Rocked by its inability to protect whales in the Southern Ocean this summer, Sea Shepherd Australia remains awestruck by the generosity of the people of Hobart
Why Sea Shepherd is being forced to change tack in its fight against whalers
The news that Sea Shepherd is being forced to suspend its long-running anti-whaling operations in the Southern Ocean came as a shock to the organisation’s many supporters worldwide. With the Japanese whaling fleet using increasingly advanced technology to evade the protest vessels, the non-profit conservation organisation has conceded it can no longer compete.
While this is clearly a devastating development for whale protection, with Sea Shepherd vessels unable to disrupt whalers, it is also a sad turn of events for Hobart, which serves as home base for the Sea Shepherd vessels in summer, during whaling season.
These imposing and distinctive ships are an instant focal point every time they tie up in the harbour. Locals flock to the waterside to welcome them and line up with their children for guided tours of the ships. The skull and crossed crook and trident has become a beloved insignia around Hobart, with Sea Shepherd crew members feeling most welcome while ashore.
Ahead of an exhibition in Hobart next week, Sea Shepherd Australia managing director Jeff Hansen has reflected on Hobart’s hospitality, a treasured part of the experience for volunteers embarking on missions to the Southern Ocean.
“Hobart is considered to be the gateway to Antarctica, which is one of the reasons we chose to make it our base for those Southern Ocean operations. But more than that we have found the city to always be amazingly helpful,” Hansen says.
“The crew members always find it a really humbling experience to be walking in the streets of Hobart with their Sea Shepherd gear on and having members of the public approach them to say thank you, or offering to buy them a meal or a drink. The crew are all volunteers – they’re not being paid to do what they do – so when people offer gestures like that, it means a great deal.”
Sea Shepherd vessels also rely heavily on donations to restock their galleys and repair and replace parts of the ships, and Hansen says Hobart has a reputation for always being willing to help.
“Before we arrive, we usually try to get the word out through the media and publish lists of items and supplies we need,” he says. “And each time we arrive in Hobart we find people coming down to the waterfront, from all over the region, bringing boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables for the crew. After so long at sea, the thing you crave the most is fresh produce.
“As well as people and businesses donating food, we also get tradies, like sparkies and mechanics volunteering their time to help us repair engines and so forth. It really is incredible, the generosity.”
Hansen estimates Sea Shepherd has saved the lives of about 6000 whales in the Southern Ocean in the past decade by hampering the operations of Japanese whaling fleets, which use the loophole of scientific research to justify harpooning in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary off Antarctica.
An international moratorium on commercial whaling has been in effect since 1987, which is the same year Japan started its “scientific research” whaling in the Southern Ocean. Japan’s whaling has been ruled as illegal by The International Court of Justice in The Hague, and in 2014 the Australian Federal Court fined the Japanese whaling fleet $1 million for “wilful contempt” of a 2008 injunction banning the killing of whales in a designated Australian Whale Sanctuary. The fine has not been paid.
Sea Shepherd embarked on its first Antarctic whale defence mission in 2002, doing all it could to impede the hunt by warning whales away from the area and harassing the Japanese vessels. It has continued this mission year after year, with newer and faster ships, trying to keep up with Japanese whalers, who also upgrade their hardware each season in a sort of open-ocean arms race.
One Japanese government official is reported to have said: “Japan only has two enemies in the world we are concerned with – China and Sea Shepherd.” But just a month ago, Sea Shepherd was forced to announce it would be unable to continue its pursuit of Japanese whalers this summer.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson says the whalers’ use of military-grade technology, including real-time satellite coverage, had simply made it impossible for Sea Shepherd vessels to catch them. But he refuses to see it as a defeat.
“We don’t have their money, we don’t have their technology, but we are going to have to find an alternative way to deal with them, and we will,” Watson said on August 29.
Watson criticised the Australian Government for not doing more to help Sea Shepherd’s efforts in thwarting the whalers, saying what a difference it would have made to its campaign if Sea Shepherd had access to similar satellite data or some kind of naval support.
He says it is now Australia’s responsibility to send one of its ships south to keep tabs on foreign whalers this summer.
While anti-whaling operations are on hold for the foreseeable future, Sea Shepherd is not resting on its laurels, nor is it leaving Tasmania. Whaling may be the cause for which it is best known, but the international organisation has several marine ecology strings to its bow.
Sea Shepherd Australia’s Operation Apex Harmony is working to stop illegal shark fishing around Timor-Leste and has campaigned against the use of shark nets and drum lines around the Australian coast, saying these measures do more to harm marine life than protect humans.
It is preparing for a sustained campaign against the proposed Adani Coal Mine in Queensland, amid fears the mine will damage the Great Barrier Reef due to ships passing close by, as well as through the global warming effects produced by burning its coal.
And it will remain active in Tasmania, supporting community opposition to Tassal’s establishment of a large-scale salmonfarming operation at Okehampton Bay near Triabunna.
“Tassal has plans to put 28 netted pens filled with 800,000 fish in an area that is a critical nursery for the southern right whale,” Sea Shepherd Australia spokesman Adam Burling says.
“The Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Energy determined the development ‘could have a significant impact’ on endangered southern right whales.”
Perhaps Tasmania’s particularly stoic support for the Sea Shepherd relates to our pervasive connection to the sea. Fishermen, surfers, recreational sailors, beach-lovers … so many of us have some link to the ocean. We are surrounded by water, after all. Sea Shepherd has 16 chapters around Australia, with 25 volunteers making up the Tasmanian chapter.
The irony, of course, is Hobart’s historical connection to whaling, the industry upon which the city was effectively founded. In the early 1800s, whales were so prolific in the River Derwent it could be quite dangerous to sail on the river in a small boat, and it was said the noise of whales splashing and breaching was so great it was difficult for those living near the river to sleep.
“Back then, whales would come right up to boats for a look. They were so inquisitive and trusting, and then they would get hit with a harpoon,” Hansen says.
“But if we keep doing what we are doing, protecting whales from slaughter, I believe they will come back. The Derwent could be full of whales again.
“And thanks to the amazing support of Hobart over the years, the people of Hobart can take ownership of our victories. When our footy team wins a game, we take ownership of that victory, it is our win as well. And I want people to have the ownership of Sea Shepherd. If you dropped off some food or donated money or bought a crew member a drink, you share our victories every time we shut down an illegal fishing operation or whale hunt.”
Tasmanians are frequently over-represented among the Australians on Sea Shepherd vessels, which can sometimes be crewed by volunteers from up to 21 countries. And whenever a vessel berths in Hobart, there are always inquiries from Tasmanians who turn up and ask about joining the cause.
The organisation’s international reputation also attracts celebrity crew members from time to time. Hollywood actor Michelle Rodriguez was seen jogging on the waterfront at lunchtime when she was in Hobart as part of a volunteer crew.
There is a chance we might see Sea Shepherd return to the Derwent sooner than expected.
“We have intervened to stop Patagonian toothfish poachers in the Southern Ocean in the past. There were six vessels down there wanted by Interpol and we cleaned them up,” Hansen says.
“We are monitoring the situation down there again this year and if poacher vessels are detected that would mean us coming to Hobart once again. We’ll wait and see.”
Few will argue against the worthiness of Sea Shepherd’s cause, but there are those who have questioned their involvement in actively harassing, pursuing and hampering other vessels at sea.
Does a small band of protesters, without the express backing of any particular government or official body, have the right to take the law into its own hands?
Whatever the answer is to this question, another seems to follow: If not Sea Shepherd, then who? This year is the 40th anniversary of Sea Shepherd, and the 10th Anniversary of Sea Shepherd Australia. To mark the occasion an exhibition is being held at the Mawson Waterside Pavilion in Hobart from Tuesday until Sunday, October 8. The display includes artefacts and photos from Sea Shepherd’s past operations at sea, stories from Tasmanian campaigners about their experiences, and conservation-themed artwork by 15 Tasmanian artists. Open 11am-7pm Tuesday to Thursday, 11am-9pm Friday and Saturday, and 11am-2pm Sunday. Entry to the event is free. Sea Shepherd merchandise and some artwork will be for sale