Hippies save whales

The annual conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) gets underway in Anchorage, Alaska tomorrow. After the ceremonial clubbing of the seal, 75 nations will sit down and review their position on whaling.


A quartet of Killer Whales welcomes delegates to the Annual International Whaling Commission Conference with traditional synchronised swimming.

Because I am so ahead of the news curve, I went and visited the flagship of the militant anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd before they set off to the Antarctic last December to tackle the Japanese whaling fleet. All power to ’em. Here is my account of the visit. It might be one for the lunch hour, it’s longish…

In December 2005 dramatic scenes were broadcast to the Australian public from a previously little known battleground. Ships from environmental groups Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society harassed and harried Japanese whaling vessels deep into the Antarctic Circle. Over fifteen days the Sea Shepherd flagship Farley Mowat, two Greenpeace ships and several Japanese whaling boats clashed, with at least three instances of ships coming into contact. News reports showed small zodiac dinghies skidding across grey ocean, hounding the 8,000 ton lead ship, the Nisshin Maru, in a reckless but futile attempt to curb its progress. The specks of yellow bouncing around on the zodiacs were crew members of the Sea Shepherd Society’s Farley Mowat, an aging hulk still being willed into combat well past its use-by date.

The people in the yellow life jackets intrigued me. The scale of these seafaring monoliths battling in a far-off ocean made it easy to forget that the real actors weren’t the ships, but the people on them. Who are the people that take such risks to protect whales? What is it that drives them to give up their lives for a cramped, uncomfortable life in the freezing Antarctic? With the ship currently docked in Melbourne before returning to the Antarctic to again challenge Japanese whalers, I decided to visit the crew and find out.

The Farley Mowat is a black sheep that dwarfs the sea of white cruising yachts docked in Victoria Harbour. Its presence is an incongruity: an island of conscientiousness in a sea of excess.
From a distance the all-black paintwork and skull-and-crossbones pirate flag lend the ship a menace that is betrayed up close by the rusted anchor and corroded cranes on her deck. It is not difficult to imagine that in the context of massive sea swells, the ship would feel terrifyingly small. It is old and battle weary, the result of being pushed too hard on too little money.

I arrive first thing in the morning. Unwittingly, or perhaps as a taunt to the vegan crew who dedicate themselves to protecting marine life, a lone fisherman casts his lines into the water at the ship’s bow. Standing at the gangway I introduce myself to Gunter Schwabenlander – “just call me Gunter Filho,” he says – the first mate and acting captain. Nursing a cup of tea, and sporting pillow lines across his stubbled cheeks and shocking bed head hair, it is clear that Filho hasn’t been up for long.

We board, and I am immediately ushered into the bowels of the ship. I squeeze past two bare-footed crew members, a guy and a girl, in the narrow passageway. They look like Peter Pan would look if he moved to Byron Bay and stopped eating. Tall and skinny, both have their dreadlocks tied back and are wearing tattered three-quarter length pants. In the early stages at least, my preconceptions about the type of people who volunteer for such a life are in no danger of being dispelled.

I peer into one of the rooms off the corridor, and I’m instantly reminded of my father’s shed. The space is littered with tools, cables and icecream containers of assorted nuts, bolts and miscellaneous mysteries that may one day come in handy. The smell of fuel is thick and oppressive, and every surface holds a greasy half-finished project. We continue into the communal area, where Filho slides in behind a table and tells me his story.

Twelve months ago Filho was a biology teacher in Brazil. He had never been on a ship.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” he says. “I thought maybe some excitement, a little bit of adventure.”

He had always been interested in nature and wildlife protection, but he was increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress the world was making.

“You see all this research going on but you never see any results,” he says. “Same for these organisations like Greenpeace or WWF: you see the actions, but you don’t see results, there’s nothing happening.”

That, he says, was the appeal of the Farley Mowat: “With Sea Shepherd you see results. You go there to protect the ocean, it’s easy.”

“The best part of the job is doing something you believe in, I guess doing something real. This is the only job I have ever had that I really believe in.”

His crewmate, 27-year-old engineer Daniel Villa, had a similarly dramatic transition to life at sea.

“I was studying space robotics. I really wanted to go and work at NASA’s jet propulsion lab making the little Mars rovers. But in grad school I wasn’t feeling happy with my work; it wasn’t feeling very important to me.”

“I realised we were designing all of these robots to go and look for life on Mars, and yet we were destroying it all here on Earth, so it all felt absolutely pointless.”

He finished his last university presentation on a Sunday night. The next day he flew to Jacksonville, Florida, and joined the crew of the Farley Mowat.

Now he is working with 1956 technology, spending eight hours a day in the oppressive conditions of the engine room, pleading, coaxing and threatening the ship’s aging engine into action.

The 54-metre, 657-ton Farley Mowat is now 50 years old. The ship’s one-inch thick riveted, welded steel hull was built to withstand heavy seas and thick ice; although a recent overhaul of the hull revealed that in places it was no more than one sixth of an inch thick. Some of the volunteers maintaining the ship have specialist knowledge in navigation and engineering. Most, however, only come on board with a passion for marine conservation and a willingness to learn on the job.

Up on deck we venture towards the bow. Lying across the breadth of the deck are enormous steel girders, about eight metres long and half a metre wide. The ends are cut away at a jagged 45 degree angle. “What’s with all this steel lying around?” I ask. “That,” Villa tells me, “is going to be our can opener.”

“Your can opener? What’s it going to…oh, I see.”

Welded to the hull, the beams will sit perpendicular to the side of the ship, where ships from previous centuries would have had cannons. The theory is that if the whaling vessels get too close – and the crew hope they will – the girder will tear a massive gash in the side of their ship, forcing them to return to port. It is a brutal prospect, and the size of the girder reinforces the massive scale of the Japanese ships the Farley Mowat is setting out to oppose.

We turn and walk towards the stern of the ship. I notice a three-barrel cannon pointing off starboard towards Telstra Dome.
“That is our goo gun,” Villa says. “Food scraps, any organic waste we can find, gets put in there and fired at the whaling ships. You should smell bad tofu,” he adds. Happily it is a rhetorical suggestion.

Villa leads me up to the bridge, where I can look down onto the deck filled with zodiacs, jet skis, buoys and cranes. I look back onto the dock, where several crew members are easing their way into the day with a game of soccer. I had thought that I would find the archaic shell of the ship had been gutted and fitted out with state-of-the-art navigation equipment. While I don’t set eyes on a sextant, it is clear the fitout is a basic one. As we turn to leave the bridge and I notice a steel baseball bat propped in the corner, within reach of the captain’s chair. “A baseball bat on the bridge?” I ask. “Oh yeah, don’t worry about that, it’s just there for protection,” Villa assures me.

From whalers? From whales perhaps? “Sometimes we get drunk people hurling a bit of abuse at us,” he says. “We don’t use it; normally a bit of yell will get them moving.”

Clearly not many drunks know about the crew’s views on ‘direct action’.

It is a challenge to keep the crew talking about themselves rather than their mission. Yet it is when they discuss their cause and their methods that I am given the best glimpse into the unrelenting hardness of their convictions. While the most innocuous questions about their everyday lives are blandly batted away, the crew come to life when they see the opportunity to preach their cause. I am pummelled so hard with statistics that I can’t make sense of them. It isn’t a conversation; it is the kind of oft-repeated monologue that, if delivered at a dinner party, would make people shift uncomfortably in their seats.

The crew seem ambivalent about their reputation for extreme measures. On one hand they quite happily take credit for scuttling or ramming ten ships into retirement and for intervening rather than observing. As Villa notes, even Greenpeace have been quick to distance themselves from the Sea Shepherd Society’s radical tactics. They are pirates with utilitarian tendencies, willing to pursue any means to achieve their end.

On the other hand, everyone on board is keen to tell me that no-one on any side has ever been killed or injured in the Society’s history. While critics such as the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research refer to the group’s anti-whaling activities as terrorism, everyone on board calls it ‘direct action’ – a far more marketable term.

“The way we see it is that if a person has a rifle and is about to shoot someone, it is an act of non-violence to tear that rifle out of their hands and break it across your knee. And it is an act of violence to be complacent in that, to just stand by and watch the killing happen,” says Villa. His tone suggests the logic of this explanation is so obvious it would be absurd not to agree, but the rhetoric from other crew members has a distinctly harder edge to it.

“They [the Japanese whaling ships] are scared. Because of our history. Because of our attitude,” says Filho. “We like to paint the ship black for intimidation. If you’re on the seas and you’re a fisherman and you see a black ship with a pirate flag, you run from it – and it works,” he says. “We never have any confrontations with fishermen, they never shoot at us, because they’re scared – they run away. And if they’re running away, they’re not killing anything.”

I ask the softly spoken Dutch quartermaster, Hester Bartels, whether she ever feels sympathy for the crew members of the whaling ships. At 39, she is the eldest member of the crew. I pick her out as being the most empathetic crew member, but I am quickly proved wrong: “I don’t have any compassion about that. Not any. Some people say ‘yeah, but they have to do their job to feed their children…’ but I really despise them if they crew whaling ships for money. I’d rather beg in the street than killing something that I love.”

If the crew of the Farley Mowat possess the religious fervour of a Pentecostal church, then Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, is clearly their spiritual leader. He is spoken of in awed tones. Villa delivers the accounts of Watson’s achievements with a familiarity borne of endless retelling. He enthuses about Watson’s feats over 29 years of animal rights work; his leading role in the creation of Greenpeace; his subsequent resignation in 1977 due to ‘disagreements with the emerging bureaucratic structure of the organisation’; his sinking of ‘pirate’ whaling ships; his arrests and his famous escapes. The tales seem to have mythical status among the crew. It is the Sea Shepherd Society’s romanticised account of its own achievements.

Anyone whose imagination is fired by the prospect of an all-expenses paid whale-watching trip to the spectacular Antarctic should think twice before volunteering for a tour of duty on the Farley Mowat. Between the adrenaline rushes of clashes with whalers, there is the more mediocre battle against boredom and loneliness, and the pressure of being packed into confined cabins like – um, sardines.

“It can get boring,” says Villa. “The days tend to blur together into this big blob of sameness, just the same thing, day in, day out.”

For Bartels, being the eldest crew member is the most difficult thing. “It’s a bit hard,” she says. “I miss having people of my own age, people who are a bit more serious I guess.”

She says the most frequent fights on board are about petty things: “Sometimes there is tension, but I think it’s normal. People get upset about little things, like if one person has one watch more than another person, or if you have to wash the floor more than someone else.”

It seems not even a ship full of fiercely committed environmental volunteers are immune to the foibles of close coexistence. In fact the whole boat seems to be the floating version of a Brunswick share house.

The communal area has a shelf jammed with well-worn board games to while away the hours. Around a corner I find the most recent piece of technology I have seen on the ship – a massive flat screen television. I search the DVD and video collection for ‘Free Willy’, but I can’t find it.

“The worst thing about being on the boat is that you can’t get off – for two months,” says the ship’s chief cook, Laura Dakin. “Sometimes you go a bit crazy and mad, a little bit of cabin fever, especially when there’s 45 people on board, it can get pretty small.”

Dakin joined the ship in Bermuda two years ago. Flushed from the heat of the galley and distracted by the soup on the stove, she carries herself with a serious demeanour not seen in many 22-year-olds. A ring pierces her bottom lip, and her long dreadlocks are tied back. She spends long hours putting together vegan meals for the crew.

“I love vegan food and vegan cooking and being able to show everyone how exciting it can be,” she says. “But because we don’t know what we’re going to get or what is going to be donated, we kind of just cook whatever we get. At the moment 100 percent of our food is donated. We can make a block of tofu go a fair way.”

Any crew members who don’t eat rice, soy protein and potatoes will struggle, Bartels says. “I’m very lucky because I’m so fond of beans. You could feed them to me every day.”

Which is just as well, because Dakin does.

The summer whaling season is looming, and anticipation is rising. This will be the most expensive campaign in the Sea Shepherd Society’s history.

“It’s just so exciting. [Last year] we were trying to find the Japanese whaling fleet, when we first discovered them on Christmas day, everyone was just so excited, there was this huge rush,” says Villa.

“It’s a big rush,” Filho agrees. “You get pumped up. You feel revenge.”

Every weekend barefooted staff guide curious Melbournians through the tangles of ropes, rubber dinghies and rust, all the while peppering their guests with a relentless hail of statistics. As I prepare to leave, I see the remnants of a tour group shuffling awkwardly through the galley back to the gangway. The tour doesn’t pull any punches, and the group are left under no illusions about life on the ship.

“Good luck mate,” one of them calls back to a crew member, but he doesn’t look back as he says it. I can’t tell if he is being sarcastic or not.

People everywhere volunteer. But this is not serving a few pies at the local football club, or shaking a tin on a street corner. This is volunteering as a lifestyle, or perhaps even more: volunteering as a life. People with tendencies towards moderation and compromise need not apply.

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5 thoughts on “Hippies save whales

  1. Nick says:

    Just brilliant, really enjoyed it. I was curious though as to why you would expect someone Dutch to be empathetic? Surely not a characteristic usually associated with the Dutch!

  2. madison says:

    Just brilliant, really enjoyed it. I was curious though as to why you would expect someone Dutch to be empathetic? Surly not a characteristic usally associated with the Dutch!

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