She beats a heavy heart that is her engine. She seemingly jumps up to the sky and crashes down into her own wake in the open ocean, only to repeat it again and again. She is as cold as death. Yet there is a quickening to her pace as she heads toward history-making. She is a vessel headed for Antarctica.
I’m on a vessel that left Hobart, Australia (where I boarded her) five days ago. A vessel with a man’s name, the ‘M/Y Steve Irwin,’ she is the flagship of Sea Shepherd, a radical marine conservation group. A vessel that intercepts whalers in the southern oceans and attempts to stop the ‘illegal’ killing of whales by Japan. A vessel that is to be the boundaries of my life over the next several months as I reside here to document the whale-saving campaigns by Sea Shepherd.
Life at sea is not for the weak, timid, or sensitive. It’s not even for people who have any kind of car-sickness — people like me. That is why for the past five days life has been more of a coma-like state than a life at all. Hugging my mattress and pressing my body against a corner in my bed so as not to fall across the room has become my usual routine. With force 8 to 9 gales and 40-foot waves, at times it seems like I am asking for death by being here. Not keeping any food down has also become a trend, to the point where what hurts more is the emptiness inside my body than the actual process of being sick. The face staring back at me in the mirror has become ghostly and the storm outside my porthole is only going to get worse.
Life at sea is a world of its own beyond the heave of the ocean. On a ship, privacy is non-existent when one shares a cabin with at least one to two strangers in a room that barely fits one person’s luggage. Spending six to 12 weeks on a 180-foot vessel, co-existing with 45 crew of varying egos, really teaches you who you are. Toilets are as hygienic as a gas station. You learn strange skills, like how to shower and shave in a moving vessel without killing yourself.
Life onboard an environmental protest ship is even more colourful. For the conservation of water and fuel (in order to make the campaign last as long as possible) we restrict our water intake and energy use. This translates to three-minute showers every three days and freezing cabins. To practice what we preach, we eat three square vegan meals a day, meaning no meat or dairy in our diet, but instead tofu and vegetables. And to get the word out, cameras and media have access to everyone on the ship and everything that happens, giving it an air of and episode of ‘Big Brother.’
The crew on an activist ship is probably the most unusual at sea. An all-volunteer crew come from as far as Japan, South Africa, Holland, Canada and the United States. Ages include rookies just out of high school to balding 60’s. The crew’s background ranges over what I call the “professionals, panthers and players”: Professionals being the helicopter pilot, doctor and engineers; Panthers include ex-navy officers and cops readying for attack; the Players are those who occupy legitimate positions on the ship, such as quartermaster or deckhand, but who are really amateurs at best.
The Steve Irwin herself is probably the strangest out of all of this. It is an entirely black ship at the end of the world in the southern oceans. A black dot in the midst of great glacials patrolling vast seas for the six dots that are the whaling fleet sent by Japan. A fleet that is faster, larger and more technologically advanced than Sea Shepherd’s single vessel.
This mission really is like finding a needle in a haystack. But for the last 4 years running, Sea Shepherd has found the whaling fleet and interfered with their operation. Over the last two years alone, over a thousand whales have been saved.
But this year, this black dot of the Sea Shepherd is not only opposing whaling but is pitting themselves against a great government, Japan. Sea Shepherd has cost the commerce of the whaling industry in Japan a great deal over the years and “defence” strategies by the government of Japan are going to be used this year. Air bombs, gun shootings, gases and a possible boarding are all tactics that could be used against Sea Shepherd this year.
What used to be banners and peace signs is a full scale war today in the open oceans. Life at sea is about to become a whole lot more wild as a true war for the whales is close to breaking out.
Soon my car-sickness will be the least of my worries.
Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist. She is currently working on a book about young environmental activism, The Next Eco-Warriors and a documentary on illegal whaling in Antarctica.