Science in Society Archive

The Return of the Whale Dreamers

What connects British actor Kim Kindersley to a dispossessed aboriginal tribe to the musician Julian Lennon? A powerful new film documenting a gathering of indigenous and tribal leaders that explores the profound connection between whales, dolphins and humanity. Sam Burcher

Imagine what it would be like if your family home had been leased out to another family for ninety-nine years because the Government has made them homeless.  This is the helpless and frustrating situation that the Mirning, an aboriginal tribe from South Australia dating back 100 000 years, have found themselves in.  During the 1950s the British Government, with the compliance of Australian officials, made Miralinga (a rural outpost of South Australia) a nuclear test site. It is uninhabitable to this day because of high levels of radiation. The aborigines that survived the fallout were relocated to the traditional lands and coastal whale sites belonging to the Mirning, which has become a source of conflict between the two tribes.

Bunna Lawrie, the Mirning’s song man explains that besides losing their land, the tribe is disconnected from their sacred totem animal the whale. A painful memory for the Mirning is the boats arriving when their waters were opened to whaling. “It was like watching our children being killed,” he says. The film also documents the genocide of indigenous aboriginal cultures through the eyes of Mirning elders. Margaret Lawrie describes the impact of “The Great Australian Silence” when the Europeans arrived and the aborigines were herded into reservations and forced to leave their cultures behind.  Iris Bourgoyne, a radiant woman whose features defy her age remembers the “The Lost Generation” as a time when zealous missionaries took aborigines into servitude. Iris implies that her own experience of service was less than pleasant. She recalls the diseases brought in by the outsiders such as influenza, which killed many more aborigines.

Kim Kindersley, the film’s writer and director, made his first connection with a dolphin when he went to Ireland in search of his ancestral roots.  He had travelled there to reflect on his “successful life” in London as actor, homeowner, and partner in a stable relationship. After swimming with a lone dolphin in Dingle Bay on Ireland’s West Coast, known to the locals as Fungie, he gave up acting and embarked on a journey of researching dolphins and whales around the world. Kim’s promotional film “The Dolphin’s Gift” was sent around to indigenous tribal leaders and caught the attention of Bunna Lawrie who invited him to witness a whale calling ceremony.

A ceremony at Whale Rock

Kim and Bunna go to perform the ceremony at Whale Rock on the Great Australian Bight, which is shaped like a whale’s tail.  Legend has it that the Head of the Bight is the gateway to the stars and to the aboriginal dreamtime that connects their deepest collective memories of past, present, and future together in one dream. So intertwined is Mirning life with the whale that when they die, Bunna says, “It is with the whale that we return to the Morning Star.” In a heart-stopping moment, we see Kindersley framed against the golden rocks and azure blue of the Bay as a magnificent Southern right whale rises out of the waves and roars in response to Bunna’s song. It comes to within metres of where Kim stands to his obvious delight. Bunna and Kim send this footage out as a video invitation to a Gathering of indigenous elders and whale tribes around the world to greet the whales at the Head of the Bight and to share their ceremonies and spiritual traditions.

The Gathering of indigenous cultures

The Gathering gets off to a bad start.  The colourful procession of the 85 tribal leaders heads to the Bight, but when they arrive, they see that a high wooden platform has been erected for a crowd of paying tourists to watch the whales. An elder sends out her whale call and within minutes they appear amid cheers from the spectators. But Bunna, Kim and their guests are quickly ushered off the platform and told they are banned from performing ceremony on the Bight.  The mood of the Gathering plummets as the promise of greeting the whales is lost and the pain of the Mirning intensifies. The Yolngu aborigines from North Australia’s Elko Island, in a gesture of support, suggest a secret whale initiation ceremony some 30 kilometres from the Bight. They paint the men with white ochre to imitate the symmetrical bleached barnacle like markings on the southern right whale. Bunna is daubed with a whale tale in yellow ochre on his whitened chest signifying that he is the “Whale Dreamer”. The Yolngu lead the Gathering to the cliff’s edge where they dance and chant to the drone of a didjeridu and rhythm sticks.  The grace and power of the Yolngu elder is stunning. They gesture Bunna and the others back from the edge of the cliff saying that no whale has come.  The Gathering is again struck with disappointment and despair.

But suddenly, a great roar is heard, a whale surfaces in the sea below, and jubilant shouts go up from the Gathering now dancing with joy and relief.  The Gathering has witnessed the Mirning tribe’s reconnection with the whale.

Indigenous tribes struggle against extinction

As the Gathering comes together, we meet other remarkable leaders from indigenous tribes all over the world.  Alberta Thompson is an elder and a lone voice from the Makah, a Pacific American North West tribe whose younger members are killing the friendly grey whales with guns. She has come to the Gathering to share her sadness and to find strength. She says that the FBI have been to her home asking why she protests against the slaughter of whales. Terry Freitas is an interpreter for the U’Wa tribe, one of the last remaining indigenous cultures of the pristine Cloud Forest of the Amazon.  He is a young and thoughtful man who sits in quiet companionship with tribal leader who says through Terry that there is a threat of mass suicide and extinction within the U’wa tribe if the Occidental Oil Company takes one more step into their land.  He tells the Gathering that they would rather die with dignity than see their land exploited, and they mean it one hundred percent. Terry Freitas leads the Gathering in the concluding ceremony by translating the words of the U’wa tribe’s song that has never been heard outside the Amazon Forest. He says:“This song is about unifying creation; this song is about humans, this song is about all the fish of the sea, animals, birds, everything together. This song is about sharing different cultures, understanding and a way of thinking that makes my heart glad.  This song is about everything in the world. This is a song that is the heart of our work that is about our very being. And this is a song that we cannot forget. If we forgot this song, the world will end.”

Tribe interpreter murdered in Columbia

Some time after the Gathering, Buna and Kim receive the news that Terry Freitas and his two female indigenous colleagues were kidnapped by hooded men on the road to the airport in Columbia and executed. Both are crushed by the news and do not speak to each other for five years. The happy end to this story is that the U’wa tribe has used their song to push back the Occidental Oil Company, which withdrew their operations.

The second half of the film brings into focus the global atrocities that have ushered in the new century such as the Iraq war, 9/11, the Tsunami, increased natural resource depletion, and climate change. In contrast, the global phenomenon of social movements feature strongly in the film as a powerful force for change in the world and for peace.  It is apparent that Kim believes we must all learn to work together if we are to come back from the edge of extinction ourselves. The colourful and united spirit of the peace protests fires Bunna and Kim to finish the project.  We share Bunna’s exciting journey to complete his initiation and as he sings his Whale Dreamer’s song across Australia. Stories of the Gathering attract media interest. Julian Lennon flies to Melbourne to meet the Mirning, and is so inspired by their struggle and the gift they give him that he agrees to co-produce the film and to provide the soundtrack. The Whale Dreamer’s song imparts a vital message to us all. Bunna says: “People of the world need to reconnect, back to the fire, back to the land, back to the dreaming and nature, back to the beginning. Before it’s too late.”

Blood in the ocean

Kim Kindersley shows us the brutal reality that has befallen millions of whales and dolphins at the hands of the human species. Greenpeace‘s heroic effort in turning global public opinion against the systematic decimation of fragile whale populations receives high praise. The scenes of whales being harpooned and dragged alongside the whaling boats, as blood spilt into the oceans are images you will never forget. As the whale populations have slowly recovered so has the spiritual strength of the Mirning. In turn, the Mirnings struggle to reconnect with the past has brought forward a spirit of reconciliation and peace with the aborigine tribes that share their land and their dreaming.

The return of the Whale Dreamers was ten years in the making and has already won a clutch of prestigious awards at international film festivals. It deserves global attention for its support of restraining commercial whaling and other destructive activities, and its insistence that the traditional cultures of the indigenous tribes, which depend on living in harmony with nature for their survival must be given due recognition and respect. Our very futures depend on it.

This experiential film is crammed full of examples of beautifully framed myths, legends, and prophesies of many traditional cultures. These stories have tremendous power. Kim meets Credo Mutwa, a traditional Zulu healer (see Can Traditional Medicine Help AIDS? [1].), who makes the link between humanity and whales and dolphins explicit. “The dolphin is the symbol of man’s reconnection to nature and to God who is the whale.  Therefore, go down to the beach and dream your dreams with the dolphins and the whales,” he says.

The Gathering, the return of the Whale Dreamers is written and directed by Kim Kindersley, and is a Julian Lennon Production. Released in UK cinemas in November 2007.See also;

Article first published 09/09/09


  1. Burcher S.  Can traditional medicine help aids? Science in Society 22, 40-43, 2004.

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