In the absence of a handy tree on Portland's lee breakwater in far south-west Victoria, one of the town's legion of wandering koalas found a precarious and altogether symbolic spot for a rest – the mooring line of a ship that has become the town's and the Australian shipping industry's disputed emblem. It was a reliable, if dizzying, perch.
Image: Dean Koopman
The ship, the MV Portland, wasn't about to cast off and go anywhere. It has been stranded in Portland for more than three weeks, its crew refusing to sail it on its final voyage to Singapore, where it is to be sold and scrapped and the crew rendered jobless.
While the crew's union challenges in the Federal Court and the Federal Parliament the decision by the aluminium company Alcoa to replace the ship with a foreign vessel and a foreign crew, the little koala plodded along the stone breakwater, clawed its way up the mooring line and settled down for a nap.
It seemed to the startled crew an act of solidarity: one of Australia's most loveable creatures choosing their unwanted Australian ship.
"We've called him Comrade Koala," said the national women's liaison officer with the Maritime Union of Australia, Mich-Elle Myers, who has spent the past fraught weeks at a community protest camp outside the gates to the Portland wharf.
"Even the wildlife are supporting Australian jobs in our time of need," said crewman Dale Eaton, who has been aboard the MVPortland since it docked last month after hauling alumina from Western Australia to the Portland aluminium smelter.
As townspeople gathered on the breakwater, delighted at the little marsupial's acrobatics, crew members lined the decks.
They had life-rings ready to toss into the water to help Comrade Koala if the little fellow lost his balance. They needn't have worried.
After lolling about and napping for a couple of hours, the furry marsupial scrambled back down the line to the wharf, where wildlife officers waited to transport it off to its more common habitat.
Up to 100,000 koalas are believed to reside in and around the Portland district – about a quarter of Australia's koala population.
Townspeople regularly find them in trees in their backyards, and it is not uncommon for koalas to be spotted wandering the city's streets and district roads.
Meanwhile, representatives of the maritime industry have taken the plight of the MV Portland's crew to a parliamentary inquiry into flags of convenience – foreign-flagged ships and poorly paid foreign crews that are supplanting Australia's seafarers.
The MV Portland is one of only 15 Australian-registered ships still plying Australia's coast. Alcoa argues the 27-year-old ship must be sold and replaced with a foreign charter to save money.
Alcoa says the new arrangement, which is to be undertaken under a "temporary coastal licence" issued in October by the Federal Government, will save the company $6 million a year.
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