Confronting Russian Seismic Vessel in Barents Sea

“This is Christy Ferguson, calling from the bridge of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise ... On behalf of Greenpeace and over 3 million Arctic Defenders around the world, we demand that you cease all preparations for oil drilling and return to port.”

It was our first encounter with the Akademik Lazarev, an oil exploration vessel working for the Russian oil giant Rosneft, which is preparing to drill in the high Arctic. Our captain spotted the vessel on the radar as we moved through the Barents Sea north of Russia, and we made our approach.

We started by making radio contact. I called the captain of Akademik Lazarev over the ship’s radio and told him why we were here: To protect the Arctic from the disaster of oil drilling. The captain confirmed that he was working for Rosneft, told me he had authorisation from the Russian state, then cut our conversation short.

With the captain unwilling to talk further, we got in a couple of inflatables and approached the vessel. We wanted to get a closer look, document its operations and bear witness. As we came up, we could hear the booming of underwater cannons and we could feel the shockwaves beneath us. It was a frightening feeling—the sounds they produce are so loud that they could deafen or even kill you if you were to fall in.

Seismic testing works by firing underwater air cannons that create incredibly loud booming noises. The soundwaves from these noises travel to the ocean floor, reflect back and are picked up by sensors towed behind the vessel. The data points are then used to create detailed undersea maps, which oil companies use to determine locations for drilling.

Seismic testing is dangerous for two reasons: First, it is a further step towards reckless Arctic drilling; drilling that we know will never be safe. Second, the testing itself poses lethal risks to local wildlife, especially whales and other marine mammals.

Dolphins Near Russian Seismic Vessel in Barents Sea

If whales are within 450-500 metres of the air cannons, they may lose their hearing permanently. Just imagine what this means for an animal that navigates by using sound. If whales are within 150 metres of the cannons and are assaulted directly with the full 245 decibels of sound, they will die.

Of course the companies claim there’s no real problem here because mammals will simply leave the area when they hear the cannons. It’s easy for them to make that claim when no one’s watching. But this time, someone is watching - not only the crew of the Arctic Sunrise, but more than 3 million Arctic defenders around the world. And as we watched, we saw something disturbing.

As we made our way back to the Arctic Sunrise in our inflatable boats, we spotted a pod of dolphins. There were at least a dozen of them playing in the water, some of them mothers and pups swimming side by side. It was an amazing sight, and we were very excited to see them breaching around our boats ... until we realised that they were heading in the direction of less friendly vessels, ones that could cause them irreparable harm.

And so we radioed again to the Akademik Lazarev, this time informing the crew that we’d seen dolphins heading towards their vessel and asking them to shut down the sound cannons so as not to do them harm. They radioed back that there were no dolphins nearby, and just kept on going. No dolphins, no risks, no climate change, no spills. The oil industry truly does speak with one voice. Luckily, the world now has another voice: The voice of over 3 million people coming together to protect the Arctic from dangerous oil drilling and calling for a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole.

You can join this movement at SaveTheArctic and help us draw a line in the ice and say to the oil companies: "You come no further."

Christy Ferguson is a Greenpeace Arctic Campaigner