Sea Shepherd is a radical protest group made famous — or notorious — by the American cable TV series Whale Wars and by the support of numerous Hollywood celebrities and rock stars. Having previously concentrated on obstructing whale-hunting from Japan to the Faroe Islands, it now focuses on other devastating acts of marine plunder.
In Catching Thunder, written with Sea Shepherd’s active co-operation, the Norwegian journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter tell the story of a 10,000-mile sea chase, lasting 110 days, in which the organisation sought to bring to justice a Spanish vessel illegally trawling for highly endangered toothfish in the Southern Ocean. The result is an uproarious adventure — one predicated on the protestors’ ferocious sense of moral rectitude.
Sea Shepherd is run with Ahab-like persistence by Paul Watson, a Canadian who left Greenpeace in 1977 when he decided they were not hardcore enough. I happened to be in Hobart, Tasmania in December 2009 when their vessel the Ady Gil — a contraption that would have looked more at home on a Batman set — was readying itself for a mission which would end in disaster the following month, when it was rammed by a Japanese whaling ship, the Shonan Maru 2. Renowned for being vegan eco-warriors, the young crew might have been getting ready for Glastonbury as much as preparing for inevitable confrontation on the high seas. I met one adherent who seemed wild-eyed with his cult-like mission. ‘He’d take a bullet for Watson,’ I was told.
Later, in 2016, I was sent on assignment to interview Watson at the Cannes film festival. I’d already encountered him in Paris the previous year at the CO21 climate conference, where he told the audience, in a chic hotel, how his life had changed after he’d looked into the eye of a hunted whale. It was mesmerising. He makes no bones about his courtship of celebrity, believing in any means necessary to his end.
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Hence his provocative appearance at Cannes. His fearsome vessel the Sam Simon, moored offshore, was painted in grey camouflage style, with the addition of shark-like teeth to the prow. As I boarded by rope ladder, I was told by the captain, with some satisfaction, that a police launch had just visited, after complaints from local hoteliers that the ship’s presence was upsetting their guests.
Watson, a buccaneering presence, was keen to show me the watch Pierce Brosnan had given him, and to boast about sending Pamela Anderson to lobby Putin over the export of whale meat to Japan. This was world politics as a movie cast; and indeed Watson presides over his organisation — and over Catching Thunder — as though he were a mastermind from a James Bond film, directing from afar in his places of exile; or a maritime version of Julian Assange or the Scarlet Pimpernel — a righteous fugitive from erroneous justice.
Sea Shepherd’s story has already attracted literary attention. In his lively book Blood and Guts, published in 2014, the Australian writer Sam Vincent acted as an embedded journalist on one of the organisation’s anti-whaling missions, during which his eyes were opened to a certain Conradian craziness, evoking shades of Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard, in Apocalypse Now. (In a neat case of typecasting, Sheen himself is a prominent supporter of Watson, and one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels is named after him. During a stand-off with Canadian sealers in 1995, Sheen kept the sealers at bay in an hotel, allowing Watson to make his escape).
Last December, Sea Shepherd more or less gave up the fight against the Japanese whale hunters, frustrated in part by their military technology. Watson declared: ‘We have an obligation to our supporters that if we cannot be successful in intervening directly, then it would not make sense to send a vessel.’
Peter Hammarstedt, captain of their ship the Bob Baker, agreed: ‘We were active in the Southern Ocean for ten years and saved more than 6,000 whales. We also have many other critically important campaigns to run elsewhere in the world’. It is one of those campaigns that Catching Thunder charts.
In April 2016, the Bob Baker — a former Norwegian whaling ship, bought for Sea Shepherd by the Australian TV presenter and animal rights activist after whom it is named — set off in pursuit of a renegade Spanish fishing boat. The Thunder was longlining in the Southern Ocean for toothfish, an endangered species which, if ordered in a restaurant, as the authors note, would be comparable to eating a panda cub. Despite international bans on the practice, and a series of Interpol notices for its arrest, the Thunder, along with a significant number of other fishing vessels, continued to flout the law. Hence the resulting cat-and-mouse chase in which the two vessels — protestors and pirates — covered 10,000 miles and three oceans, using radar, international communications and their physical presence to confront one another in seriously hazardous seas.
The book’s short chapters read like urgent frontline bulletins, as reconstructed by the authors. Unlike Sam Vincent in Blood and Guts, Engdal and Sæter were not aboard the vessel to tell the story but conducted detailed interviews with the protagonists after the event. They also carried out their own background work into the shadowy ownership of the illegal fishing trawlers making vast fortunes out of toothfish — one operation earning 17 million euros in just two years. The Thunder’s owners are traced to Galicia, and to what is portrayed as a Spanish mafia that blur their illegal catches with suspicions of drug-trafficking.
With its punchy presentation and layers of pop culture and celebrity, Engdal and Sæter’s account is almost edited for social media — the Thunder even recognises the Bob Baker from Whale Wars. Half way through the marathon, Hammarstedt (who is given to quoting classical authors to encourage his crew), contacts the Guinness Book of Records to lodge a world record for the pursuit of a poacher. And in one of his erratic and excited press releases, Watson declares that, in the absence of support from the Australian or New Zealand authorities (both of which accuse the campaigners of endangering their own crews’ lives, as well as those of their target’s), ‘Sea Shepherd is the only sheriff in town’.
How long will either ship last in the chase? Fuel and food supplies are limited. Eventually, the Thunder makes for port — in Equatorial Guinea, whose regime appears positively disposed to such piracy. A tense stand-off ensues and the Thunder sinks rapidly. The Bob Baker and Sam Simon rescue all 40 of its crew, but suspect the captain of having scuttled his ship in order to destroy any incriminating records.
Engdal and Sæter are energetic writers with a sense of pace and cinematic detail; indeed, in the process of translation into American English (complete with authorial interventions such as ‘this shit is for real’), their story cries out for a film crew. But although Catching Thunder is an exciting read, it is overshadowed by the real story set up by Sea Shepherd, its supporters and detractors. How do we deal with the greatest crisis facing the world — the imminent threat to its fragile environment, especially now that democracy seems to have become distrusted or even outmoded? I’m not sure that Paul Watson has the answer. But then, as he’d say, does anyone have a better idea?