Imagine falling off a boat in the Antarctic waters wearing only overalls and a shirt. You yell and throw your arms about in hopes that someone on your ship will notice you. It’s nighttime, and not a single person sees you. You watch your life slip away as the ship sails off into the mist. Your body begins to twitch, you lose the feeling in your body, but a warmness takes over and you begin to sleep. Within the hour you dream and never wake up again. This was the end that Hajime Shirasaki recently met.
On Monday, January 5th, in the evening, Shirasaki, an engineer on the ‘Kyoshin Maru 2,’ a spotter vessel for the Japanese whaling fleet, fell overboard. It was not until six hours after he fell that he was reported missing to New Zealand Search and Rescue. He was 30 years old with family back home.
“That is probably one of the worst ways to die,” says Jane Taylor, an American ex-marine on board a Sea Shepherd ship, “and is also one of the most common ways to die at sea. Almost regularly there have been man-overboards in the Navy. It can happen to anyone — professionals, amateurs, or to activists.”
For Sea Shepherd, who sailed their ship to the southern ocean to oppose whaling vessels like the Kyoshin Maru, the news changed the group’s course. There had been manoeuvers to return to port for Sea Shepherd after a month at sea searching for illegal whalers and confronting two ships. The fuel on our ship, the Steve Irwin, was low, and Sea Shepherd would have to return to land to refuel before continuing. However, with news of a search and rescue operation, Sea Shepherd changed course to assist the search-and-rescue efforts.
This was not the first life-threatening event for the Japanese whaling fleet. In the last ten years, there have been three fires on the fleet’s flagship, the Nissin Maru — one fire in the southern ocean claimed a life in winter 2007. In the spring of that same year, an industrial accident in Japan took another.
In Shirasaki’s case, he was declared dead by the afternoon of January 6th. On the night of that same day, Sea Shepherd found itself in the middle of the whaling fleet. Captain Paul Watson offered the ship’s helicopter and services for a recovery operation.
The Kyoshin Maru’s captain responded angrily with a radio transmission saying: “We do not want your help, we do no want the help of eco-terrorists, stay away!”
For the crew on the Sea Shepherd ship it is painfully clear that they are here to save whales, not harm or terrorize people. They feel that “eco-terrorist” is an unfair label that deflects attention from the ones really making the problems for our planet, and endangering their crew’s lives.
Canadian activist Shannon Mann says: “We lent out our hands to the whalers despite our differances to help in this man’s recovery. We’re not here to hurt people. I think we have made that clear. Our goal here is to save life, not the other way around. How does that make me or any other crew here a terrorist?”
On the bridge of the Sea Shepherd ship, Paul Watson radioed back: “out of respect for your loss, we will not interfere with you or assist in the recovery operation as you request. But once you go back to whaling, we will come back to stop you.”
The crew on Sea Shepherd applauded and hollered loudly on the bridge after his transmission. Kaori translated the captains message. The media got their footage of a bold moment from the captain. And we turned and headed north, back to Australia to refuel. Watson’s words were a promise: The Sea Shepherds plan to return within weeks to resume the fight againstsouthern ocean whaling. For, as many here say, they’re here “not to hurt life, but to save life.”
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.