Garig Ganuk Barlu National Park is the Northern Territory’s only marine park and also includes outstanding land-based features. 

Story by Kerry Sharp  Photo by Dan Avila

A pod of false killer whales has been spotted feeding off Cobourg Peninsula’s Black Point and chief district ranger Alan Withers is cruising out for a closer look – and to boost his database of marine sightings. He counts a dozen of the glistening black mammals churning up the waters of this idyllic northern outpost.

Whales, dugongs, manta rays, turtles and dolphins are all part of everyday life for the 63-year-old veteran ranger with 30 years’ service in Northern Territory parks, including Cobourg’s Aboriginal-owned and jointly managed Garig Ganuk Barlu National Park on Arnhem Land’s north-west tip.  

The 4500 square-kilometre conservation sanctuary takes in the Territory’s only marine park and outstanding land-based features, including world-acclaimed wetlands and an abandoned 1840s British garrison, Victoria Settlement.

The former Victorian park ranger, commercial fisherman and avid surfer came to Cobourg on holiday in the mid-1980s and unexpectedly found himself spruiking his credentials to a Northern Territory Conservation Commission interview panel needing someone with boating experience.

“Traditional owner and board chairman Robert Cunningham said nothing through the whole process then asked right at the end if I’d worked with Aboriginal people,” Alan says. “I said, ‘No’ but that I’d worked with Greeks, Italians, Maltese, Lebanese, Americans and Englishmen, so I didn’t think I’d have a problem working with Australians. I think he liked that answer.” 

He got the job and has spent 18 years at the Territory’s most isolated national park.

This story excerpt is from Issue #110

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2017