by Adam Conniss

Adam ConnissThe day is almost over and I do not know if I should be enjoying myself as much as I am. I am on the foredeck of my ship the “Farley Mowat” and working around me are my friends and fellow crew. We have reached a natural break in our rhythmic task. People swap roles and fresh hands take over from weary ones. We are all sweating and a beaker of water is passed around, knives are sharpened. I feel high and elated, it is exactly a year ago today that I joined these ships and I am proud of myself and my crew. This is the work we all signed up to do; dirty, grim hard work but don't I feel happy, don't I feel alive.

The day started so well.

I had taken over watch on the bridge from the Captain who needed to complete the myriad paperwork that feed bureaucracy the world over; permits to film, permits to refuel, permits to anchor, permits to permit. As the Captain leaves the bridge, I exchange smiles with my new watch­mate as she quickly retrieves a small battery powered speaker, places it on the chart table and music is soon gently playing. The low morning sun is beaming through the bridge windows and although I had other jobs to do on deck, none was as pleasant as this watch.

I checked our position and speed on the bridge displays then glanced at the radar. We were tracking several boats and ships but only one of them was a worry. It was a stationary trawler just within visual range and almost dead ahead. Trawlers drag large nets through the water that catch a variety of sea life, then they stop and draw them onto their decks to be sorted. Usually this is the only reason for a trawler to be dead in the water. I changed our course to port to leave an appropriate safe distance between us and the trawler. Soon, through binoculars, we could clearly see the birds surrounding the trawl­nets, grabbing what fish they could before they were dumped onto the fishing boat's deck.

Trawling is not banned here although we are very close to the marine refuge that will be our main patrol area. It is seen as a safer alternative to gill­nets as they are supposed to have channels through which species that the  fisherman are not interested in (by­catch) can escape. The reality is that by­catch is still a huge issue in trawl­nets and overfishing is rife.

We clear the trawler and I ask my watch­mate to alter course back to our original heading. I watch the boat fall astern and train my binoculars forward. Two buoys close together soon bob into my view and I adjusted the focus to make them clearer. One square and blue, the other white and round. They were close, maybe only two miles distant and would pass by on our starboard side. I quickly rechecked our position and cursed myself for failing to spot them sooner.

Buoys are the blameless markers of the marine world and can mean many things; wrecks, anchoring spots, lobster pots or gill­nets to name a few. Some even tire of their enslavement and break free to roam the seas, marking nothing but their own freedom until they wash up on a beach or are found by a passing vessel and picked up. You never know, until you investigate, what they're signaling. They may be important and gainfully employed but equally they might be just passing through.

I suspected however, that these two were up to something. They were close together, only a few feet apart, and looked new. If they were marking pots they would be smaller and would have identical buoys stretching away in a line marking the course of the boat that dropped them earlier, but these were alone and large. If they were a pair of tramp buoys they were very new at the game because neither sported the shaggy beard of barnacles and vegetation that are obligatory amongst all hobos. But, if it was a net they were marking, the other end of the net would be similarly marked.

I cast my eyes wider and there they were. Two twin buoys about one mile from the first set. I radioed the Captain and throttled back the main engines to slow the boat. The Captain checked our position and confirmed what we both already knew, that we were well within an area where trawling may be allowed but where gill­nets were very specifically banned. This was put in place by the Mexican Government to give the Vaquita porpoise and the Tortoaba fish, both critically endangered species and victims of the illegal trade in endangered species for Chinese medicine, a chance to recover and pull back from the brink of extinction. This looked like a gill­net and smelt like a gillnet but we had to be sure, we still didn't know what was down there, the small boat was launched to investigate.

Launching any boat at sea is a tricky and problematic but the boat crew launched in perfect fashion without a hitch and were speeding toward the buoys within minutes.  Then it was confirmed. Over the radio came the news from the small boat that the buoys were marking a gill­net. It was time to go to work. Initially the net had been clear of animals as our two divers had confirmed when they returned from the safe depth limit of their equipment. One hundred and thirty foot down and no entanglements but as we pulled in the net, so the reality of our mission was delivered starkly to our decks. Sharks became visible many feet before they broke the surface. Their gills cruelly enmeshed with the net, they are hurriedly cut free only to strike the surface dead. Of all the crew, the divers take it worse of all. These two who have dedicated their lives to spending as much time as they can beneath the waves, seem to feel each death more acutely. One positions himself at the rail, keen edged knife ready to cut away the bodies, the other, my watch­mate from the bridge, smile now gone, documents every death with a borrowed notebook and camera. There are cheers as live animals begin to swim as they hit the water. Others are struggling as we cut them free and are sent on their merry way but the majority are gone forever. Some are so fresh their eyes still hold the look of life but they just couldn't hold on long enough for rescue.

Sea lions have arrived and provide comic relief and there is a gallows humour, after all this is what we signed up to do but everyone responds to grief differently. So happy!

So there I am, surrounded by destroyed gill­net spread out on the deck. It turns out to be a long one, maybe two and a half miles of perfected silent killer mesh. The break in the work is over as the latest victim is cut away. It looks to be a sizable shark and the largest one yet. I do not take a closer look and only see it's impressive tail over the rail of the ship. The camera clicks, the body drops and another name is added to the butchers list. I remember a surprisingly small splash and I imagined its sleek nose breaking the water. There is no cheer this time from the down turned faces at the rail but they still watch hypnotized. In my mind's eye the body spins gently as it sinks exposing it's lighter belly to the sunlight for the last time. So happy.

I break the silence with the single word question I ask after every stop, “Ready?” On receiving no objections, I start the winch once more. So happy.

But should I be happy that we found so many dead and dying animals in a cruel trap? I would certainly be happier if the net was empty. Happier still if they weren't there at all, then I could go home. I would not be happy if we hadn't found the net and all the sharks were dead. I will be happy again when we find the next net and the one after that and the one after that until all these nets are pulled from the sea. Then I will be ecstatic.

For now I am happy and immensely proud. Happy and proud of everyone of my crew-mates and everyone in Sea Shepherd. Proud of everyone who works to defend those who are defenseless, everyone on­shore who gives time and energy to the cause. Everyone back home who provide sanity and insanity in equal measure. Everyone who donates, anyone who has so much as bought a pin badge in support of any of our campaigns. Everyone who has worked to bring this ship, to this point at this time. I am proud of you all and I can truly say that on that day, at slightly past three in the afternoon you all made me truly happy and I thank you.

net retrieval

net retrieval

net retrieval

net retrieval navy

all photos by Carolina A Castro

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Milagro III

Operation Milagro IV: A Vaquita Defense Campaign
This campaign launch video illustrates the issues surrounding the vaquita rescue efforts. Sea Shepherd is continuing its relentless commitment to stop the imminent extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise by is returning to Mexico’s Gulf of Ca...
Op. Milagro III: Sam Simon Campaign Summary
The history of the Sam Simon, and the facts and figures surrounding the work this ship has done during Operation Milagro III in the Gulf of California from December 2016 to May 2016.
Operation Milagro III: The Endangered Vaquita Porpoise
ATTENTION! ATTENTION!! Sea Shepherd is making a valiant effort to save the CRITICALLY ENDANGERED Vaquita Porpoise from EXTINCTION. There are fewer than 30 left on Earth. We have to do everything we can to stop the use of illegal gillnets!! Please joi...
Operation Milagro III: Illegal Gillnets
This is a typical day for the Sea Shepherd crew on Operation Milagro III. The Gulf of California is one of the world’s hotspots for marine biodiversity, We will continue our work retrieving illegal nets, giving the unique inhabitants like the near-...
Operation Milagro III: Dead Dolphin Caught in Illegal Gillnet
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Operation Milagro III: Ray Day
On the 17th of April the crew of M/V Farley Mowat retrieved an illegal net with 22 cownose rays entangled inside. Twenty one of the rays were released alive. Unfortunately, one was dead. Every life counts, and every net out of the waters is a success...
Operation Milagro III: A busy 24 hrs
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Operation Milagro III: Using Drones to Nab Poachers
On Operation Milagro III, drones have proven to be one of the most valuable assets we have battling poaching in the Gulf of California. Many thanks to our donor, Clarence Stanback, whose generosity has enabled us to create a drone program at Sea Shep...
Op. Milagro III: The Totoaba Bass
The endangered totoaba has a long history in the Gulf of California. Watch this Sea Shepherd video to learn more about this fish and why its swim bladder is targeted by poachers.
Operation Milagro III: Wildlife of the Gulf of California
The stunning biodiversity of life in the Gulf of California is what keeps us going and what are here to protect. Poachers may try to do everything in their power to get us to leave. But we are here for our clients and we are not going anywhere. Suppo...
Operation Milagro III: Facing Death
During a single patrol in Mexico’s Gulf of California, the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat encountered two dead whales, 24 dead dolphins, a dead sea lion, and countless dead birds. The near-extinct vaquita and the endangered totoaba is not the only vi...
Op. Milagro III: Dolphin and Whale Day in the Gulf of California
While in the gulf of California we see a variety of marine wildlife coexisting with one another. Sights like this one give us hope that this ecosystem still has the potential to remain wild and beautiful as long as we stay vigilant in protecting it.
Op. Milagro III: 66 Dead Totoaba in One Gill-net
On March 14th, the Farley Mowat crew discovered a gill-net approximately 250 metres in length, with 66 endangered totoaba fish. After hours of work, they managed to untangle the catch and hand it to authorities. Sea Shepherd was also granted a glimps...
Op. Milagro III: The MV Sam Simon & the Dolphin Megapod
On February 25, 2017, while patrolling the waters of the Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III, the M/V Sam Simon sailed through a megapod of dolphins with numbers estimated to be more than 1000 individuals. The elation and joy of this sight c...
M/V SAM SIMON: Operation Milagro III in the Gulf of California
The M/V Sam Simon has embarked on its inaugural mission to save the near-extinct vaquita, the endangered totoaba and other sea life in the Mexico’s Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III (2016-2017). Learn about the history and abilities of ...
Operation Milagro III: Unprecedented Amount of Illegal Nets Pulled in a 48-Hour Period
Over 1000 Animals Saved - Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat and M/V Sam Simon pulled a record number of illegal gillnets – 18 -- in Mexico’s Gulf of California during a 48 hour period, saving and releasing over 1000 marine animals including Hamme...
Op. Milagro III: Biodiversity in the Gulf of California
Once called the World’s Aquarium by Jacques Cousteau, the Gulf of California has always had a high level of endemism. Today, fishing is the main cause of the destruction of its ecosystem. Featuring Sea Shepherd crew and Dr. Roy Houston, professor...
Op. Milagro III: Sea Shepherd Rescues Fisherman in the Gulf of California (with subtitles)
On the night of the 25th, The Farley Mowat came across fishermen in a small panga boat. When approached by The Farley, the fishermen fled at high speed. Some distance from the fishing boat, The Farley crew noticed a large splash as fishing boat come ...
Op. Milagro III: Sea Shepherd vs Poachers in the Gulf of California
Six fishing boats engaged in illegal activities were spotted by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, ending in their arrest by the Mexican Navy.
Op. Milagro III: Ghost Nets Go; Vaquitas Stay
Sea Shepherd and the M/V Farley Mowat break down how illegal underwater nets in the Sea of Cortez are snagged, pulled, cut and bundled. Footage also includes freeing and releasing live animals from the nets and cataloging those who unfortunately did ...
Sam Simon arrives in Mexico for Operation Milagro III
The Sam Simon has arrived in Mexico to join the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society-led campaign, Operation Milagro III. A partnership between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican authorities, Operation Milagro III intercepts, intervenes and interrupts any ill...
Operation Milagro III Campaign Launch Video
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