Siddharth Chakravarty is a pirate. Or at least that’s what he is known as on the high seas, along with others just like him, battling giant fleets that are on the rampage for whales. When I first spoke to him, last year, he was in Antarctica, at the southern edge of the world, where the sun rises at midnight and the days never end.
At the time, he was working on a campaign for Sea Shepherd Global called Operation Zero Tolerance, navigating the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Sea Shepherd Global is an organisation that was started in 1977 with the sole aim to use innovative direct action to defend, conserve and protect marine ecosystems across the world. Simply put, they fought, with whatever means available, fleets that carried out illegal poaching on the waters. He described his days as unpredictable; some would be spent with floating icebergs and the gentle welcome of whales, orcas and penguins while others would be filled with water cannons, confrontations and on some occasions, a potential risk to life. “Like I said”, he shrugged – as if referring to a mere bad spell of rainfall – “unpredictable”.
This year, Siddharth has shifted base to New Zealand on another project to conserve our oceans. He came back from Antarctica, and the brief time he spent in the cities, in between stories of the oceans, all he could talk about was how badly he wanted to get back on a ship. What every conversation left me with was a sense of awe, and wonder at this breed of young conservationists, who fight for what they believe in, with little thought of personal safety, and convenience. He’s difficult to hold down, but we managed to get an email interview. Excerpts:
The last time we spoke, Operation Zero Tolerance was in force, with a significant war that was won on the waters.
Sea Shepherd uses “direct action” on its campaigns, which quite simply means standing in the way of a poaching vessel, using methods to disrupt the poaching operation and never, ever backing down. That’s why we’re also seen as a bit controversial. But when you work for an organisation that has a volunteer crew willing to give their lives to defend marine life, you’re sure to come across some pretty confrontational situations. We have had multiple collisions with poaching vessels, had a vessel cut in two – and sunk – by a Japanese Security vessel and have even had our small boats attacked. Since the whales under duress put up a good fight before they are harpooned, their body temperatures are high, and they need to be refrigerated as quickly as possible to prevent the meat from deteriorating. This is where we come in. We make it impossible for the harpoon ships to transfer the dead whales onto the deck of the factory ship. If they’re unable to transfer them quickly enough, they will not kill any.
On one occasion, we were engaged in a war for 12 days straight. A major Japanese fleet, tired of our interference, rammed into our small boats. I can still hear the voice of our Captain Peter Hammarstedt of MY Bob Barker as he hailed the captain of the poaching vessel on the radio: “You will have to sink me right next to the refuelling tanker. But I will not move!” and the sound of the May Day being put out after his engine room flooded, his masts destroyed and his vessel almost rolled over. I still recollect the jolt my vessel took at the collision. But we stood our ground, unwavering in our resolve to maintain the sanctity of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. On an average the whaling fleet harpoon 15-18 whales a day. Our ships stood on the slipway of the fleet for 12 days straight. We used our small boats to deter the harpooners, we used our helicopter to fly above the harpoon ships for 8 hours every day, we shadowed every move of the whaling fleet, we blocked re-fuelling attempts, until finally beaten, they decided to head North and out of the whale sanctuary.
What is the difference in whale numbers after you guys took to the oceans?
In 10 years, we’ve managed to save more than half of the whales targeted, 80 per cent in the last five years. Over 5,000 whales swim freely in the oceans today solely because of the interventions of Sea Shepherd. Our aim has always been twofold: one to use direct action to save whales during poaching season and second, to slowly choke the supply of whale meat thereby affecting profits and making it economically unviable for whalers to make their annual journey to Antarctica. After 10 years of campaigning, Australia’s case against Japan at the International Court of Justice has meant that for the first time in over a century, the Austral Summer of 2014-15 will not see whaling in the Southern Ocean.
Those are impressive figures considering how physically difficult this work is. How do you cope with the fact that this takes you so far from home for most of the year?
I’ve spent all my adult life at sea. I work with the most dedicated and diverse crew from across the world; my last campaign was represented by a crew from 21 nationalities. When you’re in the company of such special people, home simply becomes where you work and live. My home has been the Motor Vessel Steve Irwin for the past four years and I will always think of it as my only home. It affords me a roof and it allows me to venture out into the world’s oceans and carry out my work. If that means staying away from my home in India, it’s a small compromise to make.
Being at sea is a very liberating experience. The expanse of the ocean humbles and caresses, scares and protects, is calm and yet so powerful, how important and yet how fragile. On campaigns to Antarctica, barring the confrontations with the whaling fleet, every day is a visual treat. The inaccessible continent of the South with its endless white, giant icebergs and unique life is a place like no other. Sitting on the bridge and watching Antarctica go by is like watching the world’s most cinematographically acclaimed movie in slow motion.
In discussions about Indian wildlifers working on causes abroad, many would (and unfortunately do) argue that there are enough causes and problems here in India to stay and fight for.
First, in choosing a cause that one should support, it is very important to know where one can be most effective. It really isn’t about you, see? As a Merchant Seaman for 10 years, the move to Sea Shepherd was natural. My love for the ocean made me look for an alternate career where I could contribute the most and that’s where I am today. And for the ones that talk about “causes closer to home, ” ultimately, the oceans are just one giant water-body and what affects them, affects every one of us, all across the globe. So issues that might seem remote and far from one’s radar, aren’t really so. Second, this is just one of the many campaigns that I am a part of. I’ve also been part of campaigns protecting blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean and sharks in the South Pacific; species which face similar threats of extinction from human exploitation.
Why should we care that whales are being killed? Or that marine life is being killed? Why should anyone care?
Well, it is foolhardy to imagine that we can continue to survive when life in the oceans is wiped out. If the oceans die, we die. Also, protection is not just about survival. It is also about love, isn’t it? I recently dived in Raja Ampat, West Papua. This region is often known as the incubator of life due to its immense coral, fish and underwater life and is an indicator of the magic that unfolds under the surface. To see the colourful blossoms of gorgonian fans to the giant schools of fish to sharks to manta rays to pygmy seahorses all in one dive often is bewildering. To dive for an hour and surface having lost count of the number of species sighted is remarkable. To think of each one of those lives as being wild and free and a product of millions of years of evolution is belittling. More importantly, it is that dance of beauty that yields to a healthy ocean. That’s why we should protect it.
What would you like to see more of from people? We cannot all go live on the oceans, tempting as that seems. What should we take away from your work? Is there a call to action you’d ask for?
In terms of support for Sea Shepherd, I would like for people to read more about the work we do and support us. We run on public donations and charity and running five ships with the annual sojourn to the bottom of the planet is a massive financial burden. Every cent that comes in can be used to run our operations more effectively.
As an individual, I would like to see people get aware and educate themselves and become more involved. Not everyone needs to be an environmentalist or a conservationist, but the support that one can lend in an honest capacity is what can make a difference.
If you’d like to get involved, you can write to Siddharth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.