It has been, as two reasonably famous songwriters once put it, a long and winding road, one that has lasted, on and off, for more than eighteen years now. And, theoretically, once we drop anchor in Dutch Harbor on Monday morning, it is a journey that—apart from a couple of days of post-expedition wrap-up and video editing—will come to an end.
Except that I have said as much many times before. It isn’t even the first time I’ve said it this year.
I remember distinctly a conversation with Lesley Scheele. It was November 1988, and she and I were sitting on the patio of the Fort Lauderdale house she shared with her husband, Ed Simmons. Ed and Lesley ran what was known as Greenpeace Southeast, which was the regional office for Florida and environs, and Lesley was also the coordinator for the international small cetaceans campaign (that’s whales and dolphins, for those who are wondering). I was at the time a neophyte environmental campaigner, the wide-eyed, 20-year-old director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
My visit didn’t start at all well. I had appeared a day before Lesley was expecting me (these were in the days when correspondence took the form of letters typed or printed on actual paper, and sent in envelopes via airplane across the ocean; occasionally such letters went astray or arrived late) and she was out of town. Ed, who had no idea who I was, nonetheless recognized me as the kind of person who might show up at his house to talk about dolphins with his wife, told me to make myself at home, and encouraged me to take advantage of the Florida sun.
All of which was well and good, but I was possessed of the pale complexion characteristic of denizens of the British Isles, and brief exposure to the elements of the Sunshine State turned me the approximate shade of St. George’s Cross. Ed, his generally impassive face allowing itself to register what I interpreted as a combination of pity and mild disgust, gave me some sunscreen. The sunscreen appeared to attract mosquitoes, so I applied insect repellant. The interaction between the sunscreen and the repellant induced a hideous rash.
I was sunburned and covered in a patchwork of hives and mosquito bites. I was not happy.
But Lesley showed up and, in her perpetually friendly and welcoming way, soon had me forgetting my various ailments. And I couldn’t have made too bad an impression because two months later I was working for Greenpeace, out of the organization’s international headquarters—which, at the time, were housed above a newspaper office in the small English market town of Lewes. (Yes, things were different then).
I didn’t realize that, as I sat (for the rest of my visit, in the shade) talking cetaceans with Lesley, I was being scouted as a prospect worthy of being called up to the major leagues (which, Lesley later confessed, I was). But I do remember two comments she made about Greenpeace.
One, as she lit up yet another cigarette, took note of the fact that she was far from alone in her addiction.
“You get three or more Greenpeacers together, you have to file an environmental impact statement,” she chuckled.
I don’t have any idea why the second comment registered with me so readily, given that at the time I had no inkling of ever joining The Firm. But it did, and it has proven, in my case, to be remarkably apposite.
“You haven’t really been with Greenpeace until you’ve quit or been fired at least twice,” she laughed. Or maybe it was three times. That detail, I’m a little hazy on. Either way, it’s the perfect description of my Greenpeace career, and the key, I suspect, to its longevity: I doubt I would have been around for almost two decades, on and off, had my involvement not been less on than off.
My most recent spell, two years with Greenpeace USA, came to a close at the end of May, but I leapt at this assignment for the chance to go to Amchitka. When this is done, I expect to return to the freelance world, and the joy of working only as many hours a day as I choose—which, given the lack of income security, tends to be about sixteen, but still.
And so, with this expedition all but done and dusted, and the ship quiet as we battle the swells on our way back to Dutch Harbor, the mind drifts back to those early days and all that has happened since.
It is frequently the way on ships. Different crew interact and sail together over the years, bringing stories of former shipmates and campaigns old and new, and the very presence of certain crew members immediately prompts shared recollections of past voyages. But this expedition has prompted historical reflection more than most.
In no small measure, that has been because of our most westerly (and easterly) destination: Amchitka, the grail of that very first Greenpeace voyage. Steaming west along the Aleutians on board the comfortable Esperanza, thoughts frequently turned to the entirely less forgiving circumstances of the Phyllis Cormack’s journey in these same waters.
As an adjunct to that, the presence of Barbara Stowe on board has not only added a delightful character, it has also exposed us to first-hand observations of the minutiae of those earliest of Greenpeace days. Whatever issues I have been working out on what may or may not be my last Greenpeace voyage, they are as nothing compared to what Barbara has been going through and feeling. I admire her tremendously for joining us and fitting in so easily; and on a personal level, seeing Barbara battling with her emotions as she did what her father could not and stood at the Cannikin test site was a tremendously moving experience, and one that made my own trip worthwhile.
But it is also impossible to avoid thinking and talking about the past in the company of a captain like Pete, whose history with the organization is not only long—he has been a Greenpeace skipper for the best part of 25 years—but eventful. Pete was the skipper when the Rainbow Warrior famously sped into Russian waters to document whale meat being fed to farmed mink, and during the evacuation of the people of Rongelap from their radioactive atoll to the nearby island of Mejato. And he was captain when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland harbor in 1985.
Pete gathered us in the wheelhouse the other evening to share his memories of the Rongelap campaign and the Warrior’s bombing—and, like Barbara’s less formal tales, told in the lounge during breaks in Scrabble games, or over dinner in the mess, they left an impression on those who heard them.
At the end of his talk, there was a brief back-and-forth about the nature and evolution of the organization, and how the Warrior bombing, combined with a concomitant surge in interest in environmental issues, led to a massive expansion in Greenpeace. While that expansion was followed, particularly in the United States, by a subsequent contraction, the organization has never been the same since.
Whether that is for better or for worse is a matter of opinion. But Greenpeace is clearly a different outfit than when I joined, than when the Warrior was bombed, and certainly than when Jim Bohlen, Bob Hunter, and ten others set out in the Phyllis Cormack in 1971. There are few clearer signs of that change than the vessel on which I am presently writing this blog.
There’s no two ways about it: The Esperanza is an impressive ship. There was a time in the past when the organization would never have countenanced buying such a large craft, would have considered it somehow unseemly or inappropriate. But, equipped with diesel-electric propulsion, it is surprisingly, even shockingly, fuel efficient, and it is also hugely practical: comfortable, quiet, and extraordinarily maneuverable. I confessed to Pete last night that I hadn’t even noticed that we had pulled away from the dock at Adak the other evening, so smooth and quiet had been the operation: a stark contrast to the rumbling and snorting that would have accompanied that maneuver on any number of past Greenpeace ships.
For both Pete and me, this has been our first time on this newest Greenpeace vessel, and it stands in sharp contrast to my first Greenpeace voyage, on board the MV Sirius: a ship much beloved by everyone in the organization who didn’t actually have to sail it out into the open ocean. It had character, sure enough, especially if character can be defined as lurching from side to side in a gale. I would not want to be on the Sirius during the weather we are experiencing right now. I certainly wouldn’t want to be typing this blog.
Another sign of organizational change, also for the better, is having the foresight and commitment to run an unconventional, ostensibly low-key and long-term campaign such as the one it is running in the Bering Sea.
This has in many ways been an unusual and not always comfortable experience for me, in that my previous on-board experiences (except that first trip on the Sirius) have been as expedition leader or lead campaigner, and frequently for three months or more. I am not accustomed to hopping on for the final couple of weeks and playing a bit part. But it has been instructive and informative, and it has been a real pleasure to see George at work, not so much talking to villagers as gently reassuring them that, bleak as things may seem, everything can be OK. I don’t know what the future holds for these Bering Sea communities; it is difficult, frankly, to feel optimistic at times. But if they do survive and thrive, it will be in large part because of the work done by this wise and decent man over the next few years.
I will be back to the Bering Sea, of that I have no doubt. I will be back because Alaska means so much to me, because I care about the region—and because Amchitka, to my surprise, has become my white whale, leaving me feeling, in some ways, less fulfilled than before I got there and needing to return to put those feelings to rest.
I don’t know whether I will still (or again) be a part of Greenpeace when I make that return journey, whenever it may be. But after nearly twenty years, I’m quite certain that Greenpeace will still, and will always, be a part of me.