Q&A with Sara Foster
Where does your passion for conservation stem?
I’ve always been an animal lover, and I’ve had some amazing encounters on my travels. I’ve watched turtles crawl up a Western Australian beach at night to lay their eggs, seen condors soaring on the rising thermals at Colca Canyon in Peru, witnessed blue footed boobies dancing together on the Galapagos Islands, and swum with wild dolphins off the coast of New Zealand. I have trekked through the Amazon, cruised down the Nile, sailed through Halong Bay, and walked the perimeter of Uluru. With each experience I have had – and my ‘to do’ list is still extremely long – I have fallen deeper in love with the natural world. These moments often restore my soul in a way modern life cannot, and I want to share everything I’ve experienced, and support all the people trying to protect these precious creatures and spaces.
What impact are you hoping the book with have on animal conservation in Australia and internationally?
My main hope is to get people talking. I would love to engage some of the people who look away from conservation issues because they are too distressing. I often hear the words,
‘I don’t want to think about that, or watch that, because it’s too depressing.’ And I think these are probably the people who would shout the loudest if they listened and witnessed some of these issues and realised that we can get behind all sorts of fantastic conservation groups and support them to make a difference. And that it’s imperative we do so quickly, because the world is changing at an unprecedented rate.
Above: Galapagos Islands residents © Sara Foster
How much research did you undertake for this book?
Research formed a major part of this book – in fact, I had trouble concluding the research and beginning to write. I really wanted the characters’ voices and issues to sound authentic. I spent a lot of time in various local libraries. I watched clips of the whaling protests in the seventies, I went to Monkey Mia and viewed everything I could in their research centre. I looked through
reams of old newspapers, listened to audio clips, found pieces on YouTube, and I read books by animal experts in each of the fields I was writing about and more. I learned about octopuses and chimps and parrots as well, and found various themes that applied across the board – particularly relating to new discoveries of animal ‘intelligence’ and teamwork. I interviewed Leif Cocks, who is one of the leaders of orang-utan conservation, and spent a number of hours at Perth Zoo. I looked into how you can go and hunt elephants in Africa, and saw photos I never
want to see again. I read forums on kangaroo shooting and visited various kangaroo carers. And I also travelled to Taiji in Japan and watched the fishermen set off at dawn in search of dolphins. I stood on a hotel roof and saw the banger boats belching black smoke as they returned in formation, which meant a pod of dolphins was trapped between them. I spoke to all the different conservation groups there and saw the dolphins who were being trained or held in captivity. Someone put a hydrophone into the water, and we listened to them calling to one another. That was the experience that changed me forever. I will never forget it.
Blending facts with fiction in Shallow Breath
While the characters and the plot of Shallow Breath are entirely fictional, the backdrop of the book is grounded in real places, events and stories. Atlantis Marine Park was a top tourist attraction for roughly a decade and is well remembered by Perth residents. The ruins are still there today, and in the middle of them King Neptune can be found staring fixedly out to sea. The seven dolphins who were the stars of the park – Frodo, Rajah, Nero, Mila, Rani, Lulu and Karleen – were much-loved during their time at Two Rocks, and the extensive efforts at successfully releasing them and their offspring were considered groundbreaking, despite mixed results. The three who were recaptured (Rajah, Mila and one of the juveniles,
Echo) were moved to the aquarium at Hillarys, where, sadly,
they were poisoned in 1996. Their deaths remain a mystery,
and they are commemorated by a bronze statue and community
wishing well at Hillarys boat harbour.
Monkey Mia dolphins © Sara Foster
Monkey Mia is a world-renowned spot roughly 800 kilometres north of Perth, where the dolphins come into the shoreline each day of their own accord to be given a small ration of fish and meet visitors. Scientific research at Monkey Mia took off in the 1980s and continues to this day. Nicky the dolphin has been visiting almost every day since she was born (a year before I was) in 1975 and is now considered a dolphin of advanced years. The careful and thoughtful management of tourism at Monkey Mia has, so far, shown that it is possible to successfully sustain human–dolphin interaction.
The Zambian elephant population dropped alarmingly due to poaching in the seventies and eighties, although it is hard to find reliable figures. Elephant poaching is currently on the increase in various African countries, and poachers are now using high-tech weaponry to decimate populations. An msnbc news article in May 2012 reported that tens of thousands of elephants were estimated to have been killed in 2011 for their tusks, largely due to increased Asian demand for ornaments and traditional medicine. Without another international outcry, elephants may soon, once again, be heading towards extinction.
The natural wonders of the Galapagos have not escaped the
attentions of poachers either. Longlines are regularly set illegally
inside park zones, which target sharks for the shark-finning
industry. As well as decimating shark populations, their bycatch
also puts other unique species at risk. In countries where shark fins are highly prized, the most valuable is the biggest one, which belongs to the whale shark.
Orangutan © Sara Foster
Indah, Langka and Berani are a fictitious orang-utan family, but their story is based on the groundbreaking efforts underway at Perth Zoo, which has already seen two orang-utans relocated to the Sumatran jungle. I was assisted in researching facts about orangutan behaviour by Leif Cocks, founder of The Orangutan Project (www.orangutan.org.au). The last few lines of Shallow Breath echo one of Leif’s moving encounters with these great apes, as recounted in his book Orangutans and their Battle for Survival. Eighty per cent of the orang-utans’ rainforest has been destroyed in the past twenty years, and without immediate action it is predicted that both Bornean and Sumatran orang-utans, with whom humans share 97 per cent of their DNA, will go extinct within the next decade.
Whale © Marian Agombar
Half Moon Bay is a small town on the west coast of America, and I would love to go whale-watching there one day. A short drive north is San Francisco, where, in 1985, Humphrey the humpback really did swim down the river, before he was serenaded back out to freedom using the songs of his own kind.
Dolphin hunters leave Taiji harbour at dawn.
In contrast, every day between September and March, any dolphins found swimming, foraging, leaping or playing too close to Taiji, on the east coast of Japan, are hounded into the merciless waters of the Cove. After a few are picked for the lucrative captive trade, the rest are bludgeoned and butchered under tarps. We only know about this because of small groups of determined people from Save Japan Dolphins, Sea Shepherd, the filmmakers of The Cove and other independent demonstrators, who all risk their freedom to draw attention to what is happening. I stood with a number of these people for just one morning on the cliff-tops of Taiji, and, thankfully, it was a day where the boats returned empty-handed. These protestors are courageous individuals who stare unflinchingly at suffering while their hearts are breaking, so they can rally the cry for change before it is too late. It is because of them, and those like them the world over, that this book has been written.