When he answers the phone, Matt Oakley is out on the water supervising a crop of tourists who have come to swim with whale sharks.
It is one of several the 47-year-old’s tour company runs for people who are drawn to the idyllic Exmouth Gulf for its natural beauty and its wildlife – the dugongs, dolphins, orcas and other rare marine species that inhabit the relatively undeveloped area.
But the big reason people come, he says, is to swim with humpback whales when they turn up in July on their migration south.
“It’s thick with whales,” he says. “There’s tens of thousands of them. They charge straight through.”
Each year the whales pass through the Ningaloo coast, a world heritage listed area on the mid-north coast of Western Australia. The 260km long near-shore reef, and the Exmouth Gulf on the eastern side of the peninsula – a 13-hour drive north of Perth – serves as a way station to humpback mothers with young calves looking to rest up, sunbathe and fatten up in preparation for the long trip to the Antarctic.
A map showing the proposed development of Exmouth Gulf. Photograph: Protect NingalooNow, however, with a proposal for a new marine port in the area, Oakley says he is worried about the impact it and other proposals may have on the natural environment.
“At the end of the day, when you put that many vessels with big spinning propellers into a place where there are that many animals present, the wildlife is going to come off second best,” he says.
Exmouth has been no stranger to development proposals. Its world heritage listing in 2011 was the result of a hard-fought campaign financially supported by acclaimed author Tim Winton.
Though it was a win, that listing did not include the gulf itself, which means it has been left open to proposals for new industrial operations that have revived the Protect Ningaloo campaign.
The most recent chapter began in response to a plan announced in 2018 that would have built a 10km steel pipeline to service offshore gasfields, but unknown to those opposed to it, there were others being developed for the area.
It was only when the Western Australian government intervened last year for details to be known when, under pressure amid community concerns about the SubSea7 project, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was tasked with conducting a holistic review of the cumulative pressures on the local ecosystem.
Through that process the community of Exmouth learned about Gascoyne Gateway Ltd’s plan to build a 900-metre deepwater jetty roughly 10km south of the Exmouth township, and a third from K+S called the Ashburton project, which would see the construction of a large salt production facility.
Heron Point at Exmouth Gulf. Photograph: Blue MediaThe EPA released its report in August finding “the values of the Gulf are fragile and there is a risk that impacts from existing and potential pressures may not be sustainable when considered cumulatively.”
It is now under consideration by the WA environment minister, Amber-Jade Sanderson.
In the time it has taken, the SubSea7 project was withdrawn in December last year, forcing the Protect Ningaloo campaign to change tack and focus on what they say is the next-biggest threat: the proposed port.
Now they are calling on the Western Australian government to formally include the Exmouth Gulf in the Ningaloo protected area. Paul Gamblin from Protect Ningaloo says doing so would offer certainty for a community at a crossroads between two competing futures.
“Exmouth is really being treated as an extension of the Pilbara, with one large industrial project being put on after another,” Gamblin says. “What we’re concerned about is major heavy development that locks in impact for a long period of time.”
Gamblin, who says he is not opposed to development in the area, says the region should plan its future around “adaptive management” by relying on industries like tourism that can be scaled up or down as needed.
But those behind the port project, like Gascoyne Gateway’s CEO and managing director, Michael Edwards, says tourism is part of the problem.
With throngs of tourists who can’t travel elsewhere now regularly making the drive north from Perth for a holiday, Edwards says an explosion in activity is putting additional pressure on the town and ecosystem.
“The EPA has made a determination that it is not pristine, and it is only going downhill – and it’s going downhill because of mass tourism and climate change.”
Should it be built, Edwards says any port will be carbon neutral from day one and will help control this activity by keeping marine traffic to specific zones away from wildlife.
It will also be used to “facilitate various other activities” including allowing agricultural exports from the Carnarvon region, defence and provide a place for oil tankers to undertake a refuelling operation that currently happens inside the marine park once a year.
Others, however, warn that improving access for industrial activity will inevitably bring more marine traffic over time.
There are fears the wildlife in the Gulf is ‘going to come off second best’. Photograph: Blue MediaMining billionaire Andrew Forrest, with the proposed redevelopment of the Ningaloo Lighthouse Resort, is among those with plans for the region, but his philanthropic charity the Minderoo Foundation recently opened a marine research facility in Exmouth under its Flourishing Oceans program.
The program’s chief executive, Dr Tony Worby, described the reef as an “extraordinary natural asset” and said it must be protected.
“We’re not anti-development, we’re pro-ocean conservation,” Worby says. “We have concerns about any industrialisation within the gulf that would have the potential for a detrimental impact on the marine environment.”
Worby says he doesn’t want to single out any specific project as there are several in the region that he is aware of, but adds he would be cautious about any proposal that attempted to point to historical damage in the area to justify new developments.
“Once you go down the path of big industrial developments, you lock in a pathway for the region that’s going to go for decades, or centuries,” Worby says. “How much more pressure do we want to pile on? That’s the question.”