02 April 2010

Battle in Antartica - Operation Musashi

A quiet but urgent knock at the door wakes me and through the sleepy haze I hear Amber's voice "they have a whale. they are whaling". The Adrenaline kicks in, gets me up, into my thermals, mustang suit, neck-warmer, hats, gloves, boots and down to all the deck dept. cabins to wake the crew. We can't let them get away with this. We had been close on the tail of the fleeing the Factory ship for 3200 kilometres, stopping them whaling and keeping them on the run, but today is different. No one has ever tried to whale in front of Sea Shepherd in its thirty year history, but today they thought they would give it a go. A mistake they will come to regret.

Each year between december and march Japan's whaling fleet hunts whales in Antarctica with the aim of killing around a thousand lives. Their 'catch' comprises of Minke, Fin and Hump backed whales with the Minke making up the majority.

Japans whaling fleet is the last of it's kind, being a Pelagic (Deep sea) whaling fleet with a factory ship at its heart. The factory or slaughter ship is the 'Nisshin Maru' is accompanied by three Harpoon or killer ships named 'Yushin Maru' No.s 1,2 and 3. The 'Yushins' are very fast and manoverable. These four ships catch, kill and butcher the whales. The process is highly industrial. A killer ship will harpoon a whale and kill it. This often takes more than twenty minuets using explosive harpoons and high powered rifles, as whales are very large animals and not easy to kill. Once dead the whale is tied alongside the kill ship and towed to the waiting Nisshin Maru. A winch cable is given to the killer ship by the Nisshin Maru and attached to the dead whale, then the whale is hauled up the Nisshin Maru' massive slipway. The whales carcass is butchered by a team using knifes on pole arms called flensing knifes and powered winches to pull apart the flesh.

Assisting and supporting the fleet are a number of other ships. Two spotter vessels operate nearby Kaiko Maru and report the location of pods of whales and the position of Krill blooms. The spotters are the 'Kaiko ' and 'kyoshin maru no. 2' although other ships have filled this role. These ships are converted fishing vessels with very high masts and crows nests used for spotting. The fleet is also supported by a tanker vessel 'Hiyo Maru' formally 'Oriental Bluebird.' It's role is to resupply the fleet with fuel and take delivery of processed whale products.

All the ships of the fleet are own by Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, Ltd and operated by the Institute of Cetaceans Research. In recent years The fleet has expanded to include ships who's purpose has been as security for the fleet.

It was a long day, filled with crazy adrenaline highs that once have abated you think you can't take another, like watching a whole series do 24 back to back, but you are actually there.

One of these moments was when I was inside just heading back to the deck when I heard the Nisshin Maru's horn blow way to loud. Totally-utterly-right next-to-you loud. WHAT?! I sprinted out of the aft hatch to see the bow of the massive Nisshin Maru tower over us actually overhanging the heli-deck on the back of the Steve Irwin. It passed by us with just a whisper to spare. Everyones faces were white as sheets, especially the pilot and cameraman who had been in the chopper at the time. A few seconds different and we could have all been scrabbling for life-rafts, if we even had that much time.

It started to feel like one of those old airplane dogfights, where we were the underdog. We were chasing the Nisshin Maru, with 3 harpoon ships circling us and cutting in front of us to try and lead us away from the Nisshin Maru so they could slip another whale in, and us sticking behind the NM like a dog with a bone. I'd be busy sorting something on the deck, look up and whooah! there's a harpoon ship just meters away baring down on us.

The Harpoon ships managed to get another whale to the Nisshin Maru and we just missed blocking the transfer. We needed a little more speed to keep up with the harpoon ships. The engine room was belching dark oily air and the ship groaned and shuddered and we raced to catch the ships. We were right up close to the Factory ship as it pulled the Minkie whale up its slipway. You see the images so many time on the TV but seeing the same thing for real is so different. I will never forget seeing that newly killed Minkie body being dragged up the slipway into the factory, or the red of blood and guts come poring out of the ships scuppers into the sea as they cut it up.

It was a long day. The first two whales got passed us and we were too far away to do anything about it but the next three were hard fought for and it took the fleet fourteen hours to transfer them. If the whale is not butchered soon after it is killed the meat spoils and loses its value. The whalers were getting desperate.

Then the Yushin Maru no.3 came in to try and pass another dead whale across, but this time we have some speed up and we raced them head to head to get in the way of the transfer. I was out on the aft deck above the propeller as it thudded around as fast as it can go, everything shaking as both ships were both flying along full speed to get to the Nisshin Maru first.

I was at the side of the ship when we reached the Nisshin Maru and the Yushin Maru got closer and closer and then the collision was suddenly inevitable. In probably one of his most romantic gestures ever my fella took my hand in his as the two ships collided, and we held onto the ship with both hands as the Steve Irwin healed over drastically to Port for what seemed an eternity as the two hulls grinded together.

Finally the ships parted and we ran up forwards, and the were the first on the scene, unbolting and pulling open hatches to see if sea water was flooding in. We found a small hole in the anchor box, which is thankfully far above the water line, where our anchor had been pushed through our hull. You could see through it to the outside down to the tip of the bow breaking through the water below.

The fleet didn't try and whale in front of us again...


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

simply stopping by to say hello