The Farlay Mowat had covered over one thousand square miles across the Southern Ocean without a single ship on their radar, but that was all set to change…
At sea the Farley pitches and rolls like a mechanical bull on steroids. Outside, the thermometer rarely climbed out of her mercury bed. It was a perpetual dawn and the cloudy curtain almost never let the sun take the stage. When she did appear she always remained poised, perched precariously on the horizon for hours before dipping back into the salty dark drink.
On the eighth of February a melancholy cloud wafted through the companionways of the Farley. We were depressed. Because the New Zealand government refused to reveal the coordinates of the fleet we were forced to turn north, running low on fuel. It was ten days to the nearest port.
In the early morning hours of the following day, just after my weekly shower (hot water rationing is common onboard) a call came through from the Robert Hunter. A ship appeared on the radar and it was confirmed to be the whale processing ship the Nisshin Maru. She was less than ten miles ahead.
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By 7am the normally sleepy bridge of the Farley was buzzing with life. The entire crew was up and dressed for battle. Little adrenaline bullet trains raced from our heads to our hearts ignoring all stops along the way. It was the moment we spent months preparing for. Without delay we launched two zodiac (small inflatable speedboats) teams with a mission to hammer plates to the Nisshin Maru’s blood drains, and fowl the propeller to slow her down.
The crew look out at the Nisshin Maru. Photo c/o Jon Kane.
While the Farley closed in on the larger, faster factory ship, we waited on the bridge impatiently for word from the zodiac teams while our chopper circled overhead. One zodiac crew returned with a seriously damaged vessel; the zodiac had taken on a lot of water. The prop fowling attempt was successful but not enough to significantly slow down the ship. An hour went by, then two, and no sign of the second zodiac with John (a 24-year-old from LA) and Karl (a small boat expert from Fremantle). An attempt to make radio contact with the team failed.
A thick fog pushed in with a heavy snow. We were worried. All eyes were on the sea searching for the two men but visibility was less than 300 meters. I remembered our safety training with Karl. “With a full wetsuit and mustang suit you may last an hour in the icy water,” he had explained, “after that, your body begins to shutdown.”
Another hour went by; the weather worsened. I brushed the snow from my goggles to get a clearer view. My eyes played tricks on me. Every whitecap in the distance looked like a zodiac bouncing on the rough sea. Even with thick gloves my fingers hurt. It got colder and the snow got heavier. Where were they and in what condition were they in? Did the boat capsize? Was it incapacitated? Were they unconscious? I tried to imagine myself in their situation. They must be freezing. But Karl is very experienced. If he lost site of the ships he would likely try to stay put and stay warm.
Captain Watson issued a mayday. We aborted our chase of the Nisshin Maru and began a search pattern for our crew. The Hunter joined the search. And so did the Nisshin Maru. At this I was perplexed. They are our enemy, our foe, environmental criminals; millions of litres of blood wash from their decks every year yet they call us terrorists. Why would they come to our aid?
According to maritime law all ships in the area are required to respond to a mayday call. The Nisshin Maru was obligated. Another hour passed, and another; three ships searched in the fog for two men on one tiny boat, if only the storm would lift so we could get the chopper back in the air.
Four more hours passed; enough time for us to imagine every terrible scenario. The reality that the guys could be dead crept up on us. I was scared for them.
But then, out of the fog, a gray object appeared. It was the zodiac. I was anxious, but it appeared to be empty. Where were they? We closed in on the small craft. Pedro, the first mate, an electronics engineer from Florida, laid on the foghorn, one long blast, and two orange figures popped up in the small boat and waved. All hands immediately ran to the foredeck to pull them in. They were okay.
Relief washed over us and the atmosphere on board was bright and warm once more, despite the below freezing temperature. Now what? I wondered. We all had our doubts as to whether we should continue the campaign. All except for the captain. “Nisshin Maru, Nisshin Maru, this is the Farley Mowat,” he said into the radio, “thank you for helping, now it looks like we are back on schedule.”
It reminded me of a story from World War I when both sides stopped fighting on Christmas day to play soccer with each other only to resume fighting the next day. But he was right; we were there to protect the whales.
Tomorrow, the Nisshin Maru fights back…