THE SHIP THAT STARTED IT ALL...
...AND THE CAMPAIGN SHE WON --
AT THE COST OF HER LIFE.
The Sierra Campaign
Between 1968 and 1979 a whale hunter-killer ship roamed the Atlantic Ocean. She changed name and ownership several times in a continuing attempt to evade the conservation and fishing regulations of dozens of nations.
By 1979, the ship was operating under the name Sierra. Her crew included four employees of the Taiyo Fishing Company of Japan, of which an investigation of shipping manifests by the Observer newspaper showed was the primary purchaser of the outlaw whaler's catch. (The Japan Whaling Commission claimed ignorance of the ship's activities. To this day, Japan is the principal market for whale meat.) Her captain was Arvid Nordengen, a Norwegian.
The Sierra's operations were shockingly "efficient." Only the prime tail meat was taken, and the remaining 80% of the whale was thrown away. It was estimated that she had killed over 25,000 individual whales. Andrew Maurice Behr, director of the Sierra Fishing Company in South Africa, was quoted in the Argus, a Cape Town newspaper, as saying that whales were "endangered anyway. The world will soon be rid of them, so why not make a profit from them before they disappear?"
Having been sensitized to the slaughter of whales by a close encounter four years before, Paul Watson had vowed to himself that he would hunt down the Sierra and end her career.
With a grant from the Fund for Animals Captain Watson purchased a 19-year old North Sea cod trawler and renamed her the Sea Shepherd. Additional funds for preparation and fuel came from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Using information from a variety of sources, over time Captain Watson narrowed down the Sierra's location to somewhere in the eastern Atlantic between Spain and Morocco and headed there in the Sea Shepherd. Twelve days out of Boston, on July 15, 1979, the Sierra was spotted. She turned and ran at full speed toward Portugal.
Unfortunately, the seas were too rough for a controlled ramming, so the Sea Shepherd ran along side as both ships headed toward the Portuguese port of Leixoes.
The next day, slipping out of port before the authorities noticed, the Sea Shepherd surprised the Sierra drifting just outside. By radio, Captain Watson warned Captain Nordengen of what he was going to do and accelerated to full speed.
The reinforced bow of the 779-ton Sea Shepherd connected with the bow of the 650-ton Sierra and kept on going. Captain Watson circled around and hit the Sierra again on the port side, tearing open a 7- by 10-foot (2- by 3-meter) hole. The Sea Shepherd then slammed sideways into the smaller Sierra, staving in a long section of the Sierra's port-side hull.
Listing badly, the Sierra ran for protection toward some Portuguese naval ships. The Sea Shepherd headed for Spanish waters, but a navy ship overtook the Sea Shepherd and convinced Captain Watson to return to Leixoes.
In early November, 1979, without a hearing or trial, a Portuguese judge awarded the Sea Shepherd as damages to the owners of the Sierra. (Some inquiries suggested that the judge had been bribed by a representative for Andrew Behr). Afraid that the Sea Shepherd would be converted to whaling operations, Captain Watson and his crew scuttled the Sea Shepherd on the evening of December 31, 1979, by opening the sea valve in the engine room, and even though it pained them very much, sent her to the bottom.
The Sierra had been towed to Lisbon for repairs, though the Portuguese authorities lied to the American consul and told him that the ship had left the country. Taking advantage of the Sierra's immobility, a team of underwater demolition experts made preparations to finish the career of the whaler.
On February 6, 1980, after undergoing US$ one million in repairs, the Sierra was sunk at dockside by a single limpet mine that blew a small hole in the hull. The ship took on water and slowly sank until it struck the bottom. Nobody was injured.
The sordid career of the Sierra was finally brought to an end.
Later that year more limpet mines sank half of the Spanish whaling fleet. A reward offered by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for the sinking of whaling ships caused owners to mistrust their underpaid crews and shut down their own whaling operations. Sea Shepherd and her allies had achieved in one year what 10 years of rhetoric and national posturing had failed to do.