Journey to the last ocean
It’s December 2011. I board the motor yacht Steve Irwin, the flagship vessel of Sea Shepherd Global’s fleet of three ships. Sea Shepherd is a global marine conservation organization and this is their eighth—and my first—expedition against Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, the ring of water that circles the continent of Antarctica. I’m surrounded by a group of 40 people, some new, some veteran, racing to prepare the ship in Albany, Western Australia. I am excited, but I also feel a nervous tingle at the base of my spine every time I think of the scale of the voyage I am about to undertake; one that will take me to the lonely continent of ice, through storms and bad weather, on a ship that’s over 30 years old and crewed mainly by volunteers, to confront an opponent that is intent on destruction and bloodshed. I’ve been a navigator for a decade on merchant ships and I want to repurpose my skill set; a change in direction that will hopefully allow me to give back to the oceans. That wish has landed me the role of “first mate”, or lead navigator, aboard the Steve Irwin, and on a mission to protect migrating whales in Antartic waters.
In 1986, a moratorium on commercial whaling was put in place by the International Whaling Commission, a global body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling, in a bid to safeguard the severely diminished whale populations of the southern hemisphere. In 1994, to afford greater protection, the waters south of 60 degrees south latitude, where all land ends and the oceans are empty but for the presence of migrating whales and the resident marine life of the Antarctic, were declared a whale sanctuary. Citing the massacre of these oceanic giants over the last century, with reports estimating that close to 1.3 million whales had been killed by industrial whaling operations, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was intended as a safe haven. However, between 1994 and 2005, when Sea Shepherd first went down to the Antarctic waters, Japan’s pelagic whaling fleet had already massacred over 14,000 whales. Sea Shepherd’s goal was twofold: to intervene and put an end to the slaughter by employing the direct-action tactics the group is known for, and to document and raise the profile of the issue in the consciousness of the general public.
A few weeks later, I’m on the bridge, watching the bow of the Steve Irwin crashing through the swells. My course: 180 degrees south. With each passing mile, the waves lift the bow of the ship with ease and send it crashing down with such force as to cancel the earth’s gravitational pull and make the crew in the forward cabins levitate momentarily. I’ve seen my fair share of storms over the last decade that I’ve spent on the oceans as a navigator, but this is the next level. The trading routes in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere are generally restricted only to the summer months, while in the south all trade routes stop at latitude 54 degrees south, the latitude of Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. That’s because even in the austral summer, eastward-travelling, spiralling low-pressures can whip up giant seas and gale force winds in this band of latitudes, earning them the menacing monikers of “Furious 50s” and “Screaming 60s”. We seek refuge behind the sub-Antarctic islands of Macquarie and Auckland Islands, dart between successive low-pressure systems and finally cross into the waters of the Southern Ocean. As the stormy seas quell and the fog of the convergence zone—the place where the warm air of the tropics mixes with cold air from the poles—lifts, Antarctica, the continent of ice, with its endless days and incredibly diverse marine life, opens up.The Steve Irwin is looking for a way to get into the Ross Sea. Often referred to as the Last Ocean, the Ross Sea is the healthiest, most pristine marine ecosystem on the planet, home to an incredibly rich and diverse species of wildlife, many found nowhere else on the planet. From the ice charts, it is clear that the mouth of the Ross Sea is still closed. Between the Steve Irwin and the whales to our south is a 300km-wide drift-ice barrier. In the ice field, the ice floes stand up to 2m high and 10m deep, a formidable hurdle in our progress. We decide to push through. It takes the ship three days to weave through the thick ice as it shudders and the hull creaks under the crushing pressure. The crew, driven to the very edge with anxiety, crowds on the bridge, watching the endless white all around them. Just then, the water is broken by the ripples from surfacing fin whales on our starboard side even as, on our port side, emperor penguins emerge from their deep dives and land floppily on their bellies. In front of the ship, a leopard seal stretches lazily on an ice floe; Adélie penguins squawk and awkwardly dart to the edge of the ice; and a southern giant petrel banks to the left and crosses over the ship’s helicopter deck.
Krill, a species of tiny shrimp-like crustaceans, are the primary food source for most of Antarctica’s wildlife and are the reason why the whales migrate. Without the krill, most of the life forms in the Antarctic would disappear. The underwater currents in the Ross Sea accelerate phytoplankton blooms on the underside of sea ice, which in turn leads to an abundance of krill, which feed on it. In the southern summer months, as the ice cover melts, the krill are exposed. Attracted by these nutrient-rich waters, the whales swim under the ice and into the Ross Sea to replenish themselves after their long journey and to nurture their young.
Following ancient migratory routes, the whales depart from the tropics and time their arrival to when the ice has melted, just enough, to allow them to surface intermittently for a quick breath and to then keep pushing south. It’s a miracle that this extraordinary cycle has continued for centuries in spite of being disrupted by industrial whaling fleets since the late 1800s. Sought after for their fat, hundreds of thousands of the ocean giants were chased and harpooned by marauding industrial whaling fleets and even today the largest living beings that have ever lived on this planet, the blue and fin whales, are classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organization.
The geography of the Ross Sea ensures that its waters are relatively free of bad weather and are abundant in whales. This is also where the Japanese whaling ships, their hulls strengthened for the ice, like to hunt each season. The fleet comprises the floating “processing” vessel—the world’s last—the Nisshin Maru, and her flotilla of three harpoon ships; a Japanese coast guard vessel; and a refuelling tanker. A typical timeline of a whaling season begins with the fleet departing from Japan in November, at the start of every austral summer, arriving at the gates of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary around Christmas and targeting 1,035 protected and threatened whales through the months of January and February, before finally returning to Japan in late March. The whale meat, which is processed on board the Nisshin Maru, is sold in the markets of Japan, which in turn is funnelled back into funding this Antarctic sojourn costing millions of dollars. Sea Shepherd’s tactics are simple: First locate the whaling vessels, then use the small boats to obstruct the harpooning operations, use the big ships to occupy the slipway of the processing ship and stop the transfer of whales from the harpoon ships to the processing vessel.
The contrast between the white ice and the black rugged peaks of the Antarctic mainland rising majestically out of the water is a striking sight, and it reminds me of the long journeys they represent. Between each peak, glaciers feed icebergs into the ocean. Mint-white, new-born tabular icebergs break off where the advancing ice meets the water and begins its journey around the continent. They will spend decades, alternating between drifting in the summer months and being trapped in the winter months as the ocean around them freezes over, before finally melting away completely. These large chunks of ice, driven by an easterly current, go around the Antarctic continent and as they age, they evolve into incredibly fascinating forms and take on breathtaking hues of blue and white.
Occasionally, and more frequently these days due to global warming, humongous chunks of the ice shelf break away. One night, I come up against an iceberg 200km long and over 100km wide. That’s around 30 times the size of suburban Mumbai and can be seen from space! As the Steve Irwin comes up to it, it towers over the ship and I feel the cold off its icy surface sting my face. Layers of ancient ice stack up to 70m above the surface of the water and as I peer into the water down below, the white slowly fades to an emerald blue and then to a deep black under the ship. It’s likely that this giant is about half a kilometre deep and holds close to 10,000 billion litres of water.
Much of the continent of Antarctica is named after the explorers of the last century and, sailing along the ice edge, I often feel like I’m floating through the annals of history. Names like Wilkes Coast, Terre Adélie, George V Land, Wilhelm Land and Mawson Coast remind me of the diverse nature of explorations launched to try and conquer this final frontier.
Cape Adare is on the western mouth of the Ross Sea. Discovered and named by Captain James Ross in 1841, this was the landing site for a Norwegian expedition team in 1899. That expedition marks the first overwintering of the Antarctic continent. Two huts, now 116 years old, still stand on the tongue of the Cape but are occupied by a very different expedition team these days.
Cape Adare is the world’s largest rookery of Adélie penguins and as I round its curve, I am hit in the face by the stench of penguin faeces and the endless chatter of over 250,000 breeding pairs. Suddenly, half a dozen orcas cross the bow of the Steve Irwin—a migrating family looking for food; Adélie penguin fledglings make for a perfectly good supper.
It is February 2013, and I am back in the Southern Ocean. As one of the leaders of Operation Zero Tolerance, Sea Shepherd’s ninth Antarctic whale defence campaign, I find myself in Prydz Bay at the helm of the Steve Irwin, along with two other Sea Shepherd vessels. We have been chasing the Nisshin Maru since January, when she was first located in the Ross Sea. Since then it has run 4,000km to the west, in a bid to outrun the tailing conservation vessels. Unsuccessful, and now low on fuel, the only way it can outlast Sea Shepherd is to refuel and continue the run west. That means our only shot at success is to not allow this refuelling from succeeding.
The three Sea Shepherd ships find themselves blockading an illegal refuelling operation of the Japanese whaling fleet. On one of the rare sunny Antarctic days, the Sun Laurel, the Japanese refuelling tanker, makes her first attempt to refuel the Nisshin Maru. The three Sea Shepherd ships occupy the space between them and deny the transfer. A second unsuccessful attempt is made two days later and, finally, a third attempt five days later. Six whaling ships ram our sides, flood our engine rooms with water, fire flash-grenades at the crew and lead us into dangerously thick ice in a bid to push us out of the way. We stand fast. We resist. Left with no choice but to retreat, the whaling fleet relents and leaves the Antarctic, heading north out of the whaling grounds. In restoring peace to the Southern Ocean, the lives of 932 whales were saved that year; the highest number of whales saved in the history of campaigning.
The self-allocated killing grounds of the Japanese whalers occupy over half the Antarctic continent. To find a fleet of six ships, intent on hiding from us, means using a combination of stealth and surprise. It also means having to study weather patterns, cloud cover, plankton charts and traditional whaling patterns to search the right pockets within millions of square miles before the whalers have had a chance to get to the whales. In the past four summers that I have spent chasing the whalers in Antarctica, I’ve travelled enough miles to go halfway to the moon.
On 31 March 2014, the International Court of Justice voted that Japan’s whaling programme was illegal and ordered that it be scrapped with immediate effect. For the first time in over a century, there would be no whaling in Antarctica. As I listened to the verdict being live-streamed over the Internet, my heart swelled with pride and my skin broke out in goosebumps. I thought about a memory from the third refuelling attempt made just a year ago by the Japanese whalers that we had successfully blocked. Amidst the chaos and violence of nine ships battling over the marine life of Antarctica, a seal had jumped agitatedly out of its mid-morning nap and begun to bark at the passing Japanese coast guard vessel. It was satisfying to know that the whalers wouldn’t be there to harass, harpoon and plunder the whales of the Southern Ocean and, in turn, that would spread an umbrella of harmony across the whole continent.
Sea Shepherd’s actions over 10 years have saved the lives of more than 6,500 whales. With the court ruling against Japan, the whalers have finally been forbidden from returning to the Southern Ocean.
Scott Island lies at the centre of the entrance to Ross Sea, just a few miles from the International Date Line. It’s unique because every time I cross it, I go instantly between the eastern and western hemispheres, as though transiting through a time machine. However, down south this means nothing. It is simply another indicator of just how removed Antarctica is from the rest of the world. A continent that launched the Heroic Age of exploration and inspired a deadly race to the South Pole remains largely desolate, alone and unoccupied even today. An untameable and harsh environment on land leaves Antarctica the only continent humanity hasn’t been able to occupy permanently.
Standing on the deck of the ship, I look around and think of the magic of life thriving in the most remote corners of our planet. I also think about the destruction humanity has unleashed on this refuge, this place of solace and beauty.
But the fight for Antarctica isn’t over yet. The rich waters of this continent are under constant threat from plunderers. As Thomas Jefferson rightly said, “In the environment, every victory is temporary, every defeat permanent.”
Siddharth Chakravarty is a marine conservationist and works at Sea Shepherd Global. As an ocean navigator, he is actively involved with campaigns against poaching on the high seas.