March, 6 2010
Dampier Archipelago
William L Fox
Writing

In the afternoon, when Shane accompanies us out on a boat for a half-day cruise through the archipelago, it takes some time for the water and wind and sun to calm us down from the acute sense of conflict we experienced in the morning. We first skirt the shores of East Intercourse Island--which by one account refers to the industrial mating of ore into ships--then head out into the channel between the islands and the peninsula. It's dredged just deep enough that the empty ships can come in at low tide, the loaded ones going out at high tide with only ten inches or less under their keels. To motor around the bow of a ship that is as wide and long as several city blocks that has only that amount of clearance gives me a severe if temporary mental claustrophobia akin to a migraine.

The islands to our left are low, dark jumbles of regolith punctuated with coves of white sand. The larger ones have mangrove thickets around their edges, as do parts of the peninsula, dense foliage atop milky brine where fresh and salt water meet that are the fertile grounds for all manner of turtles, crawfish, and eagles, as well as a host of fish, insects, and reptiles. Most of the rocky outcrops are covered with Spinifex, home to wallabies and Euro kangaroos. A hundred years ago the islands used to be covered with gum trees, but the early whaling industry and then later the extensive pearling business burned all the foliage for fuel. At one point, Shane says, the inhabitants at one island station were reduced to burning their own boats, a cautionary story that bears relevance to any country deeply indebted to resource extraction for its economic livelihood. Have I mentioned that the mining of iron in WA accounts for 15 per cent of the world's total, and that it is the fifth largest global exporter of LNG?

Our boat has twin 300 Mercury outboards, and as our skipper pushes the throttles forward, we lift onto the step at 19 knots, the same speed as the LNG tanker that's clearing the port to our right. The refrigerated ships sip at the fumes at the top of the large spherical tanks. in which they transport the frozen methane, to run their gas turbine engines. The LNG carriers, of which there are about 300 in the world with another 200 on order at shipyards, require a two-kilometre radius of clearance on the surface waters, and carry powerful water cannons with which they fend off unwary or stupid intruders. If one of the ships blew, it would destroy everything within a 12-kilometre radius. We feel in our small boat as if we're really clipping along, and to think that the potential bomb across the small strait is going as fast as we are above coral heads with not that much clearance.... well, we couldn't do anything about it as we're well within the blast radius.

A half hour later we pull up to a sandy beach and jump off the boat into waist-deep warmth the colour of water jade from Burma. Larry has reminded us with a straight face that this is the season for sharks and stingrays to also be motoring about, and we've seen some small specimens of the latter--but we float on our backs happy to be wet and not hot or bothered by flies. In previous days we've had to walk around with fly nets over our heads, and being on the ocean is a complete relief from insects.

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