We have a flag for the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd – but we’ve never flown it. We used to watch their series documentary Whale Wars. Always wanted to, but then I’ve dug around in the flag bag, looked at it and thought, ‘Hmmm.’
It looks a little pirate-y. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. All ‘Me hearties’ and ‘Ooh-arrr’. Not on land anyway.
It comes across different on a boat though. Pirates and pirate symbols feel more, well real. There are still pirates roaming the seven seas. It’s not even the fact that these people exist, because burglars exist on land too. It’s more the method.
The first time I felt it was only a few days after we left Milford. Crossing down through the outer edge of the Bay of Biscay, no one was around at the end of July. Until there was someone. One night a boat came towards us, and made its way right to our beam.
I watched it with an enormous sinking sensation. At that moment, anything could have happened. We wouldn’t have been able to call the police and hope they’d arrive in the matter of minutes. I mean if there weren’t fresh doughnuts ready and the police really wanted to. Here, a coast guard operation would take hours and hours to get to us – at least. We were on our own.
In the end, it was just a fellow yacht coming rather close – to say hello. Funnily, that’s never happened since. The boat was a Dutch couple who we later saw in À Coruña and they gave us some orange-coloured bunting. I’d forgotten. It’s in the same bag as that Sea Shepherd flag.
Why are pirates on the brain? I listened to an amazing podcast today. It was about how Sea Shepherd hunted, found and then chased an illegal fishing boat, aptly named FV Thunder. At four months long, it became their longest documented maritime chase.
Thunder had been illegally fishing Patagonian toothfish, more appetisingly known as Chilean sea bass, for years. With no fishing licence or quota, Thunder had unfairly devastated stocks of this long-lived, deep-water fish.
To find the illegal fishing boat, Sea Shepherd’s captain, Peter Hammerstedt said they needed to think like illegal poachers themselves. Like in the olden days of flushing out pirates in the Caribbean, he said. You needed to be the better pirate to find the original one.
Eventually they did find them – fishing in the ‘shadowlands’ of a remote part of the Southern Ocean. The MV Bob Barker – Sea Shepherd’s flagship vessel, and MV Sam Simon had to dodge icebergs, endure storms and eventually cross three oceans before they finally cornered Thunder off the west coast of Africa.
Thunder did something extraordinary then. It sank itself. Before it went down, some of the crew of the Bob Barker did manage to gain entry to the vessel. They found an estimated 20 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish wrapped up in small plastic bags. This catch went down with the boat. Thanks to Sea Shepherd, the captain was later convicted, and sentenced to three years in prison.
I’m tempted to fly our Sea Shepherd ensign on Quest now. I just wish it was pink. Or with some jaunty stripes. Is that terrible of me? It is, isn’t it?