Clinging onto the very tip of the bow on Sea Shepherd’s eco-activist ship, I stare into the fog with desperation. Looking for any shape, figure or shadow that resembles the vessel we have been waiting weeks to find. I could almost smell a ship’s diesel fumes, but not see them. The Sea Shepherd ship steamed ahead through a sharp icefield purely focused on reaching this mystery ship. I was to give the hand signal to the crew on our bridge once I could identify what lay ahead. Fifteen minutes away, 0.4 miles in range, 10 minutes, 0.3 miles, 8 minutes, 7 minutes… I start to see ripples in the calm sea: they are made by the wake of the ship ahead. The lines get bigger and wider — it must be right in front of us now. Something dark looms in the mist, a shape starts to form, a slip-way I can see, a ship, a white ship with Japanese lettering — it reads Kaiiko Maru. It’s a whaling vessel.
After sixteen days at sea, Sea Shepherd found its second whaling vessel in the Antarctic. The first ship was found five days before Christmas, a harpoon vessel called the Yushin Maru 2. Today, on Boxing Day, we’ve found a spotter vessel named the Kaiiko Maru. Both vessels are a part of the Japanese whaling fleet, aimed at hunting 1,000 whales at the south pole. And both vessels faced the wrath of Sea Shepherd’s fight for the whales. But unlike the Yushin, the Kaiiko fought back.
At 6:30pm, activists on board Sea Shepherd found a target. Within the hour, the crew was in position ready for an attack, the ship was gaining on the Kaiiko and a team, including me, searched into the mist from the bow to identify our quarry. Once the Kaiiko was visible to all of us, the Sea Shepherd ship quickly came alongside the Kaiko’s port side for a Boxing Day surprise. Crew on the Kaiiko level to us on our bow turned to us in shock to see our boat nestling up beside them. In a panic they closed doors, turned their faces away from our cameras, and ran inside, bracing for a conflict.
On the Sea Shepherd, teams of two planted themselves at the bow, the bridge deck and the monkey deck (the highest deck of the ship) readying with various bottles. Bottles filled with rancid butter, dyes and methyl cellulose (a slippery substance) that would contaminate the decks of the whaling ship for days to weeks, making whaling impossible. Within seconds of passing the Kaiiko Maru, the Sea Shepherd activists throw the bottles. They’re experienced shots, after weeks of practice with organic compost balls. Two, four, six, eight bottles shatter on the Kaiiko’s decks. Only two miss their target.
But the Kaiiko does not sit idly: instead, they retaliate. The Kaiiko comes in close — so close that on the bow we could have easily walked onto their deck. Suddenly, I remember the rammings from previous Sea Shepherd campaigns I had been on. In previous instances, I’d never been on the bow during one of these collisions, but I can see the Kaiiko isn’t turning away. I yell to my team to “brace for impact.” We all hold onto something, anything, and I grab for the anchor chain — maybe not the best choice. Screech, thump, bang! The Kaiiko struck, scrapping our port side and pulverizing one of our helicopter guard rails.
Unafraid, Captain Paul Watson at the helm turns our ship in circles around the Kaiiko. Once, twice, three times around we go. On the third turn, we just miss their stern to our bow. Their ship crosses for the last time. The two ships are so close their two crews can get a good look at each other. I stand on the bow and I stare one man in the eye as he stares back. I don’t sense hate, but instead curiosity in our exchange. He probably wonders why I am doing this, fighting against his job. I wonder why he is doing this, whaling. We are from two very different worlds, a pro-whaling world and an anti-whaling world, meeting one another for the first time without words in an ecological war. I wonder in that moment: can we come to a middle ground? A ground where jobs are kept but an ecological destruction is curbed?
Minutes go by. The Kaiiko turns southeast and we let them go, to continue onwards in pursuit of the rest of the fleet. The Captain looks like a kid on Christmas morning, as happy as can be. The Kaiko’s decks are contaminated, making at least part of the whaling fleet inoperable and surely putting the rest of the fleet on notice that we are in pursuit. The crew exchange the stories of their individual experiences. High fives, hugs and even some kisses go around. The press releases get written and media calls begin. The world begins to find out about round two.
“In this game, Sea Shepherd got 2, Whalers 0,” says David Nickarz, an engineer and activist from Canada.
Sea Shepherd is knee-deep in the whale wars now. The question is, will they find the Queen Bee that they need to confront to win this battle, the “mother ship,” called the Nissin Maru, without getting too badly stung themselves?
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.