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From Antarctica to Africa: Strong Hearts and Iron Will

Every year, for over a decade, a fleet of 6 or more illegal fishing vessels were headed to the icy waters of Antarctica to catch an outrageous amount of Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, or most commonly found on the menus of high end restaurants as Chilean Seabass.

Photo ©Jeff Wirth

There has been a time when seagulls flying next to a vessel in the open ocean meant that land was near. Today, a little bundle of people crowding the bridge wing of a ship, holding their mobile phones high up in the air in a desperate attempt to reach signal would most likely have the same effect.


After five long months at sea, the craving for connection with loved ones makes one quite euphoric, especially if this long period was presented with countless challenges to body, mind and most definitely, soul.


Every year, for over a decade, a fleet of 6 or more illegal fishing vessels were headed to the icy waters of Antarctica to catch an outrageous amount of Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, or most commonly found on the menus of high end restaurants as Chilean Seabass.


Often described as a continent of superlatives, Antarctica is the world’s southernmost landmass. The continent is a cold dry desert, where access to water determines the abundance of life. While many of these are microorganisms, the terrestrial ecosystem contains more than a thousand known species of organisms, as well as aquatic lifeforms.

Both toothfish species are amongst them.


Deep water animals, somewhat prehistoric, apex predators, with a long lifespan and quite large gap until reproductive maturity, feed on younglings of the so feared colossal squid, while the opposite also applies. Juveniles and adults of the same, feed on fully grown toothfish.


This, amongst many other elements, make Antarctica the roughest and yet most fragile ecosystems in the world. Allowing this balance to collapse was not an option.


We would not let that happen. I would not let that happen.


On December 8th - 2014, twenty-nine courageous humans left Wellington, NZ, aboard the Sea Shepherd ship MY/Sam Simon with a plan drafted, a very rustic net hauling equipment, some pretty solid winter gear and 14.2 million km² ahead to cover.


Our sister ship, the MY/ Bob Barker, had left Hobart, Tasmania, just a week before, and would most likely reach the ice shelf before us.


Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is notorious for intercepting vessels committing crimes against marine life in the high seas, and this time was no different. Or maybe, there was a new element to it. Interpol was also interested in capturing these vessels. The most notorious of them all, the FV Thunder, had been in the Interpol Purple Notice list for over a decade at that point. Always slithering between Southeast Asian ports, bribing their way out of trouble, and getting back into the ocean for more pillaging.


Its days were almost done. On December 17th, after 10 days of constant vigilance, the bridge crew of MY/Bob Barker spotted a vessel hiding behind an iceberg.


Photo ID: Check. FV Thunder was no longer a myth. And so, it began; the yet-to-be longest chase in maritime history.


The MY/ Bob Barker engaged in the pursuit of the FV Thunder, while the MY/Sam Simon stayed behind to recover the monstrous amount of illegal fishing nets abandoned by the FV Thunder, in what was a ground-breaking haul of 72 kilometres of illegal gillnets recklessly deployed onto the Antarctic seabed, sitting over 2 km deep.


Day and night. Night and day. 2 teams. Storms and snow. 24 hours of continuous hauling.

Tens of thousands of marine lives entangled, drowned, deceased.


What started on Christmas Day, had finished as we entered the third week of January. Our bodies were tired. Our feet, our cheeks and our souls, cold. Slowly, the warmth of a belated Christmas and New Year celebrations collaborated greatly with boosting morale, and our minds drifted away from the challenges faced in the prior weeks.


The FV/ Thunder, in a vain attempt to escape the MY/ Bob Barker, had travelled up north, and reached the Indian Ocean. Joined by us, the MY/ Bob Barker persisted in the pursuit, and soon we would find out that the FV Thunder was not only fishing illegally, but there were other shady aspects to their operations.


Onboard the FV Thunder, there were 30 Indonesian fishermen, working in poor conditions, in a semi-slavery regime. Day after day. Month after month.


There.

This wasn’t only about Antarctica anymore.

It was greater.

It was deeper.

It was human.


After months of what seemed to be an endless chase, countless emails with governments, Interpol, human rights and environmental offices, mixed emotions, physical and mental challenges, storms and piracy waters, the FV/Thunder had finally met its fate.


Early morning of April 6th, 2015, the Bob Barker received a distress call: The Thunder was sinking. Scared of facing authorities when coming to any port, the captain of the Thunder deliberately scuttled the vessel, ‘flushing down’ any evidence of illegal catch (that, they had in abundance down in the cargo area in freezers).


The crew of 40 men (30 Indonesians and 10 officers from Spain, Chile, and Portugal) were safely rescued by the ship I was onboard, the MY/ Sam Simon, and taken to authorities in a little archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, São Tomé and Príncipe, located in West Africa.


As promised by the chief of fisheries crimes from the Interpol's soffice, all the Indonesian fishermen were interrogated and repatriated home.


As predicted, the officers of the crew were later trialled and convicted of several illegal fishing and environmental offenses. Three years in jail and €17 million should teach them.


As for us…

110 days. Three oceans. 16.000 nautical miles.

59 brave souls.

One goal was aimed. Many achieved.

Efforts and sacrifices were made in order to bring back equilibrium and integrity to one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet.


Kindness and compassion spoke highly than greed and convenience.


"Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have". Margaret Mead wrote this. She knew things.


And that, written in a little piece of scrap paper stuck to my cabin’s wall, was a daily reminder that a little deed a day goes a long way.


For the oceans.



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