Siddharth Chakravarty, a First Officer on the Steve Irwin, spent the last few months braving some of the toughest weather conditions on Earth as part of Operation Divine Wind. The goal? To defend one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures. He spoke to Ayesha D’souza about his experiences. This is Siddharth’s third campaign with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), after Operation Blue Rage 2 defending blue-fin tuna from illegal fishing and Operation Ferocious Isles in the summer of 2011 in the Faeroe Islands to defend pilot whales.
What prompted you to leave your job in the merchant navy and volunteer for an organisation like SSCS?
I have spent the last 10 years of my life as a seaman, sailing for extended periods of time, transporting cargo and indirectly fuelling the economic global growth that we see today. Always having felt like a misfit, I educated myself on the multiple identities that shipping takes on at various local, national and international levels. I felt conflicted by the consummate callousness of the shipping industry, which manifests itself most clearly in the pollution of the waterways arising out of commercial shipping operations and accidental discharge from ships. These, in turn, have crippling effects on marine life. I heeded the call of my nagging conscience and combined it with my skill set. I hunted for jobs that would put me on the front line for marine conservation and SSCS turned out to be the answer.
Tell us about your first campaign with SSCS. What was the outcome of the campaign?
My first campaign with SSCS was Blue Rage 2, dedicated to stop the illegal poaching of endangered blue-fin tuna, in June 2011. Our area of interest was the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya, since we believed that the war would prevent the European Union Fisheries Department from patrolling this area, making it a haven for illegal fishing fleets. Our typical day would involve sailing along the coast of Libya and intercepting and interrogating fishing boats, trying to verify their permits and the legality of their catches. During the tuna season, the presence of SSCS ensured that no illegal purse-seiners operated in the Mediterranean Sea and that the season was closed as soon as the quota for the year 2011 was fulfilled.
SSCS, however, believes that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) should drastically reduce the ridiculously high quota of 13,000 tonnes if the world is to have any chance of saving this apex predator. With its collapse at the top of the food chain, the implications are much bigger than what is visible to the naked eye.
What are your responsibilities on the ship?
Due to my previous work experience, I am mainly engaged in the capacity of Navigating Officer. Over the span of a few months, I have served in various roles for Sea Shepherd including Captain, 1st Mate and Ship’s Manager. Between these titles my responsibilities have ranged from being in charge of the ship, navigating it safely, to planning passages and working closely with Captain Paul Watson on campaign strategies. However, ranks do not really matter – if you’re here for the right reasons, the organisation’s victories are much more important than any personal glory.
This year, the Japanese Government more than doubled their budget and protection and got a navy escort as well for the Japanese fleet. What are your thoughts on this?
It was almost encouraging to know that we are so feared that a government would pump in 27 million USD from its crippled economy to protect the whaling fleet. It showed how effective we have been and how they’d rather inject that money than suffer bigger losses by being forced to end the whaling season early. We were extremely prepared this year; like the Japanese, the SSCS crew and vessels come back stronger each year. Every year we have managed to stun the Japanese with new tactics and tricks and we had some waiting for them this year as well. Through our television show, Whale Wars, we exposed the gruesome reality of whaling to the world.
The Japanese argue that their whaling is for scientific research only. What do you say to that?
According to the Japanese Deputy Press Secretary, “Since the issue is research whaling, which encompasses the principle of sustainable use of natural resources, naturally, the relevant Ministries and agencies, in particular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries have been carrying out in-depth deliberations on the issue and its implications and ramifications. Given the legality of Japan’s scientific research whaling, I don’t think any Ministry has proposed or indicated that, in the future, this will be stopped. The internal discussion within the Japanese Government is to further gather scientific data with respect to marine living resources. Since marine resources are very important to human beings, I think we will, and should, make best use of all the resources. In that respect, I think the position of the Japanese Government is fairly firm to the effect that we are proceeding with yearly scientific research whaling.”
The above statement both angers and disturbs me. Exploiting the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) loophole to continue whaling under the banner of scientific research really upsets me. They claim to be aware of the significance of marine resources for human life, and yet they continue with the hunt. This is extremely disheartening. Representatives from various nations that are part of the IWC are of the view that Japan’s so-called scientific research is completely fraudulent. All of the lethal whale research that is done by the Japanese can be done just as effectively by non-lethal means. The IWC has, since 1986, put a moratorium on all commercial whaling. It’s no secret that Japan camouflages their commercial whaling under the guise of so-called science. In addition to this, the Australian Federal Court has an injunction against the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), from whaling in the Southern Whale Sanctuary. Japan continues to blatantly violate this court order and chooses to return each year to the Southern Ocean to continue its illegal activity. Sea Shepherd is using its own resources and people to enforce international conservation law.
How do you feel about Sea Shepherd activists being labelled as eco-terrorists or even militant environmentalists?
The policy of SSCS is non-violent, direct-action; this means that we will physically put ourselves in harm’s way to obstruct anything that is illegal or wrong. To implement this policy, we use something that is called aggressive non-violence. However, none of our actions have ever caused bodily harm to any person, nor have we been charged with any criminal offense in relation to our activities. What is interesting is that the ICR recently filed for an injunction against SSCS in a U.S. court. At the preliminary court hearing, the judge denied the injunction, which allowed us to successfully complete our immensely effective campaign, Operation Divine Wind. The main reason, in the judge’s opinion, was that there was insufficient evidence to prove that human life was being put at risk and in conjunction with the environmental risks involved, he ruled that it did not warrant an injunction. Just for the record, I’d again like to state that in 34 years we have never lost a single life on either side – ours or theirs.
You are the first Indian to volunteer with SSCS. What do your friends and family think about what you are doing?
I do feel a sense of pride and accomplishment to be working under the U.N. Charter for Nature and to be part of an organisation that enforces International Conservation Laws in places where no one else does. While whales in the Southern Ocean or pilot whales in the Faroe Islands are far removed from the realm of most Indians, it is important to preserve the biodiversity of the planet. If the oceans die, we die. I hope that I can help create awareness on marine life and let it gather momentum in India, so that we can all support this incredible and important cause.
When I first wanted to drop out of commercial shipping, I was scared to dive headfirst into something so removed from the reality of most people. My family and friends have been incredibly supportive, too. As a volunteer at SSCS, I have spent all my savings in order to be here and without the financial support from my mother, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. I’m 28 years old and I can be broke and not be judged for having failed to shoulder my responsibilities. My family understands the risks I’m taking and the ultimate goal I’m striving to achieve and is there to back me up, for which I am extremely thankful.
What are some of the highs and lows of being a volunteer with SSCS?
The highs are numerous. The simple thought that I am part of a small group of individuals who put their lives at risk to save these marine mammals and am making a difference in a big way is reward enough. And of course, the chance to go down to the Antarctic Continent and explore the last continent untouched by man is something that cannot be described by words.
One of the biggest challenges we face is dwindling support from governments. Governments and politicians and corporations from around the world are the same – they conspire, scheme and team up. They put their defences up the moment we turn up to intervene and stop an illegal activity that will eat into their profits. This really can make your feel helpless.
How do you feel now that the campaign is over?
I managed to go out on one of the small Delta boats this year and after being within three metres off the bow of a harpoon vessel, I know I have to keep going back to save the whales. Being so up close and personal with the death machines has increased my anger against whaling. The beauty of the Antarctic continent is unbelievable, and to see killing in the midst of such beauty makes it all the more gruesome and wrong.
I was at the helm of the flagship, the M. Y. Steve Irwin for 89 days, where I worked with an international crew of 42 people. I had the chance to work closely with Captain Paul Watson, and be part of the strongest campaign for the Steve Irwin’s crew to date. The Steve Irwin did not manage to find the factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, but we engaged multiple times with the harpoon vessels and have managed to deface them enough, that on their return to Japan, the media and the people there can take notice of how wrong and illegal the ICR’s whaling programme is.
The ICR has released its kill numbers for this year and it is proof that SSCS has had an immensely successful campaign. We managed to intervene and save 768 whales, which means that the whaling fleet went back with only 28 per cent of their kill quota. This means that again morally and economically, we have yet again sunk the whaling fleet, and defeated them in spite of their inflated security budget, the presence of armed guards on board their vessels and having the odds stacked against us.
Do you have a message for our readers?
SSCS aims to create a presence in India over the next few months. I would like people to welcome them and help them set up a base in India. SSCS is fighting to preserve marine life and they should not be viewed as an organisation that is fighting against the people. From uncovering the seal-slaughter in Namibia to exposing the dolphin-slaughter in Japan, putting pressure on governments to ban shark-finning and protesting at the IWC, SSCS is single-handedly on the front-lines through their direct action efforts. Please follow our progress on our website and help us in our efforts to defend, conserve and protect marine life.
For more information on the SSCS, please go to www.seashepherd.org
by Ayesha D'souza, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII No. 2, Apri 2012.