Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Antarctic cruise I

Sea shepherd vs whalers

By Nic Price 
Cover: February 2013February 2013Short read

It’s the last morning of the year and the Hobart sky is various shades of grey. An un-summery breeze is snapping flags on scores of Sydney-to-Hobart yachts as sailors tinker on deck. Garbage bags of empty beer and wine bottles sag on the jetty. The party will be bigger tonight, but not for all.

Under a distinctive skull-and-crossbones flag, those aboard the Sam Simon, one of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s fleet, are making final preparations to set sail for Antarctic waters. There, they will stalk and harass Japanese whaling boats over the summer. Among the crew is a 21-year-old Queenslander, Alistair Allan. He is tall, with the long hair and scruffy beard of a musician. This time last year he was on a speedboat, trying to foul the propeller of a harpoon boat with a thick mooring line.

“You’re a little mosquito trying to take down an eagle,” Allan tells me. “We went to attach something to the hull but we couldn’t get it to work and we swung around nose to nose. They started pushing us backwards and we went down the side of the boat. I got knocked off my feet by a water cannon. It was like being hit with a baseball bat made of water.”

Almost 120 volunteers – from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia – will crew Sea Shepherd’s boats this year, and all have signed papers saying they are prepared to die for the cause.

“The element of danger is not just during the engagements,” explains Allan. “We are going to the most inhospitable ocean on the planet. During storms you get 15-metre waves and if you fall in, you’ve got two minutes to live. There is ice everywhere that can sink a ship.’’

Japan hunts about 1000 whales each year, mostly minke, under the auspices of “scientific research”. Sea Shepherd calls it poaching, and puts bodies and boats on the line to stop it. Their fleet scours the Southern Ocean for the Nisshin Maru, the infamous whale-factory ship, then places a vessel on its stern to prevent whales being transferred aboard from harpoon boats. Meanwhile, the likes of Allan launch speedboats to sabotage the whalers’ propellers and throw butyric acid stink bombs onto their decks.

Sea Shepherd has assembled a minor armada of four large vessels, unmanned drones, a chopper and a squadron of small boats without any government funding. Major purchases are often made with help from wealthy friends. Backers include animal rights campaigner Brigitte Bardot, former US game-show host Bob Barker and bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The 56-metre Sam Simon takes its name from the co-creator of The Simpsons, who stumped up the $2 million to buy the ship from the Japanese government in late 2012. Two Japanese volunteers have spent the past few months translating the vessel’s controls and signs into English. Former Greens senator Bob Brown will run the campaign, taking over from founder and long-time leader Paul Watson.

Allan shows me around the ship. He talks easily, punctuating with his paint-flecked hands. We are tailed by a television crew documenting Sea Shepherd’s activities for a US cable-channel reality show. Young, attractive volunteers wearing black Sea Shepherd hoodies smile as we pass. In a warren of low-ceilinged white corridors, we find Allan’s bedroom – a small windowless cabin in mild disarray. On campaign, crew work from 8 am to 5 pm, seven days a week, and pass the evenings with movies and games. Allan says much of their time at sea is “monotonous and uncomfortable”.

He hesitates when I ask if the “engagements” are fun. He says he wishes the Japanese would cease whaling, or that the Australian government would take action so he wouldn’t have to get involved. But there’s no disguising his taste for the thrill of it all. In big storms he likes to run to the bridge, whooping.

“It has an element of adventure and uniqueness – you can’t get this experience anywhere else. The setting in which it happens is surreal. For me, going to Antarctica is about as close as you can get to going to another planet. Last year, we spent Christmas Eve patrolling through icebergs. There were whales everywhere and the sun was up the whole time – even at three in the morning. There were towering icebergs that you didn’t ever think could be that big. Incredible colours and shapes.

“Then we had this confrontation with two Japanese ships coming in close either side of us trying to ‘prop foul’ us while we were doing 15 knots through an iceberg field at night. It was snowing and there were lights and flares going off and we almost got driven into an iceberg. Everything is on such a large scale.”

Allan, whose father worked for Queensland’s Environmental Protection Agency, spent his childhood holidays running around on World Heritage–listed Fraser Island. At 15, spurred on by political punk and hardcore bands, Allan became interested in human and animal rights. By 17 he was a vegan. After graduating, he worked on whale-watching boats for a year in his hometown of Hervey Bay, and then took off with a backpack. In Barcelona he stumbled across the Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin and asked the crew if they wanted a hand. “There was no interview,” says Allan. “It was just sign the papers and on you hop.”

Since then Allan has found his old world slipping away. There is no phone contact on campaign and only fortnightly satellite email access. “I haven’t seen a lot of my old friends in two and a half years,” says Allan. “Your common ground very quickly diminishes.” Meanwhile his mother, though supportive, doesn’t sleep well in summer.

About the author Nic Price
Nic Price is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.