Shooting On The High Seas

Updated: 7 days ago

Published in Issue 5 of Sea Stoke Magazine 2014. Written by Alana Tompson.


At the end of November 2013, I packed up my belongings, rented out my room, quit all my jobs, and moved on board the flagship vessel of Sea Shepherd’s fleet, the Steve Irwin. I was close to finishing up my film degree when I was offered the opportunity to spend 4 months in Antarctica as a camera operator. Sea Shepherd was heading down South for their 10th Antarctic anti-whaling campaign, Operation Relentless, and they asked me to join the film crew in documenting their trip for the Animal Planet series Whale Wars. It was an exciting and terrifying prospect to immerse myself in my work in such a challenging environment. I had seen the footage from past campaigns and knew how dangerous and potentially life threatening it could be. As a camera operator I would need to be on the front lines capturing it all.

Alana Tompson Filming // Photo: Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

The bloodied deck of the Nisshin Maru, stained from the butchering of a whale // Photo by Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

It was an interesting journey to begin with and it took quite a bit of time to adjust to life here. The first issue I encountered was sleeping. I live in a cabin above the propeller, which creates a range of problems like shaking, vibrating and attempting to sleep with a sound that can only be compared to a combination of lying on an engine and being roared at by a large dragon. I share a cabin with four guys from the film crew, and at first it had no heating, so it felt as cold as being outside. It took a while to get used to my coffin-sized bunk with no room to roll over, no privacy, a three-minute shower every three days and no access to the outside world except for limited and security-censored email. However, after working through everything from seasickness to adjusting to living within a social microcosm, I managed to settle in and adjust to life at sea.

Icy Mornings // Photo by Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Australia

There have been moments that make me feel as if I am one of the luckiest people in the world, floating past gigantic cathedral-like icebergs whose beauty takes your breath away, seeing leopard seals and penguins on ice floes and filming all the different species of whales as they spy hop, fin-slap and breach right in front of you! When I realise how blessed I am to be here experiencing these extraordinary things, I have to take a step back and pinch myself to make sure it’s real.

Sea Shepherd’s flagship, the Steve Irwin, captained by Sid Chakravarty of India // Photo by Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

Along with the beauty I see, the other side to my job is to film the clashes between Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet. Sea Shepherd’s goal is to disrupt the whaling operations through direct action tactics and reduce the number of whales that the fleet illegally poaches in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

As one of the camera operators, I do the 12-4 shift on the bridge alongside the First Mate and one of the Quartermasters. On the 1st of February 2014, I came on for my night shift at 11:45 pm, sleepy and in a bit of a daze, having just woken up from my evening nap. We had isolated the Nisshin Maru, the whaling factory ship, and had been pursuing them for about a week with one of the other Sea Shepherd ships, The Bob Barker. We were in a triangular formation behind them in order to stop the transfer of poached whales if the harpoon ships came back.

Icebergs // Photo by Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Australia

When I arrived on the bridge I noticed the show’s producer was up there, and I asked what was going on. He informed me that the rest of the whaling fleet had appeared on our radar and were closing in on us. I quickly got my jacket and gloves on and ran outside to try and see them. I could see lights in the distance and started to see the ships coming out of the fog at high speed. It was a very ominous sight and I felt the same way you do when the sky starts to darken and you know that a really bad storm is quickly approaching. I started filming the harpoon vessels crashing through the water directly towards us.

Alana Filming the Yushin-Maru // Photo by Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

When I’m behind the lens I tend to feel desensitised to what is happening and the act of filming turns me into more of an observer rather than a participant, so what was about to happen didn’t immediately sink in. One of the harpoon vessels was bearing down on our portside and I started to film it passing between our ship and The Bob Barker. This was an illegal act, as maritime law states that a vessel overtaking another is to give way to avoid a collision. At this stage I was on the portside corner of the bridge wing. The harpoon ship was traveling at such an incredible speed and was heading straight for us, so I used my elbows on top of the railing to prop myself up and steady my shot. I braced myself by jamming my feet into either side of the corner to prepare for impact.

Harpoon vessel cuts across the bow of The Steve Irwin // Photo by Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Australia

They veered across our path so close that they were only three metres away from our bow. All I could hear through my headphones was people yelling, and incoherent shouting was coming through my radio earpiece. I wasn’t sure if people were yelling at me to get out of the way or if it was just people yelling instructions to prepare for impact. Either way I was determined to remain in that corner and get the shot…and did I ever! Because I was on shift at the beginning of the attack, I got the shot of the first and closest pass the harpoon ship made at us. That shot, along with others, was used as part of the media reel of the attack and was picked up by news stations around the world.

I went back inside the Bridge after this to clean the sea spray off my lens, as I got splashed in the face when the Yushin Maru crossed our path. As I picked up the lens cleaner, I realised that my hands were shaking quite badly, and it dawned on me that we were actually under attack and there was no time to stop. I ran back outside and continued to film the onslaught. I filmed as they crossed dangerously in front of our bow time after time, trailing steel cable and ropes in an attempt to disable our propeller.

Some of the freezing cold conditions the Sea Shepard crew had to deal with // Photos by Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Australia

At times we were in such wild conditions that I was being slapped in the face by sea spray while I tried my hardest to hold onto the camera in the wind. The gusts were so strong that it felt as if the camera would be snatched out of my hand and thrown into the sea at any moment. I had to keep ducking down under the railing and out of the wind to stop this from happening. At the same time the ship would roll to one side so much that I’d go sliding towards the edge, and it felt as if I would get thrown overboard if I didn’t grab onto something.

I spent the next nine hours running around the Bridge wings documenting the attack. They swerved dangerously across our path a total of forty-five times throughout the nine-hour assault. They were so close that I could clearly see the faces of the Japanese crew on board the harpoon vessels. I remember dropping my camera at one point, staring at them and wondering how they could justify this in their minds. How could they mindlessly slaughter innocent whales and then attack conservation ships with such aggression and disregard for life? The intention of the attack was to slow us down so that the Nisshin Maru could escape from us. Unfortunately, they ended up succeeding and we eventually lost the ship off our radar. What they did was unprovoked, reckless and put our ships and our crew in danger. This is the type of behaviour we are up against down here and we never know when we might locate the fleet again and find ourselves in a similar situation.

Alana looking out to sea // Photo by Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

However, the Antarctic summer is over now and things are starting to become more inhospitable down here. The bow and portholes of the ship are covered in ice and snow, icicles hang down from the bulwarks, and some mornings the entire front of the ship is white. When sea spray comes flying across the bow it freezes in the air and descends as ice. The sea is starting to take on a shimmery, scaly appearance as it starts to freeze. We don’t have much time before we have to head north again or we’ll be stuck in the ice. Fortunately, the same applies for the whaling fleet. At this stage in the season we need to make as much of an impact as possible before we run out of time and the whaling fleet returns to Japan. We’re in the final fight for the Ross Sea and we really need to make our time here as effective as possible…every day counts.

When I think about our limited remaining time, it reminds me of my feelings towards the larger issues we need to fight. Threats like global warming, deforestation, animal cruelty and corporations who poison the Earth and create toxic dead zones make me feel angry and desperate to enact change. I could continue but it’s gotten to the stage where there are almost too many crimes against the world to mention. The point is, just as the whalers have approached the end of their season, so too has our planet. To me, it is a great analogy of how we should be acting towards the state of the Earth. It is nearing the end of our ‘season’. The oceans, forests and animals are at great risk and we are so close to the tipping point that if we don’t act now, it will be too late. The time for turning a blind eye and allowing these things to happen is over. It is too late in the game and we need to throw our entire effort into this if we hope to have even a slim chance of stopping and possibly reversing the damage that is currently being done.

Japanese whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru // Photos by TIm Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

In 1992,1,700 senior scientists released a document titled World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, outlining the damage that we as humans have wreaked on the Earth, and stating that unless drastic measures are taken, life, as we know it, cannot be sustained on this planet. Their final warning was: “No more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth, and life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” These are frightening but true words, yet our governments still choose to ignore the warnings that are repeatedly issued by scientists around the world.

This trip has helped to solidify my resolve and my priorities in life. I was already an activist when I stepped on board, but now I have a real sense of urgency and I can see this campaign as an analogy for the time we have left to fight the wrong being done in our world. We all need a massive reality check and something like this experience can be just the thing to shock you out of day-to-day life and make you realise that no matter what you are doing, it is never enough. We have to continuously strive for more change and we need to start defending this planet like we would a threatened family member. Louis Psihoyos, Director of The Cove said, “To me, you’re either an activist or an inactivist.” The time for inaction is over and unless we all become activists and stand up for the Earth, there will be nothing left to defend.

Yushin Maru changes course to overtake The Steve Irwin // Photo by TIm Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia

Now we are at the end of our Antarctic campaign and I have truly adapted to my life at sea. I hardly notice the sound of the propeller under my cabin anymore and actually wake up when the engines are turned off rather than the other way around. I can navigate the hallways and stairs in a rolling sea with competence (I’m not at the ‘with grace’ stage yet, but I don’t come as close to falling backwards down the stairs as much as I used to!). I’ve developed a quick reaction time when it comes to catching an object flying off a table, I can slide across a room when we roll without falling over, I’ve honed my snowball fighting skills, and I’ve acclimatised to living on a ship in Antarctica. I have adjusted to having 37 housemates and have forgotten what privacy and being alone is like, and I don’t miss it anymore. Living in my cabin has become like summer camp and I know that I’ll really miss talking with my film crew during the night, playing games and hanging out before we go to bed. I have watched innumerable films, listened to a copious amount of podcasts and have bastardised and developed the rules in Uno to the stage that it has become stressful to play. This ship has become my home and I’ve made some great like-minded friends and enjoy my day-to-day life that I lead here. Even though the time to go back to life on land is drawing near, I know that the journey is far from over for me.

The amazing crew of the Steve Irwin // Photo by Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Australia