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July 18, 2012

Imagining Pirates

By Galen McCleary

Photo: Carolina A. CastroPhoto: Carolina A. CastroThe last two weeks of college were a struggle. While my friends at school had internships set up working for banks such as JP Morgan and various start-up companies in the San Francisco Bay area, I was planning to join the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – a so called “environmental terrorist group.”  I found myself constantly trying to imagine what I would actually be doing this coming summer. I knew it was a shark campaign in the South Pacific but other than that my summer job was just a vague idea I constantly was trying to fathom. During exams week I found myself repeatedly watching Sharkwater and getting myself amped up. It was hard to focus on learning computer programming knowing that in only a few weeks I would be diving alongside a school of reef sharks and working in areas where there fate may be determined by my presence.

By the beginning of exams I had my bags already packed and was starting to dismantle my dorm room completely in preparation to leave. I was ecstatic about the opportunity that lay ahead of me, but was also still a little unsure what exactly I was getting myself into. When I was asked what my summer plans where I would just say that I was working for a conservation group called Sea Shepherd. Almost always the response was “Oh, isn’t that the one from Whale Wars with the Captain who was just arrested.” It was exciting being one of the only people I know about to work for a boss who was currently in jail, but also a little unsettling.

On my flight over to Sydney, where I would meet the Brigitte Bardot, I had plenty of time for reflection. The whole past week had been extremely hectic and tiring and it still hadn’t sunk in that I was actually on my way to join the crew and embark on the campaign. I spent a good amount of my travel time reflecting on what I actually had seen and heard about Sea Shepherd. From Whale Wars, I gathered that it was made up of some extreme environmentalists who used controversial, direct-action methods to stop illegal whaling operations. I began to prepare myself for two things, a crew of intense vegan hippies and a possibility of ending up in some Pacific island jail. Upon my arrival I realized that nether of these assumptions would be met.

Photo: Carolina A. CastroPhoto: Carolina A. CastroI reached the ship early in the morning and shyly walked on board the Brigitte Bardot. Right away I was greeted by the first mate of the boat who showed me to my bunk and gave me a detailed tour of the boat. After a while the rest of the crew began to wake up and come to the galley for breakfast. I was kindly greeted by all of them and was able to talk to the majority of the crewmembers over breakfast. Right off the bat I was extremely impressed by everyone and how unique and diverse the group was. Not one person was from the same country and everyone seemed to have very different backgrounds with one overlaying passion of wanting to protect the oceans. I could also tell that this wasn’t a crew of maniac pirates either. Every single person had extensive boat knowledge and had left very legitimate jobs to join Sea Shepherd. For example, our captain for the Operation Requiem campaign had worked as an oil tanker captain for a couple years and our second mate is both a Shark photographer and a Scuba Instructor. I would also learn that the actions Sea Shepherd takes were very professional as well. A little to my disappointment, the organization is not simply about finding and sinking illegal fishing vessels. It is instead highly organized patrolling of protected waters where the organization is merely trying to enforce already existing laws. Outreach, awareness, and education, as well as solid communication are critical techniques as well. I have come to learn that it is much more about being able to use conservation politics rather than conservation pirating.

The week I spent in Sydney consisted of repairing various things on the boat and running around trying to get the food and supplies we needed for our campaign. This was a good time for me to get to know the inside and out of the boat before we reached open seas. By the time we left Sydney Harbor on our way to the Solomon Islands I was itching to get out in the ocean and into action. Then within a day into the trip I was wishing we had never left—the ocean had become extremely rough and my sea legs were a bit rusty. I spent two days in bed not eating and struggling to do my chores and boat watches. My seasickness abruptly came to an end two days into the trip when we stopped on some uninhabited islands of the coast of New Caledonia. Here we threw down the anchor and did some snorkeling around the reefs. As we jumped in we were greeted by a large school of Yellowfin tuna. I was expecting them to swim away frightened by us, but instead they seemed just as interested in us as we were in them. Every time we would dive down, the fish would swim around us creating a beautiful circular enclosure. After about 10 minutes diving with the tuna, a couple of interested reef sharks began to emerge from the depths below us. Having these tuna all around us and the sharks right below us was an amazing experience and reminded me of what I was really on this campaign for.

After this dive we were blessed with glassy calm seas for the rest of the journey. We had dolphins swimming alongside our bow and saw over a dozen breaching whales. Once in the Solomon Islands we were able to attend the Pacific Arts Festival, which has been a great experience. Watching performances from cultures all over the Pacific Islands and meeting people from all these cultures has been great. I have seen firewalkers and drank Kava with the Pacific Voyagers who have been sailing for two years straight, by way of the stars. By talking to these people and the local Solomon people we have been able to spread awareness about shark finning, with the hope that they take the concern home to their native Pacific Islands. In the meantime, I have also learned so much about these cultures. These are people who are all very concerned about their oceans as well, but need a supportive hand in taking action. I can only hope that the campaign continues to be as positive as it is now.  And now I know it isn’t about being rogue pirates – it is about making a meaningful long-term impact on local communities and sharks.