April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

At Sea with the Whale Pirates

By Sam Vincent

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Eyewitness to the whale wars

Captain Siddharth Chakravarty, the Indian skipper of Sea Shepherd’s flagship Steve Irwin, hasn’t moved in two hours. “Somebody hand me a bottle to pee in!” he demands. Sneakered and irreverent, he stands with one hand on the Steve’s steering lever, the other clutching a thermos of coffee. A loudspeaker suddenly blares to starboard. The bottle will have to wait.

“Warning, warning. This is the Fisheries Agency, the government of Japan. Stop your violent, obstructive actions immediately! Keep away from the research vessel! The government of Japan strongly urges you to stop your activities threatening the safety at sea!”

 “Which one’s the research vessel?” Chakravarty quips. We all laugh, accustomed to the claims of Japan’s “scientific” whaling fleet.

Sea Shepherd’s campaign has for three months been rendered uneventful by the late departure of the whalers and a US court injunction against the anti-whalers. In January, Sea Shepherd’s mercurial founder, Paul Watson, stood down in the face of the injunction and an Interpol notice for his arrest. Former Greens leader Bob Brown took over direction of the campaign, and the 29-year-old Chakravarty, the organisation’s rising star, became de facto admiral of its fleet.

Now, just after noon on 20 February, the vigilante marine conservationists’ annual assault on Japanese whaling is about to begin in earnest with a nine-vessel face-off on the Cooperation Sea, in Australia’s Antarctic territory.

The evening before, Sea Shepherd activists had cut a fender line to stop the South Korean oil tanker Sun Laurel refuelling the whalers’ 8000-tonne factory ship Nisshin Maru. Sea Shepherd claimed its action was justified, as transporting a cargo of heavy fuel oil south of the 60th parallel is illegal under international law. The Nisshin has motored 100 km further south to where the water begins to freeze; if Sea Shepherd is again to stop her refuelling, it will have to do so in the ice.

Supporting the Nisshin are three harpoon vessels with water cannons blasting: the Yushin Maru, the Yushin Maru No. 2 and the Yushin Maru No. 3; the Shonan Maru No. 2, the Japanese Coast Guard vessel now broadcasting the warning message on a loop, has just appeared. Sea Shepherd’s plan is to use its three ships – the Steve, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon – to surround the Sun.

The ocean is cobalt, still and slushy. It’s a sunny day, and the temperature is just below freezing.

Since 10 am Chakravarty has held a speed of 8 knots and positioned the Steve 100 metres behind and to port of the tangerine-coloured Sun. The Sam trails a long rope ahead of the Sun to try and disable her propeller; she will remain the front-running vessel for the duration of the skirmish. The Bob, the Nisshin and the three Yushins have been exchanging positions behind us.

A message crackles over the UHF. It’s in the broken English spoken between the Sun’s Korean officers and Filipino crew: “All crew, you stan’ by.”

Fenders are lowered over the Sun’s port side in preparation for refuelling, as they were the night before. Today, drift ice is starting to form on the water, which will stop the Sea Shepherd’s speedboats reaching the fenders to cut them. Instead, Peter Hammarstedt, the Swedish captain of the Bob, will pull up flush with the Sun should a gap emerge.

The Nisshin storms towards our portside. The Steve increases speed; at the same time the Shonan peels off to our starboard and is replaced by the Yushin No. 1. Two of its grim-faced crewmembers are outside filming the action.

The Nisshin overshoots her mark, turns a full circle across the bow of the Sun and falls behind us. By the time she is ready to approach again the Steve is tightly off the Sun’s stern and the Bob is behind the Steve.

We receive a strangely polite ultimatum: “Steve Irwin, Steve Irwin, this is Nisshin Maru. How are you? I advise you to stop your obstructive actions immediately. Please move away.”

Suddenly, the bridge is full of refugees from the deck. The impact comes as a loud, violent thud into the heli-deck.

The atmosphere on the bridge is calm. Sea Shepherd will later claim the Steve was rammed a second time; if it was, I didn’t feel it. Sea Shepherd also alleges the Sam was later rammed, though I never saw proof. Chakravarty swings to port, overtakes the Sun and drops speed. Time for the Bob to plug that gap on the Sun’s port side. Hammarstedt does so quickly, under fire from the water cannons of the fast-approaching Nisshin.

Nisshin Maru, this is the Bob Barker. I will not move for you; you’ll have to sink me. Back off!”

The Steve is now off the Sun’s starboard quarter. Across her deck I see the Bob, and beyond the huge black hull of the Nisshin. The Bob is sandwiched between the Nisshin and the Sun for ten long minutes.

The Nisshin drops behind the Bob and pulls alongside the Steve, pounding our portside windows with water. She then slams into the stern of the Sun, cracking one lifeboat and crumpling the davit used to launch the other.

Half an hour passes, and a messenger tells Chakravarty that crewmembers on the Sun have thrown a message in a bottle onto the deck of the Bob. Paul Watson has recently appeared on the bridge, and he too hears the Sun crew’s claim that they weren’t told they were coming to Antarctica and are now being forced to refuel the whalers.

Chakravarty suggests announcing the message over the radio. Watson, who since January has supposedly been just a “special observer”, overrules: “No, don’t do that.”

On the radio Hammarstedt claims the Nisshin is ramming the Bob, but my view is obscured by the Sun. Later, a Sea Shepherd press release will announce the encounter destroyed one of the Bob’s radars “and all of her masts”. Afterwards I see the broken radar, a broken navigation light, damage to the deck and four crumpled navigation masts. The two main masts are fine.

Just before two o’clock, Hammarstedt announces he has lost propulsion. The Nisshin turns away from the Bob and the Sun. Five minutes later Hammarstedt says he has regained propulsion, but not before having issued a mayday call.

The two-hour skirmish comes to an end not long afterward, when the Japanese vessels break away and head north. Chakravarty embraces his first mate, sighs and hurries down from the bridge to relieve himself. 

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a Canberra-based writer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars.

@samcvincent

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