[Editor’s note: this is the last of Emily’s dispatches from Antarctica. She is now safely back on land and working on a feature article for the May-June 2009 issue of This Magazine. You can go back and read the full run of Emily’s “Polarized” blog here.]
We received word that a commando ship was after us in the Antarctic Ocean. It was the night of February the 7th, and the Sea Shepherd ship, the Steve Irwin, had chased the Japanese whaling fleet for seven days and nights, stopping them from killing more whales. The chase had come to a climax the day before when there was a collision with the Sea Shepherd ship and a harpoon vessel. But our battle had to end now. News came through that a Japanese security ship would be in the area within a day. The goal of the commando: to board the Sea Shepherd vessel (potentially violently), arrest the crew and destroy video footage, as well as any photographic evidence we had of the hunt.
Many of us onboard wanted to keep fighting. We were willing to risk injury, arrest, perhaps our lives for the cause we had been pursuing since December. And the Sea Shepherd ships have always been expendable: they have been used in ramming and sinking vessels they oppose since 1977 (in non lethal ways, i.e. sinking ships in port with no crew aboard). But the real risk was to our cameras.
The camera has been a tool for change in the environmental movement for over 35 years. The footage we have now showcases the killing of whales, an illegal act in itself — but one that groups like Greenpeace have already shown the world. But we also had captured the whalers on film violating other laws, including their aggressive, violent, and potentially lethal tactics to harm people. The last few days’ worth of events had provided a wealth of footage that the world needs to see.
To save our cameras, and to save the footage we’ve captured with them, might force more governments into action on the issue. So Captain Paul Watson decided to head away from the fleet. We headed southwest for McMurdo base, a U.S. research station near the Ross Ice Shelf (the largest free-standing ice mass on the planet — it’s the size of Texas). Slowly, we lengthened the distance between us and the Nisshin Maru, the flagship of the Japanese whaling fleet. At first, we charted a course away from McMurdo, in order not to give away our destination and our course. By falling behind the fleet, it would look like we had mechanical problems and were still tailing the fleet, instead of leaving.
It was February 9th at 9 a.m. when we arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf. It appeared we had escaped the fleet unharmed and the ruse seemed to be working: the fleet had not whaled for another day after we left. It seemed we could relax and enjoy the Ross Ice Shelf, which is an amazing sight. It looks like an ice wall, glowing neon blue, that goes as far as the eye can see on either side of it. It towers a hundred feet above the water, so that you can’t see the top of it without a helicopter. The ice goes 900 feet below the water line. We were ending the campaign on a high note, or so we thought.
Out of the fog ahead, we could see a ship. At first the spotters thought it was nothing, an Antarctic mirage. But it wasn’t. We thought it might be a legitimate research vessel, a tourist boat, a supply ship — anything but the commando vessel after us. Luckily, it wasn’t what we feared, but in a way it was just as bad: the mystery ship was a spotter vessel from the whaling fleet, the Kyoshin Maru 2. Instead of spotting for whales, it was now spotting for us.
Knowing our coordinates were being relayed to the fleet and commando ship, we left the Ice Shelf and ran full-tilt to McMurdo. But it soon became clear that wasn’t going to be possible either: hard ice surrounded the base, and all other bases near the Ross Sea. At that point on February 9, Captain Watson decided to head due north to Australia. We would head straight for land and hope that the commando ship did not intercept us. We had no other choice.
I’m writing this 72 hours into our journey north, and we believe we’re in the clear. At this point, if the fast commando ship were going to board us, they would have already done so. We are out of the area of the fleet and heading home.
The battle this year is over, but the war continues. Its a war for the whales, but its also for a larger ecology. This is a war because the political conflict over whaling has spurred dangerous confrontations this year, the most dangerous in the history of this conflict. The two sides battled it out for their opposing visions, and national leaders have also chimed in, condemning and condoning the actions of both sides. Some lives — the lives of whales, which Sea Shepherd believes have as much worth as human lives — have been lost, but others have also been saved. The activists could claim this much as victory, for now. But the war still rages on.
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.