Everything is different on a ship. Walls are bulkheads, ceilings are deckheads, floors are decks, right is starboard, left is port, back is stern and front is bow. At sea, the ground wobbles beneath our feet, rocking us to sleep in our bunks, knocking us around the mess, which is a dining room, the galley, which is a kitchen, or the lower hold, which is a storeroom. I’ve been working as a volunteer deckhand on the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, for just over a week.

Sending a message to ‘clean up' the North Sea © Bente Stachowske / Greenpeace

Sending a message to ‘clean up’ the North Sea

We’re sailing in the Sylt Outer Reef, off the coast of Germany. Thilo Maack, our German deep-sea diving campaigner onboard, explained that this area is actually a marine sanctuary, where dumping and drilling are banned in an effort to set limits on the relentless exploitation of our world’s oceans. The problem is, industrial fishing has not been banned. Bottom trawlers continue to gouge the seabed, giant walls of net catching brown shrimp and everything else in their path, including endangered harbor porpoises. Unbelievably wasteful, up to 80% of the catch in this industry is “bycatch”, the innocent bystanders of the ocean, thrown back dead and dying into the sea. And that’s just one of the many fishing industries still allowed to operate in a “sanctuary” where already a third of species are at risk.

Disappearing worlds

It was nearly six years ago that it really sunk in for me what we humans were doing to the sea. I was working for Greenpeace on the Frontline team as a canvasser, stopping people in the streets of Los Angeles to tell them about the campaigns and sign them up as members of the organization. I remember being blown away when I learned that 90% of big fish are already gone, eaten by us in the last 60 years alone. Since then I’ve learned about what’s so incredible about our seas and worth protecting. Through reading books, watching documentaries and finally, this year getting my Open Water certification for scuba diving, I’ve fallen in love with life under the sea in all it’s strangeness, vivid colors, and alien intelligence.
Over lunch, I asked Thilo about his favorite North Sea creatures. His eyes lit up as he told me about the spiny dogfish, a kind of shark that lives up to 70 years, rears only three offspring, and is commonly killed for a small piece of it’s belly. Like many places in the world, whole populations have been eradicated from the North Sea, like the incredible bluefin tuna, with unparalleled swimming abilities, able to go 100 kilometres an hour and turn on a dime, unmatched by any human construct. They’re all gone, taken for granted and literally chopped up for pet food.

Greenpeace Ocean Campaigner Thilo Maack inspects a 'ghost net' in the North Sea Sanctuary © Bente Stachowske / Greenpeace

Greenpeace Ocean Campaigner Thilo Maack inspects a ‘ghost net’ in the North Sea Sanctuary

Things add up

Being on a Greenpeace ship is not all high-speed boat chases and confrontational direct actions. Whether you’re volunteering to make calls at a phone bank to organize your community to go to a rally or cooking a vegan meal for a group of activists, whether you’re standing bundled in the streets of Chicago in the winter, canvassing to raise money and get petitions signed, or scrubbing the toilets with vinegar on the lower deck of a protest ship, it’s the little mundane tasks that add up, collect, and finally tip the balance of power in favor of, to paraphrase Irving Stowe at the first Greenpeace benefit concert, a culture of life.

As I tie my bowline knots, mop the decks, or inventory gear lockers, I think, this is what activism looks like. I may not always know what I’m doing, I’m still learning a lot about life on a ship, but I do know exactly why I’m doing it.

The Arctic Sunrise at sea © Bente Stachowske / Greenpeace

The Arctic Sunrise at sea

The sun sparkles over the undulating fabric of the North Sea as our green rainbow flag flies on the mast. I think of the Phyllis Cormack and the Vega, the first Greenpeace protest boats that sailed into nuclear test zones and kickstarted a global organization, and wonder what beautiful things will spiral out of our actions today, your actions today.

Paloma, 28, from Los Angeles, California, USA, is a Volunteer Deckhand onboard the Arctic Sunrise.