I step outside on the aft deck to see the spy ship, Shonan Maru II, bearing down upon us fast. Our helicopter had been launched earlier to verify what ship it actually is, as we hadn't come within clear visual range before. Upon arrival, the helicopter had a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) pointed at it. This is a device that sends out a highly directional noise, aimed at disorientating or even incapacitating a person. Using it on our helicopter while it is mid-air is, to say the least, totally irresponsible. With the helicopter now safely back on the Steve Irwin, it seems that the Japanese ship is coming in for the attack. With its water cannons blasting at full power, it is trying to come alongside us, presumably to give the helicopter a wash down, in an effort to damage it. As it chases us, loudspeakers blast: "This is the Shonan Maru captain! You are too close to me! You are too close to me!" Meanwhile we have a prop-fouler ready, which is a long rope we trail from the end of our ship to keep them at bay. If they were to come too close and run over the line, it could get entangled in their propeller and cause serious damage. They know this and are unable to come as close as they'd like. They keep trying but by now we are entering an ice field full of mid-size growlers and after a few sharp manoeuvres the Japanese ship backs off. They fall back but stay behind us within radar range.
A couple of days later we are anchored up in Commonwealth Bay, overlooking the Antarctic continent on one side and the open sea on the other. Our spy ship can still be seen lurking about on the horizon. We haven't been able to get rid of her, so we take shelter in these waters, which are French territory. Perhaps the French can help.
We switch off the engines and while one of the officers gets in the helicopter to visit the French base Dumont D'urville, some of the crew strip down for the traditional dive in the freezing Antarctic waters. As negotiations with the French continue into the afternoon, some of us head out in the small boat towards Cape Denison, home to a colony of 30.000 Adelie penguins and the spot where the Australian scientist Mawson landed in 1911. I step foot on land and realise how few people must have been fortunate enough to see this place. Snow covers the land as far as the eye can see and the smell of the fresh and sharp air takes some getting used to. Looking out at sea, the coastline is covered with rocks and home to thousands of Adelie penguins.
Following a bunch of penguins walking towards a huge icy ridge, it strikes me that this is probably one of the very few places of true wilderness left. Untouched by human hands, growth, development, exploitation. So far Antarctica has enjoyed fairly good protection. The Antarctic Treaty prohibits commercial and/or military activity on and around the continent and states that the number of cruise ships is to be kept to a minimum. However, there are vast resources, such as oil and there are theories that when the treaty is re-negotiated in a few years, some countries including Japan will try to loosen these conditions in order to gain access. Some people argue that the only reason Japan continues its whaling operations in the Southern Ocean is so that it will have some 'historical claim' over the resources in the area, if it would ever be opened up for exploitation. Whatever the reasons, right now the Japanese fleet operates illegally in the area, threatening this habitat and the creatures that depend on its protection for their survival, which is all that matters to us.
Seeing our ship in the far distance, anchored up in the bay, makes me feel proud to know that we are here for these animals and to protect this unique and untouched wilderness from the destructive hands of corporate power. I head back down towards the water, in the small boat and back to the ship. The commander of the French base has written a letter of support, but without some kind of navy presence in the area, they are unable to do much more than that. We pull up anchor and head back out into what now has become quite a rough sea. Not getting much sleep as we are thrown about by the 15 foot swells.
Sea Shepherd has always enjoyed support from the ranks of Hollywood with, among many, Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan and Darryl Hannah donating their time and resources for the cause. The latest to join the list is Ady Gil, a businessman from Los Angeles, who has donated a large sum of money to help us purchase a second vessel. The ship, previously known as Earthrace, is a super fast trimaran powerboat which broke the world circumnavigation record in 2008, is bio-diesel powered and looks like something to have sailed straight out of the latest batman movie. Its skipper and creator Pete Bethune is eager to join the Sea Shepherd campaign and with the financial backing, the ship is refitted and renamed Ady Gil. We are on our way to meet up with the Ady Gil, which left Hobart two weeks earlier, to transfer food and other supplies. As we steam north, our spy ship keeps a steady two nautical miles behind us.
We are getting closer to the Ady Gil and I go up to the bridge to see what is going on. Nothing shows on the radar. The boat is so small that it can go about its business virtually undetected. In addition, we take advantage of the short bit of darkness to covertly meet up. I step out on deck. 'Over there, can you see?' I can just about make out a tiny black spot in the vast darkness. We launch a small boat and pick up two of the crew. After a short meeting they head off into the darkness again. We set course for Hobart and the Ady Gil heads towards the spy ship in an attempt to take it out of action. Prop-foulers come out, stink bombs are thrown onto the deck and a laser gun aimed at distracting those on the bridge is put to use. It is all part of our essential arsenal of non-violent tactics to shut down the whalers. In 30 years of operations Sea Shepherd has never caused a single injury as a result of any of its actions. We are non-violent yet honest about the fact that we take aggressive action. Exactly the type of action that is necessary to stop these criminal whale poachers. A few hours later we notice that the spy ship has caught up with us again. As we sail into Australian waters the Japanese ship stays put at the Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) boundary, unwilling to escalate the ongoing international stand-off over whaling.
New years eve. After the refuel and resupply we are back at sea, enjoying cake, drinks and a super vegan buffet. The sea is rough and outside it is pitch black. As we clear the EEZ boundary the spy ship is nowhere to be seen. Last we heard it was waiting for us just south of Hobart. Our plan of sneaking out under the cover of darkness and in bad weather seems to work. When we left in December the whalers had hired surveillance planes under false pretences so they could track our movements. This worked for a while, until the hire company found out what the real deal was. Even if they were able to find someone to hire them a plane, the weather might be too bad for them to come out. A group calling themselves 'Taz Patrol' later announced on Twitter that the spy ship was still waiting for us at the EEZ boundary when we had already sneaked out and were way out of their reach. Hurray!
We sail straight south towards the Commonwealth Bay area, where we were not more than a fortnight ago and where we now know the whaling fleet is. An Antarctic cruise ship spotted them and some of the passengers informed us. Word has it that the passengers voted with an overwhelming majority to stay with the whaling fleet until we managed to catch up, but a few unhappy voters made them move on. The Ady Gil is roughly in the same area as the whalers. Low on fresh water and fuel they are waiting on us to be resupplied. As we are heading down, another vessel is coming in from the west. Kept secret until now, this is our third vessel, the ice-classed Bob Barker, named after the American TV presenter and animal rights campaigner who purchased it for us. The ship was bought in West Africa a few months ago and refitted in Mauritius. It has been at sea for over a month now, trying to reach the whaling grounds to join in on the action. With the Ady Gil south east of the fleet, the Bob Barker coming in from the west and us bearing down on them from the north, there is literally nowhere for them to run.
We have quite a way to go yet, about two and a half days sailing. We start up our second engine to increase speed and the Ady Gil sets course for a rendezvous point further north, so it is now only about 24 hours away. While on its way, the Ady Gil runs into the whaling fleet's re-supply vessel, previously known as the Oriental Bluebird but recently re-flagged and re-named. It leaves this monstrous bunker ship be and presses ahead. Meanwhile, the Bob Barker is closing in too and briefly meets with the Ady Gil. This is when things get ugly.
The Bob Barker has located the whaling fleet and sets course for the factory ship Nisshin Maru. This ship, where the whales are hauled onto and processed once they have been caught, is at the hearth of the whaling fleet. You shut it down and the rest of the ships are unable to operate. The Nissin Maru starts running at full speed. Meanwhile, the other whaling ships scatter in different directions. It seems the chase is on.
We are on watch in the engine room. The phone rings, it is the bridge. 'Hey guys, have you heard the news?' I listen intently as the story unfolds. The Ady Gil is drifting close by the Bob Barker, waiving and cheering before leaving to meet up with us. The vessel is dead in the water and the some of the crew sit on the aft deck. In the distance the spy ship Shonan Maru No2 is approaching at full speed. It is getting closer and closer and at a distance of about a hundred meters it starts to turn sharply towards the Ady Gil. When the crew realise what is going on, they fire up the engines and start to pull back, hoping to avoid a collision, but to no avail. The more than 800 tonnes heavy harpoon ship throws itself into the much smaller trimaran. It crashes into the vessel, tearing open its hull and cutting off 4 metres of the bow.
The Ady Gil starts sinking. A MAYDAY distress signal is sent out and the Bob Barker changes course and rushes to its aid. It gets there just in time to rescue the 6 crew members from the vessel. The Japanese whaling fleet ignores the emergency distress signals and steams away, hoping to loose us and continue their illegal whaling operation elsewhere. The Shonun Maru No2 ignores the distress signal at first but later agrees to stay nearby after the Bob Barker makes numerous radio calls to them, relaying the urgency of the situation. The rest of the whaling fleet runs far west.
The next day, everyone on the ship is catching up with the impact that the ramming and sinking of the Ady Gill is having. On the international stage, media wise and in turn how it effects people all over the world who hear about what is going on and are starting to ask questions. From the emails we are receiving and the reports we are reading, it seems that the world media is all over this. It has definitely put whaling back on the map, though I doubt that governments will finally live up to their obligation to uphold the laws they undersigned to protect these whales. In a sense it feels like governments aren't even part of this whole situation anymore. It is down to us, the only force in the Southern Ocean to protect these gentle giants of the sea from the deadly harpoons that are after them. Looking to shoot, pull, haul up and process, what in business terms will be another few boxes of whale meat on the inventory. Another product in the freezer storage ready to be distributed once the fleet arrives back in Japan. Another statistic on the books for the whaling company. That is what it is for the whalers, for those with no regard for the sacredness of life, with no understanding of the importance that a healthy ocean and therefore healthy planet has to all of us.
After the sinking of the Ady Gil we turn west at full speed in pursuit of the whaling fleet. After 10 days they are still running from us. When they are nearing the boundary of the area they have allocated themselves to conduct their 'research' in, an announcement is made that the area is to suddenly be expanded by another 1000 nautical miles west. Very convenient. We are forced to change course to meet the Bob Barker as they are running low on supplies.
'Attention all crew, whales breaching off the bow, whales breaching off the bow'. The announcement makes everyone jump into action straight away. 'Whales! Quick quick!' We all rush up the stairs and onto the deck. There, about 50 meters from the ship, two humpback whales jump out of the water, throwing their huge bodies up in the air, and crashing back down, causing huge eruptions on the surface. We all stand there in awe. So far, we hadn't seen many whales at all. Quite a discouraging observation when you consider a vast industrial whaling fleet is looming about. But they're definitely here and happy to show off their tricks. Under the sound of cheering and clapping from the ever growing spectator crowd on deck, they continue to breach, flip and dive back down. When you see these animals in the free, open ocean, their wilderness, their world, it gives you strength to carry on. Inspiration to pursue our goals in shutting down these pirate whalers.
For latest updates and news: http://www.seashepherd.org
See photos from the campaign so far: http://media.seashepherd.org/2009-10_Antarctica/#photos
reposting from Wietse's email update