“ARE you willing to die for this?”
As job interview questions go, they don’t get much more confronting than that.
But as jobs go, they don’t get much more dangerous, either.
In exchange for accepting this modern-day pirate’s pledge, successful applicants spend their days sailing under a black skull and crossbones flag, chasing the marine world’s most wanted criminals across the seven seas with virtual impunity.
This is life aboard the Bob Barker, one of eco warrior group Sea Shepherd’s anti-poaching vessels.
The stakes are high.
“We ask the crew: ‘Are you willing to risk your life at sea?’ If the answer isn’t a resounding ‘yes’ then we simply don’t have space for them,” says Peter Hammarstedt, the Bob Barker’s 30-year-old Swedish American captain, who joined Sea Shephered at 18.
The group does what no government is willing or able to do, even if that means playing by its own rules.
“We act where governments lack either the political will or the economic means. The Southern Ocean is very remote; it’s very expensive to patrol there. We act where there are jurisdictional issues; we’re less bound by the constraints on government vessels. We can pursue vessels irrespective of what waters they enter,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
One of those vessels, the Thunder, led the Bob Barker on an epic, four-month pursuit spanning three oceans. It was a journey that almost cost Mr Hammarstedt and his crew their lives.
In December, the Bob Barker and fellow Sea Shepherd vessel the Sam Simon entered waters known colloquially as the “shadowland” to begin a chase that would make history.
‘WE FOUND THEM IN THE MOST REMOTE WATER IN THE WORLD’
Fifteen days’ sailing from Fremantle, Western Australia, and the same distance from Cape Town is “the most remote area of water in the world”, according to Mr Hammarstedt.
That’s where the crews of the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon found the Thunder, an illegal poaching vessel that was one of the “Bandit Six” — six fishing vessels wanted by Interpol and ports around the world.
The Thunder, previously named Vesturvón, Arctic Ranger, Rubin, Typhoon I, Kukoand Wuhan N4, and flying under flags including Mongolia and Nigeria, appeared on the Bob Barker’s radar exactly where the crew expected it to.
It was dropping its nets to the ocean floor to catch toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass, a catch that fetches a price tag as high as $30 a plate.
The Thunder was fishing without a permit and with a net known as the “curtain of death” that stretches up to 100km and “literally takes everything”, Mr Hammarstedt told news.com.au.
“They’re using gear that’s been prohibited because it’s indiscriminate in it’s ability to kill,” he said.
Unwilling to stand by and watch, Mr Hammarstedt and his crew gave chase.
What started north of Antarctica took them west towards the tip of South Africa and eventually to waters south of Nigeria.
Along the way, Bob Barker’s crew cut the Thunder’s nets and seized some of its fishing equipment. In retaliation, there were attempts to ram the Sea Shepherd vessels and veiled threats of “war”.
“About 80 days into this chase we had an opportunity for my crew to disembark because the campaign was lasting longer than we anticipated. At that time we were drifting because the Thunder was conserving fuel and we had no idea how much fuel they had on board,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
“Theoretically we had the fuel to spend the next two years at sea if that’s how long they wanted to draw it out. Almost all of my crew decided to stay despite that uncertainty. They didn’t know when they’d be seeing their families again.”
The game of cat and mouse ended in a way nobody could have predicted.
“The number one way we passed the time on this epic 110-day chase was speculating how it would end,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
“I had a lot of versions in my mind but all of those were pretty much playing out in a court of law. Our goal was to follow the Thunder until it would have no choice but to go into port. We would escort them into port to physically hand them over to law enforcement.”
On board, he expected authorities would find all the evidence needed to prosecute. But the captain of the Thunder, a vessel that was out of fuel and drifting, appeared to have other plans.
Mr Hammarstedt believes the Thunder was deliberately scuttled in an attempt to destroy evidence.
“Seeing the ship sinking was the one scenario that I couldn’t have imagined,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
“Seeing this ship that I’d been rarely more than 500 metres away from in those 110 days [sinking] was very, very surreal. Rather than face court with the ship, he thought he’d sink the vessel.”
Mr Hammarstedt said the Thunder’s captain waited “until the last moment, buying time” before abandoning ship to be rescued by the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker.
But he didn’t wait long enough. Sensing an opportunity, Mr Hammarstedt’s chief engineer suggested he and a photographer board the sinking vessel.
“There was a risk involved but we wanted to see if we could salvage the ship,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
“We thought that was important. We also wanted to ensure nobody was left on board.
“Finally, we wanted to see what evidence we could acquire on board.”
They found and photographed evidence that will be presented to a court in São Tomé, a small island nation off the coast of West Africa, in the coming months.
Sea Shepherd claims to have recovered more than 72 kilometres of illegal gillnet and more than 1400 fish, weighing a total of 45,000kg, during Operation Icefish.
The Thunder’s captain and two of its engineers face crimes including forgery, recklessness, environmental damages and pollution.
Mr Hammarstedt said he would never order his crew to board a sinking vessel but admires their bravery.
“We take reasonable, calculated risks,” he said.
“The people who decided to board the Thunder volunteered to do so. I admired their courage and willingness to do it.”
Long stints at sea are part of the job description. So too are dangerous missions.
“We knew there was danger involved when we set off from Hobart,” Mr Hammarstedt said.
“We thought we could be shot at but we thought there’s no point having laws if laws aren’t going to be enforced. We saw there was a law enforcement vacuum in the Southern Ocean and we wanted to fill that void.”
IMPUNITY BANKROLLED BY DEEP HOLLYWOOD POCKETS
“Do your part so we can do ours” is part of the marketing campaign driving donations from some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
The New York Times reports that much of the money donated to Sea Shepherd missions comes from a handful of celebrities, including Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and Martin Sheen.
The Bob Barker is named after The Price Is Right host who donated $5 million in 2010 and the Sam Simon is named after the late creator of TV show The Simpsons, who donated millions of dollars to animal rights organisations before his death earlier this year.
Between the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, Sea Shepherd spent a reported $1.5 million chasing the Thunder.
Sea Shepherd receives no financial support from governments, which actively distance themselves from the organisation’s exploits in the Southern Ocean.
In 2013, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described the Sea Shepherd’s efforts to stop whaling as “reckless, dangerous” and “unlawful”.
“We do not, and will never, condone reckless, dangerous, unlawful behaviour. And where it occurs on the high seas, we will unreservedly condemn it,” Ms Bishop said.
“The fact that the Sea Shepherd visits Australian ports or some of the Sea Shepherd fleet might be registered in Australia is not indicative in any way of the Australian government’s support for the organisation. And we will continue to comply fully with our international legal obligations with regard to safety at sea.”
Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck took it a step further last year.
“The Australian Government does not support and is in no way associated with the activities of Sea Shepherd and does not condone any dangerous or unlawful acts at sea,” he said.
“No one should be taking the law into their own hands. The law of the sea must be paramount for all parties in all circumstances.”
The United States has been critical of the Sea Shepherd’s exploits in the past, too.
In 2013, the group’s founder Paul Watson was called “a pirate” and “eccentric” and told his tactics were unsafe.
“You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch,” US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals chief judge Alex Kozinski said.
“When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks, and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.”
Of course, there’s little governments can do when the Bob Barker enters international waters as it will likely do again this summer.
With the Thunder no longer a concern, Mr Hammarstedt and his crew are waiting and watching what the Bandit Five do next.
Of the five remaining illegal toothfish operators, four are believed to be held in ports around the world. One is detained in Thailand, another two are detained off West Africa and a fourth is detained in Malaysia, Mr Hammarstedt believes.
Their crimes are difficult to prosecute and some, if not all, of the vessels are expected to be released.
All five are believed to have links to Vidal Armadores, a Spanish company the Sea Shepherd says is owned by Vidal Suarez and his son Manuel Antonio Vidal Pego.
Sea Shepherd says Vidal Armadores has incurred millions of dollars in fines and Vidal Pego pleaded guilty in 2006 in a US federal court to illegally importing toothfish.
Mr Hammarstedt has a message for vessels who try to run like the Thunder did.
“The Thunder has sunk and will never poach again. Now we’re being vigilant. If we have to take action, we’re able to do so again.”