacing to breath. Down again, four metres this time and picking up speed. We hung on grimly.

An awfully long time seemed to pass before she crashed through the surface. Keiran pulled his snorkel from his mouth. “Look there’s Don Johnstone!” he yelled.

I glanced up as I gasped for breath. The harbour wall was swarming with sightseers and a couple of choppers hovered low overhead.

The mind can play tricks at moments like that, but I’ll swear I actually did see Don – a small balding figure at the front of the crowd – for a fraction of a second before the Alpha Cow dragged us down into the gloom again.

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