PART OF THE World Environment ISSUE

On the high seas with the environmental movement

‘We would sit listening to the symphonies that were being performed by the whales every night under the stars.’

In over 40 years as a senior captain for Greenpeace International, Peter Willcox has been in the vanguard of the international environmentalist movement. Having sailed over 300,000 miles in virtually every corner of the globe on yachts including Greenpeace’s iconic Rainbow Warrior, here we accompany Peter in Peru where he encounters singing humpback whales but also witnesses the brutal practice of whaling.

Extract from Greenpeace Captain: Bizarre Wanderings On The Rainbow Warrior
By Peter Willcox with Ronald B. Weiss
Published by Sandstone Press

I found myself in Peru, walking around a dead baby whale with a tape measure in my hand. A Japanese-owned whaling ship had caught the undersize southern Bryde’s whale illegally and towed it into the harbor at Paita for “processing.” A few years before, I had enjoyed an incredible experience on the Regina Maris that left a whale-size impression on me: an encounter with humpback whales at the Silver Bank breeding grounds sixty miles north of the Dominican Republic. Three-quarters of the world’s humpbacks gather together near Silver Bank to mate. During the season, thousands of them are concentrated in an area of about twenty square miles to breed and calve. Humpbacks are fascinating animals. If you’ve ever heard recordings of whales singing, it was probably humpbacks. At Silver Bank we could dive off the boat, snorkel around, and actually hear the singing of the humpback whales through the water. We would often drop a hydro-phone (an underwater microphone) over the side of the Regina Maris and sit around on deck listening to the symphonies that were being performed by the whales every night under the stars. Pure magic.

One day near Silver Bank, a mother whale and her calf— probably a pretty recent newborn—approached the Regina Maris, and a few of us jumped in the water to spend some quality time with the pair. It was unusual for humpbacks to come toward a ship: given that whaling fleets were still actively hunting them, their fear was understandable. This mother whale, however, seemed to know that we posed no threat. Maybe she wanted to teach her baby that not all humans are killers.

Floating around within a few yards of these magnificent and graceful giants was a life-altering experience. Ken Balcomb, a cetologist (whale scientist) on the Regina Maris, explained to us dumb sailors that whales had originally been land mammals before they returned to the sea. Here, in the water, I was face- to-face with two of my distant cousins. Watching the mother whale teaching her baby how to breach (when whales leap out of the water and slam back with a massive splash), I was touched by this intergenerational moment. At Silver Bank, the very future of the whale on this planet had been right there within reach. Now, in Peru, I was standing on a dead baby whale and fuming at the injustice, cruelty, and stupidity of it.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a global moratorium on commercial whaling in July 1982. During the preceding decade, Greenpeace and many other organizations had been putting pressure on the IWC to stop the killing. Finally, the ban on commercial whaling was passed (although aboriginal hunting and some “research” hunting was allowed). Japan, Norway, and Russia immediately objected to the ban and continued their hunts. A few months later, in November, Peru—pressured by Japan— announced it was going to allow commercial whaling despite the moratorium. The entire whaling fleet in Peru was owned and commanded by the Japanese (although the crews were Peruvian), and most of the whale meat they caught was being graded and shipped to Japan.

We had been on the Rainbow Warrior in the eastern Pacific Ocean looking for tuna seiners (big fishing trawlers) to prove they were killing dolphins. The Pacific is the largest ocean on the planet, and radar and radio waves only travel so far. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack; we were having very limited success in finding the trawlers. It had been a frustrating couple of weeks before we got the radio call from Gp redirecting us to Peru for an anti-whaling action. The whole crew was eager to go.

The best direct actions are inspired by the issue itself. Many of the crew had first heard of Greenpeace during its antiwhaling actions on the West Coast of the US in the 1970s. The famous image of the Gp inflatable in front of the harpoon gun was one of the best Gp actions ever, an action that’s hard to top even now. The crew was thrilled by the idea that we would at last be able to drive a boat in front of a harpoon gun. When I had first read Bob Hunter’s book Warriors of the Rainbow, I was intrigued by Greenpeace’s concept of direct action. Doing something real and physical struck a chord deep within me. Most people feel too powerless to have an effect on the world we live in, but direct actions are wonderful educational tools to alert our fellow citizens to a problem, while giving us a chance to do something about it. It is a hard combination to beat.

Greenpeace Captain: Bizarre Wanderings On The Rainbow Warrior by Peter Willcox is out now published by Sandstone Press priced £9.99.

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