Update from not-so-down south

by Guest Blogger

January 29, 2006

We’re almost back to Cape Town, almost back to land.  We’re maybe 800 miles south of the southern tip of Africa, making roughly 10 knots an hour in remarkably easy seas so far: we’ve had the good fortune of transiting across a high pressure zone.  We’ve just left the 50’s and have entered in infamous "roaring 40’s" latitudes, so we’ll see if our fortune holds…we hope to cover the distance in less than a week.

Good fortune blessed us with the sighting of either fin or blue whales the other day.  Phil and I were able to spot them clearly in binoculars heading opposite our bearing; they were clearly VERY large whales with the distinctive small dorsal fin in relation to their body size, and by their color, the texture of the skin on their backs and the nature of their spouts it was clear they were not humpbacks nor sperm whales.  Blue whales are, of course, the largest and one of the most rare creatures on the planet (that latter fact thanks to past whaling efforts) and fin whales are second to them in size and also small in number (thanks again to the whalers).  Seeing them roaming free and easy in the wide sea was indeed a special moment.

On the same day, we were visited by a fully-grown Wanderer albatross, accompanied by an adolescent Wanderer and a bit later, an adult Royal albatross.  When young, these birds have a white and black mottled appearance, but upon adulthood they blossom into a lovely white bird with distinctive black wingtips on top that taper down the trailing edges to the base of their backs.  They are also massive birds, stretching over 10 feet between their wingtips, and they rarely flap their wings – they deftly use the winds to soar and arc their way back and forth across the sea, the image of strength in the service of grace.

We have also welcomed the return of night, which has been shyly but steadily creeping into the middle of the wee hour watches.  You would never know how much you miss darkness until you live without it for a few months, but still, it is a good thing that it is ebbing in gently on us; for honestly it feels strange and disorienting. It’s odd that you can’t see the sea. It’s odd for the bridge to be dark at night.  It’s odd to notice the navigation lights, which have been on during the whole voyage…

And in the past day we’ve crossed the Antarctic convergence zone, where the cold air and waters of the Antarctic ocean meet the warmer seas and winds from the North.  As before, the zone takes the form of a band of fog, days in crossing.  As we exit it, we are gradually beginning to experience yet another new sensation: the return of warmth, and, eventually, a hot sun over Africa.  Unlike it would be at home, we have witnessed hardly any variation in temperature: it’s hovered right at zero degrees since we crossed the convergence on the way south.  For the most part, we’ve just got used to it and sometimes I’ve found myself working on a leeside deck in an insulated cotton coveralls with just a t-shirt under it, not feeling the absence of the other layers ’til either the wind came ’round or we changed course.  But that’s rare, and only while keeping moving: usually COLD has been a constant theme of this trip.

But it has become an accepted theme.  Many of us from Northern countries have talked about, if we had out choice, we’d rather skip the coming warm weather and just move right into our winter back home, so strange does the idea of transiting a few weeks through a hot summer seem at this point.

Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk about what it will be like to return to land, part company and head back to our ‘normal’ lives after a trip like this.  Of course, no one really knows.  Most of think we’ll be fine, ‘no worries mate’, lookin’ forward to getting back home, but that is said without having entered a major grocery store in months, or found oneself in a tight crowd of strangers, or hit rush hour traffic, or seen a television.

Post-trip depression is not something to discount lightly: it’s quite common after intense experiences, especially involving a group of people who have experienced a lot together in relative isolation.  Part of it certainly has to do with parting company and leaving the ship: though living aboard a ship can sometimes feel cramped and it feels like endless work that you can’t wait to leave, in fact Greenpeace ships have always felt like magical entities to me, as the spirit aboard is strong and you can feel yourself becoming a small part of a long, deeply meaningful history woven into the lives and journeys of these vessels.  Though I’ve had the good fortune to work and stay aboard many of Greenpeace’s ships over the years, the Esperanza was the first one I’ve actually sailed on the open seas.  But she shares what they all have in common, down to their core: the feeling of a well-loved home created by a community of fellow well-intended people from around the world.

I’m not a romanticizer of the animate by habit: to me, the ship is a complex object that simply unaware of and has no regard whatsoever for her human occupants.  This certainly seems true in her movements as she plies the sea, tossing you about as you try to rise from your bunk in the morning, being completely rude to you when all you want is a bit of steadiness – just five minutes or so please – to wake up and find your balance, to not bang around your cabin when you’ve only got one leg in your coveralls, to just let that teacup stay put while I run over to make sure the toast isn’t burning (please don’t let the crew on the Arctic Sunrise read this: they’ll have no sympathy whatsoever), only to watch it slide towards the rail of the table…to me, she’s certainly a creature of the inanimate world, wanting to do only what all machines want to do: to yield to the power of entropy and slowly, peacefully fall apart into the arms of the elements and be ground back to the dust it was before some folks rudely heated and pressed, formed and weaved all these strange materials together into the form of a ship.

She wants to go where the water and winds want to push her, not necessarily where you want to point her.  Her myriad engines, motors and machines want to fly into a zillion parts and call their job finished.  Her steel doesn’t want to fight the salts and she probably finds it cute and humorous that you do.

But because of her crew she’s a living entity. She’s safety, she sustains and supports.  She’s home, even if it’s only your home for the length of your stay aboard, she’s OUR home, a collective home.  This is what you feel aboard these ships, and you become deeply attached and loyal to them. You fall in love with them, you become dedicated to them, and because you know full well that you are here and on this ship because people from all over the world have given Greenpeace the resources needed to create and operate these vessels, you will do whatever you can to keep her at her best all the time.  Even if the job of the day is gonna really suck, you’ll do it because the ship needs it, and therefore we need it.

That’s not an easy thing to leave, but for the knowledge that your departure means a new crew will take over and carry out the next part of the journey with the same dedication.

Your crew becomes like your family, as the faces that were so new and strange to you three months ago are now deeply familiar, as you’ve seen them at their best and sometimes worst, seen them unable to hide their grief and shock and pain after witnessing their first harpooning of a whale, unable to hide their giddy joy at seeing their first iceberg or penguin, unable to hide from you their moments of homesickness, of loneliness, of great irritation about themselves or another member of the crew, unable to hide from you their breaking points, their point of exhaustion, and, eventually, unable to hide the great love and respect they’ve come to have for you, despite how cool and collected they want to be.  You don’t travel over 10,000 miles over more than 70 days on a ship at sea and remain just a colleague to your crew.  Certainly it will not be a casual affair to wave a faretheewell and walk off the dock towards home.

But perhaps the most difficult thing to wrestle with may be for a continuing sense of purpose.  As horrible as it was sometimes to experience, I admit there were moments of great satisfaction and accomplishment that came from frustrating and thwarting a hunting ship from carrying on an easy slaughter upon the whales. I felt very much alive and useful in the world.  As the harpoon shots got closer to us each day and the realization of a true, present danger became deadly serious, the sense of the value of the work became even more clear.  There are so many easy ways to die in this world; being taken down while trying to save a truly innocent, magnificent being from a pointless death seemed a far more preferable way to go than most I can think of, and it still feels that way.   Moments like that, when things are crystallized, your decisions so simplified and consequences so obvious, are rare in life.  I have been forewarned by others more experienced than I to expect a moodiness and muddiness to come with the return of land.  Clearly, it’s sagely advice.  That, and avoid television for a while.

But I’m not too worried about it.  I’m deeply thankful to have had such a rare opportunity, such a unique experience, one I dreamed of so many years ago but presumed would never happen, simply because I naively thought that whaling was finished, that humanity had moved beyond it.   Sadly, like so many horrific affairs we humans get involved in, it is not so easy to finish off such clearly unnecessary, cruel and wasteful practices when money and power are behind them.  But back then, I thought the most satisfying thing would be to be in that boat myself.  Now, older and hopefully a bit more wise, it’s very clear that the most satisfying thing has little to do with the boat nor the whaling grounds: the most satisfying thing has been witnessing that people still really care deeply about this issue, that all they needed was for it to be brought back to their attention for them to be stirred to passion and effort.  This is what we’ve seen as a result from this journey: an outpouring of intense, deeply moving messages from around the world and a clear answer to the call to action.  A deep desire to act and a commitment to act.

This morning I was up at 4 a.m. to participate in a very unique event back home in the USA. I had two 40-minute calls in the middle of the night, conference calls back to the states with a whole bunch of ‘house parties’.  It was a new idea to me: folks agree to host a party in their homes for friends and neighbors who care about this issue, as a means of talking amongst themselves to agree on some local things they can do on behalf of this campaign.  In each call, there were something like 70 parties on the line (there were 145 parties signed up to participate, from across the country so the calls were divided into a east coast time call and a west coast time call) mostly listening to the campaign present informative material and making a request of what they want the activists to do. I spoke for five minutes or so about what it’s been like being down here. (I’m finally being able to figure out how to do that, though it’s still strange to try to speak aloud about all of it.)  Then some questions and answers followed.

I expected the questions to be directed to me, asking more questions about what it was like to be down here.  To my surprise and delight, they weren’t. Folks had seen the images from here; it was readily clear how unacceptable and brutal the hunt is.  They went straight into depth about the issues, asking for more information about the strategy, about the International Whaling Commission and how Japan can get away with whaling under the guise of ‘science’.  Asking about the economics of the issue, the structure of the companies. Asking what they can do and if they can do more…

That, to me, is what this is all about in the end. This is why bearing witness is so effective.  As I’ve written before, I did not come here expecting that we would literally put an end to whaling physically this season.  There is no way to do that without endangering lives or utilizing tactics many in the world would find ethically unacceptable.  I came here with the hope that we could inspire folks to pay attention to this issue and direct their passion and their outrage towards a real end to whaling.  To take up this campaign with their own hands. When people feel moved to act locally, working together to take the legs out from under the economy that supports the whaling industry, then we’ll see the end of this.  And that is exactly what seems to be happening.

And I am looking forward to getting home to take part in that myself.

-Nathan 

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