They said there were no more whales but I’d caught one.
Megan McGrath’s Whale Station, published in Griffith Review 46: The Novella Project II, opens with the protagonist Rick chasing down and harpooning a whale off the coast of Brisbane. The novella takes us back to Tangalooma’s history as a whaling station that operated from 1952-1962, a history that I was only dimly aware of as someone who grew up in Brisbane. Located on Moreton Island, Tangalooma is now a tourist resort known for offering hand-feeding of dolphins and whale watching. I’ve been there just once, when work took me there for a social outing; it’s clear from McGrath’s evocative prose that her personal connection to and sense of this beautiful place is stronger than mine.
Rick’s first-person perspective slips us into the action as he catches what may be “the last humpback in the Pacific”; the closeness we feel to his sense of desperation and taste for the hunt makes for an engaging yet confronting opening. As he heads into Tangalooma—“a long, mournful blast announcing my arrival”—the ghostly quiet of the station betrays his mistake, having misunderstood the reality of the newly-instated shutdown of whaling operations.
An uncertain future awaits Rick, his Norwegian girlfriend Camilla, and her brother Christian, also a whaler. Through the lens of Rick’s narration, Camilla is mysterious: the best fisher among them, graceful, one with nature. Natural forces drive this story and its characters. The westerly winds each August are the harbinger of Christian’s recklessness: with drink, with his crew, with women. The closure of the station threatens the intertwined lives of all three characters.
McGrath deftly explores the conflicted dynamics between these characters as romantic love competes with sibling love and loyalties, and the dawning economic reality brings its pressure to bear.
Rick’s perspective is the driving force of the story, though sometimes his realisations seem almost too self-aware to be genuinely of his character’s voice:
The shutdown still didn’t make sense to me. Even with these pages and the visible decline of work, of my comrades returning to the mainland and of our refusal to believe the world was changing, I couldn’t quite see where we’d gone so wrong. Had I closed my eyes so tightly against the possibility of change I’d forgotten it could bite off your legs at any moment?
It’s in description, dialogue and the external, distanced view we have of Camilla where this novella shines most brightly. The consequences of their situation run more deeply than the need for steady work:
She filled her lungs and I understood, with finality, that I’d changed in her eyes. Even without her knowing about the fine and taking down the Caloundra whale, she thought I was responsible. She said, ‘I still look out the horizon and expect to see them. I know it’s your work, but I didn’t think they’d just stop coming.’
‘It’s Christian’s work too,’ I said.
‘Christian has never run out of whales.’
Megan McGrath has written a beautifully powerful novella from a little-known period in South East Queensland’s history, exploring human uncertainties and loss framed neatly by the loss of the whales. Given that whaling in Australia was stopped for commercial reasons rather than environmentalism, it’s important that McGrath has engaged this story as one of human disruption, though with prose that undoubtedly demonstrates a love of nature and its forces. While Tangalooma has, in its way, recovered and “made good” in a modern sense, that’s a story for the present and not one to console Rick, Camilla or Christian.
Megan was a Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award Winner in 2015 and is definitely a writer to watch out for. I look forward to reading more of her work.