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Polarized #7: The Life Aquatic

This Magazine Staff

New Year’s is celebrated at dawn, as the sun never sets in the Antarctic at this time of year. (The countdown slips one minute past midnight, since none of the crew has a watch on.) We celebrate on the of bow of ship, our knees shaking and our arms flexing as the motion of the ocean tosses us about. Cheers, laughter, hugs and some secret whispers like ‘I love you’ are passed around as we toast in the new year. I toast to my late father, wherever he may be. We throw a single wine bottle corked with our new years resolutions off the side of the ship. Some ask for the love they share with another crew member to last. Others wish for success in the school year, or for a family member to be well. But the one wish above all that unites our crew is: to end southern ocean whaling this year by intercepting the Japanese whaling fleet.
Captain Paul Watson at the helmThis is how the eco-activist crew on board a Sea Shepherd vessel celebrate their new year in Antarctic waters. Sacrificing their holidays is a small price to pay to be apart of a whale saving campaign for many of the crew. The loss of the annual eggnog drinking, a family dinner and an arbitrary countdown doesn’t bother them. What does is the annual illegal killing of whales in the southern ocean by a fleet heavily subsidized by the Japanese government. And that is what they hope to end this year.

One thing that does weigh on many of the crew’s minds are the tension between their lives back home on land, and their lives out here at sea. One UK man on board had to quit his job to join the expedition. It was a type of ‘big brother’ program where he helped young impoverished boys keep off the streets — a job that was near and dear to his heart. For an American engineer, he struggles between his marriage and his “true life’s work” as an environmental activist, and being away on these kinds of trips for months at a time has strained his marriage. For a Dutch woman, she fights with her deteriorating health to remain an asset, and not a liability, to the ship. A Canadian student feels torn between her environmental activism and her work as an academic.
There are numerous other tensions that come with being a Sea Shepherd activist. From the pains and ills of being seasick, the always present threat of a confrontation with the whalers that could happen at any moment, to living a restricted lifestyle in terms of food, showering, sleeping, and dealing with the social complexity of living with 43 other people in a confined space for months on end. For many of the crew, they have given up their lives back home to be a part of a ‘whale saving lifestyle’ while for others, they have given it up for a little while and will return to life on land soon. For all the hardships, there are benefits to life on the ship, too. With a crew from around the world with a diversity of backgrounds, everyone learns from one another. For example, Laurens, a Dutch cop, teaches self defense classes; Kaori Tanaka, a Japanese student, gives Japanese language lessons.
Artistic talent too blossoms on the ship. Those that can draw color the ship’s logbook with images that remind us of how beautiful Antarctica is. The musicians take out their banjos, didgeridoo and acoustic guitars to play. The photographers show us slide shows of our expedition. Even the engineers come out of the woodworks to weld and cut metals, making whale-related arts and crafts projects like whale bottle openers.
We also organize events to buoy morale. Talent show contests are among the favorite events on the ship, an event where crew display their abundantly colorful nature. We’ve seen Bollywood dance routines, ‘Rocky Horror Show’ skits, poetry reading, Karate moves, even staring contests (seeing who can go longest without blinking). We celebrated Christmas a few weeks ago with a Secret Santa gift exchange: One gift was a voucher for someone else’s shower time; vegan condoms for a couple; a hand-made whale-shaped pillow; and even a ride in the ship’s helicopter on a reconnaissance mission. Birthdays, as well as anniversaries, are celebrated with speeches or cakes.
It becomes a life of its own at sea on board an activist ship. We gossip in the galley. The engineers, in their time off, play Scrabble, Pictionary, and Boggle. The deckhands, mostly boys, act like brothers, wrestling and roughhousing. On the bridge watch, we are entertained by the Captain, who sings 400-year-old ballads from memory. We watch movies together, including the movies ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘The Life Aquatic’ (which we consider to be about us). There’s a surprisingly big fan base on the ship for the TV show ‘Nip/ Tuck.’
Our own TV show, ‘Whale Wars,’ season two of which is currently being filmed on board the ship, puts all our lives on display. The drama factor is increased by having the cameras around: Cameramen follow the crew’s every move and interview them frequently. Smaller ‘spy cameras’ continuously film many of the rooms onboard. It’s like living on the set of a reality show like ‘Big brother,’ and many of the crew find themselves editing what they say and do for the cameras.
Like all small, tight-knit groups, Sea Shepherd has a culture of its own, that can be hard to understand for outsiders. What makes them distinctly different is a new year’s resolution that unites them, despite their differences: A resolution to end Antarctic whaling.
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.

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