A Brutal Death. (written in 2006, whilst on assignment in the Southern Ocean).
I saw a whale get killed today. Sadly these days this is not an uncommon scene for me.
I’m one of the two photographers here on Greenpeace ship M.V. Esperanza and as such I either go out in the inflatables or up in the helicopter to document the protests of the activists, and to put these images on the website or out to the media. So in the past few weeks I’ve seen a few whales be killed. Whilst it hasn’t been pleasant to see any whale be killed this killing today was particularly unpleasant, it died a horrible death.
The ‘Billy G’ boat had already gone out, and was following the Yushin Maru catcher ship of the Japanese whaling fleet. The ‘Orange’ boat, we have never settled on a name for it, was going also, and Hernan, Greenpeace videographer and I, went in that. We were a little slow is setting out, but the crew did a good job in getting us beside the catcher and the ‘Billy G’ relatively quickly, and without getting wet which is always nice. Odin drove us fast, but swerved the waves, only occasionally a little spray, but on the whole we stayed dry.
We reached the scene quickly, and immediately were in the midst of it all. Alain, in the ‘Billy G’, tells us the harpoonist had been deliberately aiming the harpoon at their boat. Minutes later as we round the front of the catcher the harpoonist does indeed swivel on his green deck, pointing the ominous yellow harpoon with it’s black explosive tip in our direction. It is frightening. It is plain intimidation, but it works. I want to react, but don’t want to provoke the guy. I try to turn away, to look elsewhere, but it’s scary to not know what is happening behind you. Where to look, what to do? We radio the Esperanza, our ship, to tell them, perhaps subconsciously hoping that somehow this will be a guarantee of safety.
The ‘Billy G’ swerves and weaves in front of the catcher, the water hose going to try and block the vision of the harpoonist. Our boat stayed out to the starboard side. It’s hard at this point to try and shoot any stills or video images, the boat is bouncing around, thudding onto the waves, swerving, twisting, more thuds. To try and shoot through a telephoto lens is impossible, the camera jars into your face, your waterproof covers come off, get tangled, settings and buttons on the camera change as things nudge against them. And of course there is always the threat that a huge waves engulfs them.
It’s also impossible in the boats to judge times, to judge how long we’ve been out, or how many minutes there were between things happening. But it seemed that after only a few minutes of us arriving the Yushin Maru sighted a minke whale, and decided to go for it.
Very rapidly we were in a chase scenario, the Yushin Maru chasing the whale, the whale breaching, coming up for air, every 40 metres or so. The ‘Billy G’ was in front of the catcher, swerving, distracting, with us in the orange boat off to the right, trying to keep a clear shot for images, but the Yushin Maru swerved changed it’s bearings, following the whale. Odin drove, glancing around, trying to keep us in position, he did well. The whale kept breaching, blowing, “it’s over there to the left”, “it’s dead ahead Odin”, they’re going right Odin, over there mate”. It isn’t easy to second guess where a whale fleeing for it’s life is going to surface, especially from an inflatable at a low level in the water. For the men of the catcher ship up the crow’s nest, the spotters, it is substantially easier.
Then BANG. The harpoonist had shot. It’s gets a little confusing here, how many times he fired and missed. Life seems to be speeding by, time seems short, there are so many things going through your head. Protect the cameras, hold onto the boat, don’t fall out, where is the whale?, where is the catcher ship? Is the harpooner pointing at us? So, and I apologize, my recollection may differ slightly from the others in the inflatable, but I write what I remember in the order it seemed to me to happen.
©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Greenpeace 2006.
(See my archive of photographs of Japanese whaling industry, Greenpeace anti-whaling protest, and Sea Shepherd anti-whaling protest.)
Once the harpoonist shoots, all the boats slow down, all eyes fix on the whitish rope coming from the bow, is it taut , is it loose in the water? Has he missed, has the whale escaped?
The rope was loose, and was being reeled in, the whale surfaces way ahead, and everyone realises it’s a miss. The chase is on again. We speed up. We’re pacing the whale, the two inflatables between it and the catcher ship.
Then we’re out to the right, the starboard side of the catcher, and BANG. We see the harpoon fly, the detonation sound an instant later. And then, to cries from Odin and I, we see the harpoon strike the breaching whale, but instantly we knew it wasn’t a fatal shot. I remember seeing a splash of white (the water), the black of the whale, but also a sudden tinge of red. The blood of the whale. It had been hit, but it seemed to be a glancing blow.
So now we had an injured whale fleeing for it’s life. Sickening. It was breaching more often by now, white of the spray tinged with blood red, tiring from the chase, obviously losing blood and energy. It seemed like a big whale, looked muscular and stocky. It was breaching to our left, then ahead, then left, then right. It was trying hard to escape, frightened I imagine, not knowing which way to turn.
The inflatables by this point had backed off from the catcher ship, still parallel, but not directly in front of the harpooner anymore. It seems senseless to delay the inevitable killing of an injured animal. Now it was only a matter of the harpoonist getting a clean shot to put the whale out of it’s misery. It would undoubtedly die from the already sustained injury should it escape.
BANG. He’d fired again, I was looking through the camera this time and I distinctly remember seeing the harpoon fly before hearing the sound of the detonation. We all watch the rope. He’s missed again. We wonder is he a bad shot? That we doubt, these are skilled men doing their job. Has he had one sake too many the night before? Have the inflatables unnerved him and made him loose his aim, his concentration? If so then he shouldn’t be manning a lethal weapon, he shouldn’t be taking half chances. If he has to do his job then it should be with 100% certainty of killing the mammal. Perhaps the stress of knowing the world is watching is getting to him.
The chase continues, the whale breaches. BANG. Another shot, another loose rope in the water. Another miss. There seems to be more people on deck now of the ship. Is confusion reigning there? Are tempers getting frayed? The pressure seems to be mounting, the harpoonist must be in inner turmoil. Our inflatables have retreated even further, off to the sides, giving the catcher the space in which to finish their ugly business. Easily this chase has gone on for over 10, 15, 20 minutes. It’s hard for me to know.
The whale still breaches, sometimes very close. I try to get a photograph with it in the foreground, the catcher ship further away. We speed away ahead, but there’s no knowing where it will surface.
The catcher is turning to port side, to the left. It’s obvious the whale is directly in front of it, and they are closing the distance. You know it is coming. The end. End of the chase, end of a life.
BANG. There it goes. He can’t have missed, and he hasn’t. In my memory, the 4th harpoon gets the whale and sticks. We close in in our inflatable to record the end. We circle from the starboard side of the catcher round the bow to the port side, the ‘Billy G’ is already there. The rope is being winched up, little blue marks on it telling the crew the distance or depth of rope let out. I shot an image of the taught rope across the name of the ship, YUSHIN MARU, thinking perhaps that photographically that would say it all. Taut rope, dead whale.
I signal Odin to move closer, the water starts to smooth out, it seems the whale is nearing the surface. Then the water breaks and a huge fluke raises out, with a long muscular body. Shiny blue black. It starts to thrash about, beside the hull of the ship. It is constantly being winched up, and then the fin part of the body breaks the surface, and we all recoil in shock. There are curses in the inflatable. A harpoon has ripped apart the back of the whale. A horrible injury. Blood is gushing from it. All this I see through my 70-200mm lens, in close up. Technicolor close up. I see it as it whacks against the side of the ship, no doubt sending more searing pain through it’s shredded body.
I frame it as a vertical as a Yushin Maru crew leans over the side with a shotgun, ready to fire into the head of the whale to end it’s life. According to my colleagues, he fires twice. I didn’t notice, but I changed a lens, cleaned a lens of water. Things are still in high speed in my head.
I frame the whale tail as a rectangle in my viewfinder, checking my exposure, and composing to keep in the name of the ship. To show who did this brutal killing I thought to myself. I fire a few frames.
It’s sickening to watch, and goes on for so long, this thrashing, aqua green sea water being mixed with blood. The water being pink, white, green, aqua in colour, all at once. the blue and red of the ship hull, with it’s white numbers telling depths. This horrible scene goes on so long I’m actually able to stop photographing and just watch. I shout to the crew of the catcher ship “just f***ing shoot it”. Odin shouts also. I remember our briefing not to shout or antagonise the crew, not to be violent, or throw them abuse or obscene gestures. But I feel I have to shout, it’s too horrible to watch. To shout to get them to kill the mammal, this thrashing and slow death is taking too long. The crew of the catcher ship watch us watching them. We’re about 15-20 metres off. They have a water hose running in case we come close, but we don’t. There is no point.
The whalers sink the whale, letting out the rope. The whale I presume just sinks under it’s own weight, or perhaps tries to dive with what little breath it has left. I wonder do they sink it to subdue it, to drown it ? Or do they drop it under the water out of sight of the present cameras. Both I imagine.
Then it comes up again. The fluke breaks the surface. We edge the inflatable closer, it’s best for video to be close, easier to film, steadier. I’m photographing, still on the 70-200mm lens, taking a shot of just the fluke, the hull of the ship, and the vertical rope. Trying to get something symbolic, of this death, of all the whale deaths I’m witnessing. Through my viewfinder the sky seems heavy, grey dark clouds have gathered. I notice as it is different from the usual bland white skies I hate so much.
I’ve get the picture I’m trying for. By now the tail has lost it’s energy. It’s waving from side to side, not thrashing. The whale hasn’t been up for air for quite a few minutes by now. I look at the scene around me, the catcher ship and the whale, to my right the ‘Billy G’, with my fellow crew members who have been standing silently witnessing this horror show. To my left the Arctic Sunrise comes gliding past, it’s fog horn blaring it’s displeasure or anger, a show of sadness, off on my right the Esperanza. I look up at the crew of the catcher ship. They stand, in their yellow waterproofs, their goggles, their warm hats, they stand just looking. Some busy themselves with ropes. It seems everyone is saddened, shocked perhaps, by what has just been witnessed. There seemed to be a poignancy to the moment, the end of a chase, the end of a struggle. Still I hear the occasional curse from our inflatable. I still shoot the occasional frame, but the moment has gone. It’s over.
We watch as the whale is pulled round to the port side of the catcher and tied up by it’s tail, beside that of another dead minke caught earlier. The whalers have a water hose going in case we come close, but we have no inclination.
I turn to Odin, to Hernan, and I say” lets go back, it’s done.” A whale’s life has been taken in a sickening fashion. Now it will be transferred to the factory ship for flensing. Hernan and I recorded on video and photographically it’s cruel death. Now it’s our job to get back to the ship, change into dry clothes, and sit down to replay it all in our edit. It isn’t easier to see the second time round, but important to get the images out quickly to the news agencies and media. A whale has died, but unlike many others that get harpooned down here, it did not die alone. It’s struggle for life was witnessed. It’s death won’t go unnoticed. And I for one shall never forget it.