Friday, March 28, 2014

LIVE from…Whale Wars!

WELLINGTON WHARF & THE SOUTHERN OCEAN—For months at a time, they live in cramped quarters on a ship that sails to one of the coldest, most hostile, and most unforgiving seas on the planet. There in the Southern Ocean, battling winds, thirty-foot waves, frigid weather, collisions with much bigger ships, and confrontations with governments, their singleminded focus is to save the lives of whales. They even take an oath to offer up their own lives if it means the chance to save the life of a single whale. They eat only vegan food, and are called, among other choice insults, terrorists.
Sea Shepherd Bob Barker (Photo: Aaron Carlino)

They are also brave.

This week I sat down with the captain and crew of the Sea Shepherd Bob Barker, which has just returned from ninety-five days at sea to dock in Wellington, New Zealand. I wanted to understand what it is about them, and what it is about whales, that make these people so doggedly passionate—so doggedly passionate that they are actually willing to die for their dream.

Andrea Gordon and her boyfriend Sam Sielen are New Yorkers. Andrea is from Flatbush, and she used to be a public defender; Sam worked in the Manhattan DA's office. Both are crew members on the Sea Shepherd Bob Barker. Andrea is Manager, and Sam is Director of Photography. Andrea first became aware of the movement when she saw what she described as "gut-wrenching" photos of baby harp seals being skinned for their fur. At first, she didn't think she could do anything about it. Then she read an article about Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd. Andrea was impressed with his and the organization's philosophy to put the animals first, the "clients" she joked, admitting that her law training forced her to think about injustices, about righting wrongs. So Andrea took a year's absence from her job to volunteer for Sea Shepherd. This commitment must've spoken to the ship's top brass. When the famous Captain Peter Hammarstedt made a personal telephone call to Andrea to come work for him, he asked her if she could be in Africa on one of their ships—in just a week's time. She hung up the phone to think about it, and then called Peter right back. Andrea said yes, and five campaigns later and a lot of subsequent time in Antarctic waters, and she's still working for him.

Baby harp seal (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

Ultimately, her boyfriend Sam left his job too, and joined the campaign.

The ship's bosun is a man named Phil Peterson. He's fifty-six years old, divorced, the father of two adult children. Phil has a weathered, permanent tan and tucks his long hair beneath a ball cap; he looks like a man who's spent a lot of time near the sea. And he has, passing some of that time whale-watching, as is customary in his hometown back in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Talking with Phil Peterson (Photo: Aaron Carlino)
One evening, Phil was watching "Whale Wars" on TV, the reality show that has made the crew of the Sea Shepherd famous. For Phil, this was about to be a defining moment. As he watched a whale being chased and then "blasted" to death, Phil said he began screaming at the television. "I was horrified," he told me, his voice cracking. "I couldn't believe commercial whaling [the term for harpooning whales to death for their meat, or for science] was still going on. Especially in a sanctuary!" The defining moment came when Phil asked himself what on earth he was doing with his life. "What am I doing in the world? I'm just a consumer, a mortgage payer." Suddenly, it didn't seem to make any sense to him that he was working to pay for a house that he no longer needed. "That was the moment I decided to do something," Phil said. "At some point, you have to do it or not. There are no half measures." Phil sold his house and then he sold everything else, and he too joined the crew of the Sea Shepherd.

Captain Peter Hammarstedt (Photo: Aaron Carlino)

Peter Hammarstedt captains the ship. He's young, twenty-nine, Swedish, and slight of build. Peter appears very calm, and doesn't necessarily look like someone with the muscle to tackle opponents who loathe him, shout at him, and, occasionally, wish he were dead. And those opponents are many: governments who make seemingly empty promises to protect the whales in a sanctuary, whaling ships that have come for the kill, and unusually angry people all over the world who decry the Sea Shepherd's tactics as terrorism.

"I was fourteen years old," Peter said. "I saw a picture of a whale being pulled up the slipway of the Nisshin Maru, the Japanese whaling ship, in the Antarctic. The picture shocked me. I was under the impression that whaling was something of the past. To know that it was still going on...I decided that I wanted to do something about it."

Dead Minke whales on Nisshin Maru (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

For Peter Hammarstedt, and he said so himself, "Passivity is the same as complacency."

When Peter was seventeen, he joined Greenpeace. When he was eighteen, Iceland resumed whaling. Iceland had been absent from the whaling industry for more than a decade, but they were back. Peter was angry about that, and by this point, he'd also grown disillusioned with Greenpeace, whose efforts he felt were focused more on publicity than on action.

Peter had heard about the Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation organization. The organization was smaller than Greenpeace, but they had a reputation for taking action. "I wanted to physically get between the harpoons and the whales," Peter said. The Sea Shepherd was advertising a campaign to travel to Iceland. Peter applied, and was accepted. He was still just eighteen.

Some years later, Peter Hammarstedt was put in charge. And not just of the boat as captain; he was put in charge of physically blocking the whaling vessels from refueling. During last year's Operation Zero Tolerance campaign into the Southern Ocean, Peter commanded a small boat, which aimed to put an early end to the whalers' hunting season by cutting off their fuel supply. It was dangerous work, and he was rammed several times in rough seas by much bigger vessels.

"Nisshin Maru," Peter cried out by walkie-talkie from his 800-ton boat to the captain and crew of the 8000-ton Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru, "I will not move! I will not move! You'll have to sink me…I am not going to move for you!"(Watch the dramatic video of this confrontation here.)

In fact, this particular mission was so dangerous that he spoke to his crew of thirty-four prior to embarking on it. He offered them a chance to jump ship, as it were, to bow out of the campaign before it got underway. Not one of the crew members took him up on it. It was Peter's most triumphant moment of his now decade-long career, knowing his crew was as dedicated as he was. And it was his most defining moment, he added, to learn that he and his crew had saved nearly nine hundred whales. Unable to refuel, the whaling ships were forced to cut their hunting season short, and they went home with just 10% of their original quota to kill more than a thousand whales.

But for Peter, every single whale death has a memorable impact. In 2008, he watched as a female whale was harpooned twice, then shot seven times by rifle. "It took twenty-two minutes and forty-four seconds for her to die," Peter said, looking away. "The risks I take pale in comparison to what these whales risk if we do not intervene. My biggest fear is not doing enough."

I asked Peter if he cried as he watched that whale die. It took him a long time to answer. "No," he said. "I don't cry during the campaigns. I cry after."

Peter has just completed his ninth consecutive campaign since 2002. He tells me that, over the years, he and his crews have saved nearly six thousand whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. He is proud of this fact, and it flickers across his face in a rare show of emotion. But, he and the other crew members admit, there are sacrifices. Peter, for one, has missed ten years of holidays with his family. Bosun Phil Peterson misses his children back home in America. And some of the other crew members simply miss being on land.

Humpback (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

"We take a lot of risks," Manager Andrea Gordon says. "We know what we're doing is a matter of life or death for the whales. It means taking a stand to save this species from extinction." I asked her how she squares risking her life for a cause that will never be able to verbally thank her.

"Tails splashing is thank you enough," Andrea said.

For Phil Peterson, his dream began with taking action. "It takes one individual to start a movement," he said. Now, his dream is to see governments stick by their commitments. "If you're gonna designate an area to be a sanctuary, enforce it," he said. "You make a commitment; you stand by that commitment."

If you're interested in learning more about the Sea Shepherd's mission, visit their website at 

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1 comment:

fingers said...

i can't stand people like the captain and crew of the Sea Shepherd...they make me feel so inadequate and phony...
Trish, the humpbacks and their calves are just about ready to begin the winter migration from Antarctica north to Hervey Bay/Queensland... luckily they swim right past the beach here at CN often within a few hundred metres of the shoreline...
you only have to see these gigantic animals in the wild to understand the 'whale thing'...they are mesmerizing and boggles the mind why anyone would want to kill one...especially in the 21st century where it's beyond unnecessary...