January 2010. In the freezing Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Sea Shepherd boat the Ady Gill is rammed by a Japanese whaling ship. The Ady Gill sinks soon after. But who was really to blame?
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Pete Bethune isn't a man to mince his words. Especially not when it comes to whaling in the southern ocean around Antarctica.
"It's the Wild West down there," he says bluntly.
He would know. Eight years ago, as the skipper of a high speed boat with a crew of environmental activists, he tested the limits of the law by getting up close and very personal with the Japanese whaling fleet.
On that occasion, his boat came off second best. But possibly the real damage done was to Pete Bethune’s sense of the world, his respect for his fellow activists and maybe, to himself.
In 2008 Bethune set a new speed record for circumnavigating the globe in a bio-diesel fuelled trimaran named Earthrace, a vessel he called “the coolest boat in the world”. Just after finishing his record-breaking journey, a journalist asked him what he wanted to do next.
“Just off the cuff I said I might take (Earthrace) to Antarctica to disrupt the Japanese whaling. (Afterwards) I got a call from Sea Shepherd.”
“Six months later, there I was driving the boat down to Antarctica.”
Founded by Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society uses a mix of direct action tactics and sophisticated publicity campaigns to, in their words, ‘conserve and protect ecosystems and species’. The Society is famous (or infamous) for opposing Japanese whaling programs in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary surrounding Antarctica.
Since the sanctuary was established, it is estimated that more than 10,000 whales have been taken for what the Japanese call scientific research. The IWC rejects this description and so do Sea Shepherd. So does Pete Bethune.
From 2005 to 2017, the Sea Shepherd fleet, unofficially known as Neptune’s Navy, disrupted the Japanese hunt by doing what Bethune calls ‘naughty stuff.’ This involved ramming their ships, attacking the crew with butyric acid and rancid butter and deploying prop-fouling cables.
“What we did down there was illegal. We’re breaking the law. But we would also argue that they (the Japanese whalers) are breaking the law with what they do.
“Sometimes your job as an activist is to create a festering sore. And for that, sometimes laws are broken.”
Earthrace was sold to billionaire philanthropist Ady Gill who leased the boat to Sea Shepherd. Refitted for her new mission and painted black, in late 2009 the trimaran joined Neptune’s Navy in the Southern Ocean. Now named Ady Gill, it gave Sea shepherd leader Paul Watson a new - and fast - weapon up his sleeve.
“Up until then, they (Sea Shepherd) had always struggled to keep up with the (Japanese) harpoon vessels” explains Bethune.
“Ady Gill changed all that.”
January 5th 2010. Ady Gill and Sea Shepherd vessels Bob Barker and Steve Irwin were searching for the Japanese whalers when a tip off comes in. The fleet is only a few hundred miles away. Their chance to make an impact is now.
Their target is the NV Nisshin Maru, an 8000 ton factory ship used for processing and the centrepiece of the six strong Japanese whaling fleet. Harpooned whales are loaded onto the slipway in her stern and the Sea Shepherd tactic is to shut her down by blocking the slipway with the Bob Barker.
If whales can’t be loaded, they won’t be hunted. The Nisshin Maru is faster than most of the Sea Shepherd fleet – but not faster than the Ady Gill. Pete’s job is to delay her, allowing the Bob Barker to catch up and get into position.
6 January 2010. The two opposing fleets make contact and after a full day of sparring, the Ady Gill crew deploy a length of heavy rope that fouls the giant ships’ propeller. The Nisshin Maru is forced to stop and Bob Barker rushes to catch up. Bethune’s crew have done their job and he and four others climb up onto the top of the Ady Gill, which is idling on just one engine and nearly still in the water. Several of the whaling fleet pass by but the last, the Shonan Maru No.2, turns towards them. A security ship, its job is to keep protestors away from the Nisshin Maru and it is well equipped to do so.
“We’re getting hit by water cannons, we can’t see…so there’s an element of confusion going on.”
At more than 600 tonnes, the Shonan Maru dwarfs the 18 ton Ady Gill. Bethune remembers clearly the sensation of watching the much larger ship line them up.
“I thought we were gonna be run completely over and we’d be bringing people back in body bags.”
The Shonan Maru was on the Ady Gill’s port side and overtaking them. By maritime law, the smaller vessel has right of way. But suddenly the Japanese ship makes a late change to starboard. A collision is now unavoidable and everything is about to change for Pete Bethune.
“It came down on a wave on top of us and (their) bow pushed our bow right under the water. As (our) bow broke off this wave of water swept through the boat.
“We were all just clinging on for dear life as this wave swept over us.”
A 3m section of the Ady Gill’s bow is sliced clean off, but it was still afloat. All of the crew are alive, but one has broken ribs.
The news of the collision goes global and the next day, 7 January 2010, when Sea Shepherd announces to the world that the crippled Ady Gill had sunk overnight, a media storm erupts. Both the Japanese whaling fleet and the activists are accused of reckless and lawless behaviour but the various video recordings of the collision don’t necessarily favour either side. In the public eye, though, the loss of the Ady Gill seems clearly the fault of the Japanese. The “festering sore” Pete Bethune wanted to create has happened, but with one big problem.
It just wasn’t true. The Ady Gill did not sink as a result of the collision.
Bethune insists that in the immediate aftermath of the collision his boat was salvageable. The plan was to tie the damaged trimaran behind the Bob Barker and tow it to a French station in Antarctica for repairs.
But during a secret conference with Sea Shepherd boss Paul Watson on 6 January, he was ordered to scuttle the boat. The reason? It would make a better story. The boat’s owner was not advised of the plan. Watson insisted they hide their actions from the rest of Bethune’s’ crew.
“It was made very plain to me ‘you’d better keep this (secret) until you go to your grave’.”
Ady Gill was emptied of her contents and then that night, Bethune and two others, Bob Barker skipper Chuck Swift and crewman Luke Van Horn, snuck on board. They removed the satellite transponder, opened all the hatches and sea cocks and attached the tow lines.
The trimaran took six hours to fill up with water as it was dragged behind the larger ship. Eventually the tow lines broke and the “coolest boat in the world” was abandoned to its fate.
The media storm showed no signs of abating and an angry Bethune wanted to capitalise on it. A month later, he illegally boards the Shona Maru No. 2 to arrest the captain for attempted murder and present him with a bill for the loss of the Ady Gill.
Bethune is held by the Japanese crew and taken to Japan where he was arrested and charged with boarding a vessel without due cause, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property, assault and obstruction of business. All part of the plan.
Bethune expects to get a suspended sentence and to be deported. His lawyers instead tell him he is facing two-to-five years in a maximum security prison.
Not part of the plan.
In the meantime, Paul Watson announces that Bethune has been expelled from the Sea Shepherd for taking a bow and arrow to Antarctica without their permission. But Bethune’s supporters made it clear that the Society and Watson knew about the weapon and the backlash is swift and total. Sea Shepherd backs down, later claiming the expulsion was a tactic to help Bethune’s court case. No one really believes them.
But Bethune did need help. His trial was big news in Japan, where public opinion ran hard against him. Only a tearful apology and explanation to the court saw Bethune avoid a lengthy jail spell. He was convicted on just four of the five charges and deported to New Zealand.
It wasn’t much of a homecoming. Bethune had separated from his wife of more than 20 years, Sharyn, before sailing to Antarctica and his relationship with Sea Shepherd was in tatters, too. Bethune will eventually sue them for money owed to him from the sale of Earthrace/Ady Gill. On his website, Bethune called the Society “dishonest” and “morally bankrupt.”
He was also broke. Bethune remembers ringing a wealthy friend for help and $10,000 being transferred to his account. But when he went into his bank to check, the money wasn’t there.
“I remember looking at this little wee bank teller, looking how far away she was from me…and whether I could grab her throat.”
A 2010 report by Maritime New Zealand put the blame for the collision on both the Shonan Maru 2, and the Ady Gil but no charges were laid. Pete Bethune says he was 'reasonably happy' with the report.
After settling out of court and receiving a large pay out, Bethune eventually made his peace with Sea Shepherd but no longer works with them. In 2015 an American court ruled that Paul Watson had ordered the scuttling of the Ady Gill for the publicity it would generate. Sea Shepherd paid an undisclosed sum to the boat’s owner.
In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program had no scientific merit and ordered them to stop. Japan disagreed and resumed whaling a year later, with a much smaller harvest planned. However, they also doubled the size of the area they planned to hunt in. Armed with new military tracking technology, the Japanese whaling fleet is now virtually undetectable and effectively unstoppable. Sea Shepherd can’t compete and in 2017 decided to no longer send ships to Antarctica to oppose them. As of 2018, there is no monitoring of the fleet’s activity by either private or government organisations.
So was it all worth it? Pete Bethune lost his boat, his marriage and his respect for Sea Shepherd, as well as a lot of money. He spent five months in a maximum security prison and saw things there that he can’t forget. Prison, he says, changed him and not all for the better.
But, he says, you win some - and you lose some.
“I think there will come a time when Japan will withdraw from whaling in Antarctica.”
“In 2010 there was a significant drop in whale (meat) consumption in Japan. It was the first time the Japanese realised this is pissing off Kiwis and Aussies. No one had any idea that was the case.”
But thew whaling continues and he is typically forthright on what he sees as New Zealand’s obligation as signed-up member of the IWC as well as a nation that claims rights and responsibilities to a slice of Antarctica.
"We have an obligation to send patrol boats down there. I think we should send one and use it to monitor the Japanese whaling and put those photos around the world."
He also doesn’t spare himself over his responsibility in the sinking of his beloved boat and cries a little when asked about it.
“I was part of what was a pretty dishonest act, really. When I look at things today I’m comfortable with everything I did – except for the scuttling.
“Those were dark days.”
This story was produced by Justin Gregory, using archival audio from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. You can subscribe or listen to every Eyewitness podcast on iTunes or at radionz.co.nz/series. Please give us a rating!
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