The open Australian beach is a myth: not everyone can access these spaces equally



Silas Baisch/Unsplash

Michelle O’Shea, Western Sydney University; Hazel Maxwell, University of Tasmania, and Megan Stronach, University of Technology Sydney

Last week, the McIver’s Ladies Baths in Sydney came under fire for their (since removed) policy stating “only transgender women who’ve undergone a gender reassignment surgery are allowed entry”. The policy was seemingly in defiance of New South Wales’ anti-discrimintation and sex discrimination acts.

Managed since 1922 by the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club, the baths are a haven for women, and the last remaining women’s-only seawater pool in Australia.

Just over 100 public ocean pools sit on Australia’s rocky coast, most in New South Wales. Segregated baths gave women a place to experience the water, prohibited from most beach access until “continental” (or mixed gender) bathing was introduced in the early 20th century.

The council removed the wording on the website, and put out a statement saying they have “always supported the inclusion of transgender women at McIver’s Ladies Baths”. But this weekend, trans women and allies gathered at the baths, calling for a specifically inclusive policy to be drawn up.

Writing for Pedestrian, Alex Gallagher called the baths “a queer haven”. Of beaches, they wrote:

There’s likely no other place I feel such an undercurrent of anxiety that I’ll face scrutiny for not conforming to a sexist ideal of what a body “should” look like than the beach.

This is the latest in a long history of discrimination at Australia’s public beaches. Indeed, Australia’s beaches and ocean pools are a window into deep divisions.

Sites of contest

With Captain Cook’s arrival in 1770, coastal beaches were the first sites of early interactions and confrontations between the Aboriginal people and the colonisers.

Indigenous women, such as the Palawa women of Tasmania, once had an intimate relationship with water environments. Water was a playground as well as a source of nourishment and socialisation.




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The colonial erasure of these histories and knowledge has contributed to a culture where Aboriginal swimmers who defied convention – by participating in formal competition or by serving as lifeguards — were swimming against a tide of discrimination.

Aboriginal people were commonly caricatured at surf carnivals in degrading, costumed representations. The development of organised competitive swimming associations in Sydney in the late 1800s saw segregated “Natives’ Races”: scarcely mentioned in the media, except to demonstrate perceived white superiority in the baths.

Student Action for Aborigines protest outside Moree Artesian Baths, 1965. Aboriginal people were banned from the pool, and the protest drew national attention.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation, CC BY

As recently as the 1960s, it was routine for Aboriginal people to be banned from public swimming pools.

Owing to this discriminatory legacy, Aboriginal people — despite a history of a strong water culture — have historically rarely participated in organised swimming. But positive changes are beginning to emerge. In the past ten years, there has been a 47% reduction in drowning deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, reflecting the development of programs specifically tailored for remote communities.




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From segregation to celebration: the public pool in Australian culture


Ocean freedoms and fears

The first year women competed in swimming at the Olympic games, 1912, Australians Sarah “Fanny” Durack and “Mina” Wylie won medals. The McIver’s Ladies Baths were an important venue for their preparations.

Two women in heavy bathing suits.
Fanny Durack (left) and Mina Wylie at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
Wikimedia Commons

But even as beaches and pools became desegregated along gender lines, women weren’t admitted as full members of Surf Lifesaving Australia until 1980.

Muslim people, in particular those women who wear the hijab, have also long faced discrimination on Australian beaches. This was brought to the fore at the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when a crowd of 5,000 mostly white young men rioted on Cronulla beach in a “Leb and Wog bashing day”.

Programs such as Western Sydney’s Swim Sisters challenge Islamophobia at Australia’s beaches. A sisterhood of religiously diverse women, the program allows women a space to challenge themselves and support each other. And 40 years after white women could join Surf Lifesaving, highly skilled Muslim women lifesavers are furthering the tides of change.

Physical access

Australians living with a disability often face poor beach access and a lack of specialised facilities such as beach matting, access ramps and beach wheelchairs.

Without easy access to the beach, many with a disability lack confidence in swimming in the ocean, and there are few training opportunities for carers to develop the skills to assist.

A blue mat cuts across the white sandy beach. A woman smiles in a beach wheelchair.
Mats allowing wheelchair access, and accessibility chairs that can travel on the sand and into the water, improve accessibility to beach spaces.
AAP Image/Supplied by City of Gold Coast

Here, too, there are positive signs of change, with Accessible Beaches Australia aiming to open all patrolled beaches to people with disability.

Despite our history, the myth Australia’s beaches are egalitarian spaces persists. We remain a long way off inclusivity for all in our public blue spaces.

The story of the McIver’s Ladies Baths is only the latest in a long history of discrimination. We must ensure everyone can find an ocean pool or beach where they belong.The Conversation

Michelle O’Shea, Senior Lecturer, School of Business, Western Sydney University; Hazel Maxwell, Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania, and Megan Stronach, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Like trying to find the door in a dark room while hearing your relatives scream for help’: Tasmania’s whale stranding tragedy explained


Olaf Meynecke, Griffith University

A desperate rescue effort is underway after hundreds of long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) became stranded in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast.

Yesterday, more than 250 pilot whales were reported to have stranded, with one-third presumed dead. And this morning, rescuers found another 200 pilot whales stranded up to ten kilometres away from the first group — most are likely dead.

This brings the total number of stranded pilot whales in Tasmania to more than 450, and it’s believed to be the biggest ever recorded in the state. The Greens are calling on federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to launch a national response.

The rescue mission aims to refloat the pilot whales that appear to still be in reasonable health. But their behaviour hampers rescue efforts: many pilot whales re-strand themselves to be with their family. This event likely means a number of generations of the local population will be lost.




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How did they become stranded?

Despite its name, the long-finned pilot whale is actually a large oceanic dolphin. They cover vast areas of the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean, reaching between four and six metres in length and weighing up to one tonne.

They are well adapted to deeper oceans where they hunt for various species of squid in depths of between 600-1,000m, using echolocation to find their prey. Echolocation is a way of using sound to navigate in complete darkness.

They generally spend most of their lives offshore and it’s not well understood what conditions drive them close to shore, and to enter shallow embayments.

Some theories suggest food shortages are to blame, or changes in electromagnetic fields that disorient them. They may also be following a sick or distressed pod leader. And in some past cases strandings were related back to active sonar from ships and naval sonar interrupting their echolocation.




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What causes whale mass strandings?


But once in shallow waters, it’s difficult to swim back out. As these whales mostly navigate with echolocation it’s not possible for them to use sonar effectively in shallow and muddy embayments.

It’s extremely distressing for the whales, a lot like trying to find the door in a dark room while hearing your relatives scream for help.

In fact, the stress is what many die from in the end. Other causes of death are overheating from sun exposure and drowning if they can’t move their bodies up to breach the surface in shallow water.

The rescue efforts

There are a number of strategies to refloat whales. In Macquarie Harbour, rescuers are using slings to tow the whales to deeper water, before releasing them.

Other options include multiple people pushing them off the beach during high tide into deeper water.

In this case, albeit potentially dangerous for the helpers, people power can make a big difference. After all, time is of immense importance for success, and to stop more whales beaching.

However, chances of survival plummet with long exposure to sun and extended periods of stress. What’s more, Macquarie Harbour is relatively remote and difficult to access, further complicating rescue efforts.

Dying together

But the biggest obstacle rescuers face is the whales’ social bonding. Long-finned pilot whales are highly intelligent and live in strong social units.

So when dealing with mass strandings, it’s important to realise the emotions and bonding between the whales are very likely beyond what humans can feel. One well-documented example of their emotional depth is the pilot whale seen carrying its dead calf for many days.

Mother pilot whale grieves over her dead calf.

This makes the stranding process extremely complex, as it unfolds over several hours to several days — the whales don’t all strand at the same time.

We know from killer whales, which also have strong social bonding, that if a close member of the group strands, others will attempt to join to die together.




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The situation for pilot whale pods can be similar, but more complex as a result of having much larger pods. Pilot whale pods have multiple sub-units, which can consist of friends as well as family and they don’t have to be genetically related.

Social units get mixed up when they’re in shallow bays. This means individuals can become disconnected from their social units before the actual stranding occurs, causing stress and confusion prior the beaching.

Fewer pilot whales in the gene pool

There are an estimated 200,000 long-finned pilot whales in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, but mass strandings like this can have a profound impact on sub-populations.

In Tasmania alone, 1,568 long-finned pilot whales have stranded between 1990 and 2008 in 30 stranding events.

Many similar sad events occured in New Zealand: hundreds of long-finned pilot whales stranded in 2018 and 2017, and the majority died.

To make matters worse, studies suggest the long-finned pilot whales in the Southeastern Pacific have low genetic diversity. There are similarities between this species found in Chile and New Zealand, but with surprisingly distinct differences between New Zealand and Tasmania.

Considering they can live up to 50 years and the fact only few survive when multiple generations strand, such events not only destroy entire generations but also remove them from the gene pool.

This puts local populations at further risk. Inbreeding is one consequence, but the biggest problem is their decreasing general fitness and ability to adapt to changes.

How to help

In the past, significant numbers of stranded whales have been successfully released, making it worth the effort. For example, in one of largest mass strandings in New Zealand in 2017, volunteers helped about 100 whales refloat, and made a human chain to try to stop them restranding.




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Still, such events are likely to be more frequent in the future due to changing ocean conditions and increasing human activity such a noise pollution, commercial squid fisheries and deep sea mining.

Climate change shifts ocean currents as sea temperature rises. And with this, squid availability will change. A lack of food offshore can cause stress and drive them closer to shore.

We can help the whales not only by actively supporting rescue organisations such as ORRCA, but also by helping reduce carbon emissions, foster sustainable fisheries, reduce plastic pollution and advocate for marine sanctuaries.The Conversation

Olaf Meynecke, Research Fellow in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.