The Billy G

by Guest Blogger

January 16, 2006

Yesterday, the Billy G and the big orange unnamed boat (that’s another story there) launched in support of something the Sunrise wanted to try on the mothership during a transfer. I helped ’em launch from the deck then went to work on doing a little camera work on board for the campaign. The boats stayed near the mothership, but there was not a lot of activity. After lunch I suited up to join Zeger in the orange boat so that our bosun, Phil, could take a turn at the Billy G with a hunter. So the orange boat came back, we made the crew change, and drove up to pace just off the side of the mothership. The Sunrise was cycling her boats and crews as well so we hung out for a while, no hunters coming in for a transfer. Eventually a hunter did come in with a whale to transfer, and we decided to monitor the transfer (if practical we check each transfer to see if any fin whales have been taken; they’re the second largest whale species and are endangered. The fleet is planning on taking 10 this year, which is a new development).

While we CAN interfere with the transfer, it’s a VERY wet proposition, because you have to put your boat just off of the whale tied alongside the hunter’s port side, who has five or six water cannons going full blast at you to discourage you. When she pulls up and off to the stern of the mothership after receiving the transfer cable, you have the added four or five cannons on the mothership to deal with, two of which are just unbelievably HUGE in volume and pressure. To block the transfer, you have to make it so they can’t release the weight of the whale onto the transfer cable – when they do, the whale moves backward until it’s weight is on the cable, so if you’re to the side, the whale would come into and potentially under you, which could result in damage to the boat as well as the whale what with all the cable, whale and boat all moving around.

As aggressive as the fleet crews have been at times, they’re not going to do this because it would certainly end in tragedy, but, more importantly, may very well end up damaging the meat they’ve worked so hard to get. It is amazingly difficult to keep your boat into position in all that watery mess, because you literally can’t see anything but water (but I wrote about all that before). Point is, if we wish to go thwart a hunt, it’s generally better to not start off soaked to the bone in freezing temperature sea water from the cannon. Trust me: this I’ve already learned from experience.

But Phil hadn’t, so just as the hunter was lining up, in comes the Billy G, blazing right on into the cannons. They foiled the transfer for a while to get a taste of what it’s like in there. In the middle of it all an opportunity presented itself and off the whale went. Then the hunter peeled off to the starboard; the Sunrise wasn’t ready to try their idea, so off we went in pursuit of the hunter, the Kyo Maru, who we now know very well.

Shortly afterward they fired up the water pump on the Billy G and went to work on giving the open bridge a good soaking. The first thing the hunter ships do is start scouting for signs of a pod. They do this from a high ‘crows nest’ as well as from a wide, open bridge. They all use binoculars. Once they see a pod, then they send up the harpooner. If we can get our obscuring spray high enough it makes it pretty hard for them to see any whales. They spend a lot of time wiping down their binoculars instead. If they can’t use their binocs, then they won’t see the whales and won’t be able to send up the harpooner. We know when we’re being successful because you’ll see water streaming out of the bridge scuppers, the instruments will be covered with tarps, and you won’t see any heads popping up out of the monkey island or the bridge, as they’re all taking cover. THAT’s when you know they’re not going to be able to hunt. And that makes all this work worth it.

Phil was doing a pretty good job on the ol’ Kyo Maru: they just kept a straight course amid a steady artificial rain storm and hardly had a chance to see anything. Our job in the orange boat was to help spot him with the water’s direction, look for ice or other hazards in the water before him, and generally be his eyes for everything beyond what he was immediately dealing with.

Hours passed. The hunter led us into a scrappy ice field composed of slushy, repeatedly-reformed chunks of ice, so we had to fall in behind for a while. Shortly thereafter we began to experience problems with the ‘bucket’ on our jet drive in the orange boat. The lever was becoming more stiff and the bucket less responsive. Eventually, we lost control of the bucket altogether, and thus had no forward thrust.

The way a jet drive works, in the most simple terms, is this: the engine turns an impeller that draws seawater into a device that pressurizes it and sends it shooting out the back of your boat. You can determine how much thrust you want by how much throttle you give the engine, thus pressure. A big metal object, called the ‘bucket’, hangs above the stream of water coming out the rear of your boat. If you lower this bucket, the thrust will be slowly directed downwards and eventually forwards if you put it all the way down, because it’s roughly shaped like a scoop. With this, you can bring the boat to a standstill, called "stasis" (bucket directing thrust straight downward) or go backwards by bringing the bucket fully down. The steering controls tilt the bucket to direct the stream to one side or the other. In our situation, something failed in the bucket controls, leaving it hanging fully downward. Thus, we could only go in reverse. We could still steer, but not go forward.

Generally, it’s a bad idea to drive a boat in reverse out on the ocean.

Zeger and I decided to see if we could fashion a rope to hold the bucket up to allow us to go forward. If so, we’d resume the chase if we could because, if you’ve got reliable thrust and steerage then hey; you can keep on going. We had two other folks in the boat, Jeremy, a photographer, and Yuko, a campaigner, so Zegar hopped into the sea at the stern of the boat while I got the rope. There is a platform as the sternmost part of the orange boat (as in the Billy G) which covers the bucket mechanism, so I stayed up on the platform to work from above. In our survival suits, with all the layers we wear inside them, their ability to trap air and thus allow you to float, and their watertightness, it’s quite safe to hop in the water. When I looked at him, I noticed just how stunningly clear the water was; I could see his boots so clearly down below the surface it gave an indication of just how pure these waters are. Since it was awkward to deal with the rope from the platform, I decided to just hop in as well. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay in for too long, but it was pretty sweet to get into this ocean we’ve spent so much time on top of and getting tossed around on.

Eventually we couldn’t get a rope to stay on the bucket due to it’s shape, so I just lay down on the platform, one hand up on the transom to keep me on while I leaned over the edge and held the edge of the bucket with my gloved hand; we could move forward so long as I lifted the bucket all the way up, and with Zeger telling me when to ease it down to halt forward momentum, we were able to bring her back alongside the Esperanza and get lifted back aboard for repairs. We weren’t going to be chasing hunter boats with me hanging halfway out the back of the boat with half of me in the water.

I didn’t like leaving the Billy G out alone, but the Espy serves well as one great big rescue boat, so we realized our day on the water was probably done. In the end it got a bit hairy, but everyone came home safe.

This is a tough place for humans and human-made things to be asked to work hard. None of these things should even be here at all; none of us should be here. From the sublime grace of her whales and winged creatures, her wild waters and cloak of winter permanence, and her cold, cold sun, Antarctica whispers a mesmerizing yet clear mantra: LEAVE ME AND MY SEAS IN PEACE.

I hope someday soon she gets her wish.

– Nathan 

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