Thursday, October 29, 2020

Largest Whale Stranding in the History of Tasmania: The Local Radio Scene

 The largest stranding of whales in the history of the island of Tasmania, and in fact, the largest in the history of all of Australia, occurred in the middle of the month of September 2020. According to international news reports, a total of 500 whales were beached off the west coast of Tasmania; more than 400 have died, and around one hundred have been pulled, pushed, and cajoled back into deeper waters.

Local authorities and interested citizens have been working nonstop to save as many of those whales as possible. Those that are dead are towed out to sea and abandoned, or in some cases, they are buried in nearby sandy beach areas.

Although the 500 count is the largest mass stranding of whales in Australian waters, it is not a record elsewhere in the world. Back in 1918, a total of 1,000 whales were stranded off the coast of the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific.  Even to this day, science does not understand why Pilot Whales are led to beach themselves in shallow waters.

The whales that are involved in this Tasmanian event are all Pilot Whales, one of the largest whale species. They were named Pilot Whales because each pod, or group of whales, seems to have a leader, or pilot, that leads them through the waters.  They can be as long as 25 feet, they can weigh as much as 1¼ tons, they can live up to 60 years, and they eat squid and other types of fish. 

The location on the west coast of Tasmania where all of these recent whales were stranded was near Macquarie Heads, on the ocean side of the peninsula that separates the Southern Ocean from Macquarie Harbour. The main highway running from the center of the island of Tasmania towards the central west coast runs through a very rugged mountainous country, and some people might even describe this highway as a dangerous highway.

The island called Tasmania is located south of the mainland state of Victoria, and it is shaped in the form almost of an equilateral triangle, 200 miles on each side. Near the central west coast, there are three main towns arranged almost in a triangle, with Queenstown as the largest and most dominant.

The first mediumwave station in Queenstown was 7QT which was inaugurated under test broadcasts on May 29, 1937, with 100 watts on 900 kHz. Two days later on Monday, May 31 (1937), local dignitaries assembled for an official opening ceremony. 

The original transmitter was designed by Engineer S. V. Sydes and constructed with the use of Australian and American components in Launceston northern Tasmania in association with mediumwave station 7LA and the Stromberg Carlson radio company.  This transmitter was tested on air in Launceston at 900 kHz three weeks in advance of the inauguration date in Queenstown.

The original location for the new 7QT in Queenstown was in the then seven-year-old Paragon Theatre at 11 McNamara  Street. Soon afterward, the station was transferred into a temporary building at 89 Conlan Street in South Queenstown, and then into a newly constructed permanent building.   

However, it was soon discovered that the local reception of 7QT on 900 kHz was disturbed by interference from the one thousand miles distant radio station 2LM at Lismore in New South Wales, and so eighteen months after its inauguration the operating channel for 7QT was changed from 900 kHz to 680 kHz.  After a sequential change in a couple of frequencies and power levels, the callsign of 7QT was changed to 7XS on October 1, 1986.  Four years ago (2016), 7XS dropped their usage of mediumwave, and they operate now on FM only in Queenstown, and also in the neighboring towns of Strahan and Roseberry.    

A government-operated mediumwave station 7QN with 2 kW on 1540 kHz was installed in a lonely area a little north of the Queenstown airport on the western side of Zeehan Highway in 1954.  Back a hundred years ago, the three cities, Hobart, Launceston, and Zeehan with its two-mile-long main street, were the thee major cities in Tasmania, though these days Zeehan is little more than a ghost town.  The callsign 7QN was changed to 7RN in 1991, and ABC programming on two FM channels is available these days in all three of the major towns near the west coast; Queenstown, Zeehan, and Strahan.

Let's go back to the story of the commercial station 7QT.  This mediumwave radio broadcasting station is remembered in Australian radio history for its claim to fame in three different areas of interest.  When it was inaugurated in 1937, 7QT was acknowledged throughout Australia in the following three areas:-  

1. Smallest radio broadcasting station in size with just 3 staff, and with the lowest income potential.

2. The most difficult mediumwave station anywhere in Australia to log, due to its location in a mountainous valley, with the bare, mineral-rich surrounding mountains interfering with the radiated signal, together with the low transmitter power.  It was almost impossible to hear this mediumwave radio station even in other areas of Tasmania itself.  

3. The first manager of 7QT was the 38-year-old Miss Irene S. Wedd who was the first female radio station manager anywhere in Australia.

Several issues of the WRTVHB state in the entry for 7QT that reception reports were not wanted.  However, in spite of that announcement, QSL cards were always readily available from 7QT, and the earliest cards were always signed by Irene Wedd herself.

We began this radio article with the story of 500 whales stranded on the west coast of the Australian island of Tasmania. We conclude this radio article with another animal story from the same island of Tasmania.

The small and very vicious animal known as the Tasmanian Devil almost became extinct in the latter colonial period.  The Tasmanian Devil is the size of a small dog, it is a loner, and its powerful jaws can break and chew animal bones, and it can bite through a thick metal fence.  Their raucous scream is just as strong as their jaw.  

Two hundred years ago, the Tasmanian Devil was identified scientifically as Sarcophilus satanic, meaning Satanic Fleshlover.  This animal is described scientifically as a marsupial.

After 21 days, a baby Devil is born with a weight of just .007 of an ounce and it then moves into its mother's pouch in the same way as the baby kangaroo and wombat. There can be up to four young ones in the pouch, though even there they will fight and kill.

The Tasmanian Devil is a tourist attraction in Tasmania, and the government of Tasmania has established a breeding program for the conservation of the species. At the end of September (2020), a small colony of Tasmanian Devils with radio collars attached was released in a protective environment near Sydney on mainland Australia.

(AWR Wavescan-NWS 609) photo via radio heritage