‘We greet them as family’: Traditional owners look to revive an ancient ritual — singing in the whales

The arrival of whales along Australia’s coastline has long wowed tourists but for many First Nations people this migration has greater significance.

It marks the arrival of the “elders of the sea”, which follows a songline, an ancient memory code that traces the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lore.

Cherissma Blackman-Costello, a Gurang, Meeroni and Gooreng Gooreng woman from central Queensland, is one of many traditional owners reviving a ritual known as “singing in the whales”.

These rituals held at specific sacred locations include repeated songs, and have been performed for thousands of years to welcome the arrival of whales along the Australian coastline.

Ms Blackman-Costello said each region, clan and family had their own songlines and story lines, and this was how the Dreaming and traditional knowledge was passed down.

A happy couple holding each other smile into the camera.
Cherissma Blackman-Costello and Lincoln Costello are trying to rekindle singing in the whales along the coast.(ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

Ms Blackman-Costello and her husband Lincoln Costello, a Quandamooka and Nunukal man, were also working with Gadigal elders in Sydney to rekindle this ritual.

“They also have that great story of this journey of the elders of the sea,” Ms Blackman-Costello said.

Although these whale songlines and storylines were specific to each mob, they were interlinked.

“I think a lot of us can take a bit from each other’s passing down of knowledge that’s existing and link it back together,” she said.

A husband paints his wife with traditional patterns using white ochre
Lincoln Costello and his wife, Cherissma Blackman-Costello, getting ready to for the welcoming ceremony.(ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

Mr Costello said the Quandamooka people of North Stradbroke Island and Moreton Bay had been welcoming the annual whale migration for more than 20,000 years.

“The whales are called Yalingbila. They are also part of the creation story of Moreton Bay with the dolphin, the eagle hawk, and the rainbow serpent,” Mr Costello said.

Yura Yalingbila — or the welcome of the whales — was now part of the Quandamooka Festival, which spanned three months.

During the peak season, up to 200 whales can be seen daily swimming past the headland between dawn and dusk.

“We’d like to continue [this ceremony] along the reef and all the way up the coast,” Mr Costello said.

Mr Costello and Ms Blackman-Costello had their first welcome on Meeroni country, near Agnes Water, this season after witnessing the welcome on Quandamooka country.

A couple in traditional paint perform a dance on top of a cliff.
Cherissma Blackman-Costello and Lincoln Costello perform a welcoming song for the whales on Byellee land in Gladstone.(ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

“[This ceremony] demonstrates how in touch we are with our environment,” Ms Blackman-Costello said.

‘Looking back gave me a future’

When Woppaburra elder Bob Muir looked his first whale in the eye, it was a significant moment.

The humpback whale — or Mugga Mugga — is his people’s totem.

Close up picture of a bearded Aboriginal elder staring into the distance.
Woppaburra elder Bob Muir is rebuilding culture, lost after the removal of people from their lands.(ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

Mr Muir’s first sighting in Woppaburra waters off the central Queensland coast was at a pivotal time in his life.

“It would be a few years back now, out on Keppel Bay, and that was the first time I really had the knowledge, because I was bit a of a lost sheep, wandering around and I didn’t know who I was, where I came from,” Mr Muir said.

Now, whenever Mr Muir saw Mugga Mugga, it gave him strength and a feeling of his place in the world.

“For me, Mugga Mugga is a very wise creature of the world,” Mr Muir said.

It was the lifelong cultural responsibility of the Woppaburra to protect its clan totem, and its environment — the sea country, he said.

Crystal blue water meets white sand
Each year, Whoppaburra totem, Mugga Mugga, journeys past the First Nations people’s traditional land, Konomie.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

In 1902, the Queensland Government forcibly removed the Woppaburra from their traditional lands on the Keppel Islands.

Families were separated along the east coast of Queensland — some were sent as far north as Yarrabah, near Cairns, while others were sent south to Cherbourg and Fraser Island.

Until then, ceremonies to welcome the whales were woven into every aspect of their lives.

“When they arrive, it’s something to be really thankful for,” Mr Muir said.

Bob Muir and a young Woppaburra person hold some smoke-filled bark and leaves
Woppaburra elder Bob Muir performing a smoking ceremony.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Mr Muir said he was aware of another traditional owner group in Western Australia that also had the whale as its totem, which presented opportunities to share knowledge.

“It is something we have to work on,” he said.

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