Yaraan Couzens Bundle on being a Whale Dreaming custodian and protecting Sea Country

Environmental activism takes many forms, but I’ve learnt that culture and connection is always at the centre of Yaraan Couzens Bundle’s approach to advocating for ocean protection. 

Environmental activism takes many forms, but I’ve learnt that culture and connection is always at the centre of Yaraan Couzens Bundle’s approach to advocating for ocean protection. 

“I want to be remembered as one of those ancestors whom stayed true to my old people and country in the land and sea fights for true recognition of our sacred birthrights and responsibilities,” she says. 

Yaraan is a Keerray Woorroong and Gunditjmara Whale Dreaming Custodian, with a long connection to Koontapool, the Southern Right Whale. As a staunch, knowledgeable advocate for ocean protection, including opposing currently-proposed seismic testing in the Southern Ocean, she feels a great responsibility to protect the species.  

“Our song lines are interconnected with sky, land and sea. We’re tied to those creation Songlines as women especially - and directly linked to those song lines,” she says. “Those creation song lines are part of that responsibility. We care for species ranging from bent-wing bats to blue whales. They come and frequent our country at different times of the year. Southern Right Whales calve around our country too.”

Yaraan explains that “the Southern Right Whale is meerrteeyt meerreeng ngarrakeetoong- our ocean kin."

“We have a cultural responsibility to care and protect our families. The amount of damage that was actually going to go ahead if the projects [e.g. seismic testing] go ahead - it impacts the oceans right up to the whales.”

Yaraan introduces me to the phrase “animal terrorism,” which she uses to describe what is happening to our oceans. “It’s a total disregard for ocean life. We see the word ‘terrorism’ used in the context of humans, but not animals,” she says. “Human life is important but it’s also interconnected with animal life and well-being. And they were here first. Terrorist acts are being committed against them."

As I speak to Yaraan, I wonder if there’s ever a concern about the loss of ancient meaningful knowledge in modern times. If so, how do we preserve it?

“Yes, it’s a huge worry - what’s at risk of being destroyed and irreversible effects of damage on our country,” she says. “The ocean had sustained our people for thousands of years. Caring for sea country - right out into the deep water. We have always collected abalone and different species that live in the reef system. We’re worried that the loss or life isn’t just the whales - down the foundation of the ocean down to the plankton.”

Yaraan is a leader of Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective (SOPEC) - Gunditjmara First Nations People’s Ocean defenders. They are fighting to protect the Southern Sea Country from seismic blasting. The Australian Marine Conservation Society describes seismic testing as the first step in oil and gas exploitation in our oceans. “Seismic vessels tow an array of airguns and audio receivers (hydrophones) behind them. These powerful airguns fire loud blasts of compressed air every 10 to 15 seconds. The sound waves produced penetrate deep into the seabed, and those that bounce back to the sea surface are detected by the audio receivers. From the sound patterns detected, geologists can work out the most likely place to find oil and gas reserves trapped in the ocean bedrock. The next step is exploratory drilling.”

Yaraan believes “the [Australian] Government just sits on their hands and panders to the oil and mining industry”.

“They could change legislation and make those protections in the legislation much stronger. Making sure we have custodianship and interconnectedness. Australia has been involved in several environmental and ocean talks, but it’s all lip service. It’s not good enough when we’re in the age of mass extinction. We’re in a co-existent relationship with nature so if they die, we die.”

She feels a responsibility to educate the next generation, which involves “teaching generations about how to protect Country. United the people have the power. We need to support the voices of the next generation and give them the support they need to care for Country. I want to be remembered as one of those ancestors who stayed true to my cultural history and responsibility.”

Yaraan features in the new documentary/surf film ‘Great Ocean Love’ by Surfers for Climate. On November 8, 2023, Yaraan will join Dave Rastovich and Uncle Bunna Lawrie in conversation at the free event ‘Protect Australia’s Ocean for Good’ in Naarm/Melbourne. This event will also be fundraising for the vital work of SOPEC - so be sure to attend if you’re able to make it as there’ll be a LOT to takeaway. 

Patagonia’s free events will travel to Melbourne, Sydney and Byron Bay between 8-12 November. Expect in-conversations with leading climate activists, live music and special screenings of acclaimed short-films focused on ocean protection and climate solutions. Secure your free tickets by registering at www.patagonia.com.au/pages/ocean-events