Living with an oceanic passion

Written by Leanne Esposito

Sharing stories and lessons learned: highlights of an aquatic adventure

Whether you’ve lived on the Fraser Coast for five minutes or fifty-years, odds are you’ve enjoyed the ocean. You may well have been attracted to the pristine waters of the bay, with its abundant array of marine creatures. Or perhaps your preference is for the more energetic rolling ocean waves off the eastern side of Fraser Island where angling for tailor is a firm favourite.

Whether you love to fish or frolic in the sea, Hervey Bay’s safe sparkling waters are sublime. Not only do we humans recognise the beauty of the bay and enjoy the calm tranquil waters; it’s also a sanctuary for a multiplicity of marine life. A thousand or more humpback whales can’t be wrong. It’s a place for rest and recreation for these intelligent beasts. The warm sheltered waters offer a safe haven to young whales, pregnant females and mother and calf pods before they begin their long journey to the Antarctic feeding grounds.

And like the whales, people migrate here too. So many are drawn to a life less hurried; escaping the big city rat race or just wishing to rest, relax and heal. To slow down naturally. In the first instance it might be the whales, like local woman Jacqui Hikuwai who now runs Hervey Bay Eco Marine Tours with her husband Wil. Jacqui came to Hervey Bay as an eight-year-old when her father took on the role as the Chairman of Fraser Coast Tourism Board. When it was time to choose a career path, tourism sales and marketing was second nature to her. She loved where she lived so it was an easy gig. Jacqui has an enduring passion for sharing the beauty of the bay.

It’s not surprising then that she first met her husband Wil while working on whale boats. At the time Wil was skippering a whale watch boat and Jacqui was the operations manager. A youthful romance blossomed during the season. It wasn’t until 16 years later, with some life’s experiences and each with children, that they reconnected at that very same marina.

Like the magical phosphorescence on the water after which Wil’s family is named, he cast his spell on this beautiful woman. (In Maori language Hiku means the sparkling you see on the top of the ocean when the sun’s rays reflect and wai is water). Jacqui possesses her own enchantment. I suspect the magic worked both ways. She is beguiling with large brown eyes, naturally high cheek bones and brings an effervescence, which is a contrast to Wil’s naturally chilled style. They are completely complementary.

Like alchemy they have melded their lives perfectly, and with the majority of the family living and working in and around the ocean there is loads of support. Between them there are four children. Abbey 25 is a local nurse. Mia 19 is currently on Lady Elliott Island but soon heading back to the bay for the whale season. Her passion is for diving and the ocean. Her aim is to hold a Master V on boats. Angus is diving for pearls with Paspaley in Western Australia and the youngest at 16, Tigerlilly is a real go-getter. While all the children have worked on the boat, according to Tigerlilly’s mother she will be the brains of the business.

“She is still in school and getting great grades. She does hair and beauty and works in a salon while attending TAFE. She also works in fashion. There’s no stopping that one,” Jacqui said.

Wil welcomes you with Kia Ora, a traditional Maori greeting which can be used to say hello, express gratitude, send love and make a connection. Wil tells me that his father Hikuwai Hikuwai, claims that the Maori nation originally migrated from Peru. It’s a plausible explanation on how his forebears escaped the Spanish invasion of South America and why his ancestors settled in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Wil comes from a long line of seafarers, living and working on the ocean and sustaining the land. Wil tells me you can’t have one without the other.

“My father told me to follow the potato. It’s about a food source. I worked on trawlers from a young age,” Wil said.

After getting to know the family who would be introducing us to our local marine life, we were off on an adventure of a lifetime. I will not pass that statement off as trite. The day we stepped onto Milbi, the glass bottom boat, on a glorious Sunday morning and chugged out past the break-wall something transformative occurred.

We left on an ebb tide with the slick sea water a mirror like glass. Seagulls circled St Peter’s statue before flying off to guide us through. We expected a great little jaunt. What really happened was a total immersion experience into our watery backyard, the likes of which I never expected. Like a two-week old pup it seemed that my eyes had been only half opened to the possibilities of our peaceful playground.

To say I’ve been on numerous trips to Fraser Island is an understatement. Whether sailing, whale watching or taking the barge, I’d always enjoyed the sights. Until this day I hadn’t been educated to understand the surroundings. I didn’t have an appreciation of what I see when I stand on the beach and look across the bay. I soon realised that my local knowledge was lacking. I was unaware. That all changed in a matter of minutes.

Our Skipper Wil introduced us to our indigenous Australian guide Dingka Dingka, a local Butchulla man who is also a songman. He started off by explaining that he was named after a native bird, the Willie Wagtail, an alert little creature which is responsible for giving warning signals. He also told us that his totem was Buthou, the dolphin. We were instructed to look out for three main species during the journey. Milbi, Buthou and Urangan. Turtle, Dolphin and Dugong respectively. He named the islands in Butchulla language.

His accent was tinged with dialect particular to his people and when he shared his stories, I felt them seep into my soul. It was a visceral experience. He was able to transport the listener to another time and place. Explaining how he was taught to look to the elements, and further afield, to the stars for signs. It was breathtaking. My skin tingled in response to the tales.

“We look to the landscape for signals. When the black wattle flowered we’d get our fishing gear. We knew it was mullet and tailor time. When we look to the milky way and see that emu shape that was also a sign,” he said.

Dingka Dingka explained why the islands were named, the real origins of K’gari, the likes of which I’d never fully heard, and how unique is the bay with its two river systems, the Mary and Susan running into the same body of water at River Heads.

When our guide took a breather I felt it was time to reconnect with our skipper Wil. I asked him what was the best thing about his job, at which point he looked a little puzzled. His response surprised me.

“I’m not working. This is not a job at all. It’s what we do, and we love it,” Wil said.
Curious I probed a little further. I asked why he chose this format, the little open punt. A slow boat. Could it be that the Milbi’s easy pace matched his own? I waited.

“I remember from my time skippering the whale boats I overheard European visitors saying that Australia doesn’t have any culture. I suppose they were talking about buildings and cathedrals. I want to show them that we have 40,000 years or more of culture,” Wil said.

Well now the penny well and truly dropped. You can’t appreciate your surroundings or a country without knowing what makes it so. And today our lessons were large.

At this point the boat dropped anchor and we all walked the gangplank onto the beautiful white sands of Pelican Banks. Dingka Dingka invited us to take a walk around the island while he went off into the spinifex and painted himself up. On his return he offered us a welcome to country and a class in culture.

“This here white paint on my chest is for the Willie Wagtail. The stripes running along the outside of my body are for the two river systems. The three lines on my legs are the Butchulla three lores (laws). What is good for the land comes first. When you have plenty, you must share with family and friends. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Ask first. Always look after your elders because they look after you,” he said.

On the soft crystalline sands of Pelican Banks Dingka Dingka sang, danced and entertained us with the didgeridoo. On a stop-over on Woody Island he taught us to call eagles by whistling through a small white shell. As we motored back to the marina baby dolphins frolicked and flicked their tails as they playfully circled the boat and led us home safely.

I discover that the family’s mission statement is simple. Through their business actions they want to create a lasting change and I believe they do it very well.

“The ocean is very special to us, and we want to protect it; but to do so, we must understand nature and we believe there’s no better teachers to learn from than the Butchulla people.”