It Takes a Pirate to Catch a Pirate

The Sea Shepherd sets out on 110 day journey though 10,000 miles of massive ice flows and storm tossed seas to hunt down the world's most notorious poaching vessel, the Thunder

Sea Shepherd campaign ‘Operation Icefish’ was a campaign with an ending that no one saw coming.
The target: six notorious illegal fishing vessels that for years had plundered some of the last remaining pristine ecosystems on Earth.
During a campaign that stretched over 110 days, spanning two seas and three oceans, Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker shadowed the world’s most notorious poacher, the fishing vessel Thunder.
The primary catch for the Thunder, Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, live at depths of 300 to 2,500 metres in the coldest waters on Earth. These large, pelagic predators belong to the cod icefish family and can survive for up to 48 years, growing as long as two metres, and weighing up to 150 kilograms. Marketed as Chilean Sea Bass and nicknamed “white gold,” toothfish fillets fetch upwards of $30 to $40 in the United States.
In the late eighties and nineties demand exploded, as fisheries sought alternatives for dwindling cod populations. With its flaky, white flesh and high oil content, toothfish are near impossible to overcook, making them highly prized in restaurants and high-end markets around the world.
Over the years, the lack of law enforcement in Antarctica has enabled illegal fishing vessels like the Thunder to reap millions of dollars, decimating vulnerable toothfish populations. A single 300 ton catch, not uncommon for one vessel, can be worth as much as $US 6 million.

The campaign flag bathed in the glow of a sunset as the Bob Barker heads south west to Antarctica

Since 2006, the Thunder had been officially banned from fishing in Antarctic waters. With an Interpol Purple Notice issued against the vessel, we all knew that the Thunder would be the prize catch among the aptly named “Bandit Six” for Captain Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd —the world’s leading direct-action ocean conservation organisation.
Setting sail in early December 2014 from Australia and New Zealand, two Sea Shepherd vessels — the  Bob Barker and her sister ship Sam Simon — steered for the Banzare Banks in the Southern Ocean. I was travelling as a crew member and ship photographer on the Bob Barker.
Weeks from any major port, this vast and inhospitable region of the Southern Ocean has garnered the name “The Shadowlands.”
It was here that we would focus our hunt.

Captain Peter Hammarstedt of the Sea Shepherd vessel, 'Bob Barker'

The seas only get rougher sailing south to Antarctica, the ship rolling over 35'

On the bridge of the Bob Barker, 2nd Officer Anteo Broadfield holds on as the ships rolls in heavy seas

On December 15, 2014, crows nest watches began, with all deckhands working shifts from up high, donning survival suits and climbing harnesses. The next two hours were spent scanning the horizon, our fingers locked numb around binoculars, everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of what was, quite literally, a needle in a haystack.
The light played tricks on our eyes, and we saw the hulls of ships or smoke stacks in the distance, but they were no more than towers of ice.

Cpt Peter Hammarstedt and Chief Mate Adam Meyerson look for moving targets on the radar

Deck crew up high in freezing conditions as they prep the small boats for launch.

Three days later, the Bob Barker meandered its way through a debris field of large icebergs that had broken up into hazardous chunks the size of cars, commonly known as ‘growlers.’ As the fog closed in, it became increasingly more difficult to spot a vessel amongst the hundreds of blips on our radar screen. But then we saw a trail heading the opposite way to everything else on the radar, some three miles off and dead ahead.
We had a target!
Through binoculars, the bridge crew strained to lock eyes on our target. No doubt a ship, she danced in and out of the fog, hiding her identity.
The Bob Barker moved closer and I grabbed my camera, the fog lifting just enough to see the vessel emerge from behind an iceberg. I took the shot, and zooming in on my camera’s preview screen, I scrolled to the bow of the vessel. Then I turned to Captain Hammarstedt:
“Peter, it’s the Thunder. You found her.”

On the tail of the illegal fishing vessel 'Thunder', the Bob Barker pushing gingerly through the heavy ice.

As we pushed through the ice, ever closer, the bridge crew also reported visual confirmation that this was indeed the prize catch we wanted. Unbelievably, only two days into the search, we had found the Thunder.
We radioed over to their crew: “Thunder, Thunder, Thunder… this is Bob Barker. You are fishing illegally!”
The Thunder turned and ran, leaving a gill net in her wake. Orange buoys were clearly visible, strewn amongst the sea of pancakes and growlers as she led us into thicker and thicker ice in an attempt to lose us.
The use of gillnets is forbidden due to the high risk of incidental catch of sea birds and marine mammals, as well as the risk that lost or abandoned gillnets will become ‘ghost nets’ that continue to kill fish indefinitely. With the Bob Barker giving chase, the coordinates for the illegal fishing gear were passed on to the Sam Simon, who wasn’t far behind.
For the next four weeks, the crew of the Sam Simon spent 24 hours a day pulling in a record 25,000-metre “curtain of death,” returning anything that had been caught in the net back to the ocean.

From the heli-deck of the Bob Barker the ship enveloped by growlers (small pieces of ice the size of a car)

The Thunder pushes further into the heavy pack ice in an attempt to lose the Bob Barker

For the next 48 hours, as we kept the Thunder on our bow, the pack ice creaking and groaning as we gingerly pushed our way through it, we had time to reflect on the majesty of Antarctica. Leopard seals and penguins graced us with their presence, staring back in wonder, the sunset only kissing the horizon before rising again in this seemingly endless daylight.
Pushing north we could finally see the edge of the ice. The Thunder broke free ahead of us, steering a north-westerly course, going as hard as she could. Her size was no match for our speed, and as we cleared the ice, we soon found ourselves half a click off the port quarter again.
It was with a heavy heart that we left Antarctica behind, all of us wishing that the pursuit could have been spent circling radiant blue icebergs and observing the wildlife a little while longer, not heading out into the big blue of nothingness and the ever increasing temperatures.

Iceberg art as we pursue the fishing vessel Thunder through freezing Antarctic waters.

The screaming sixties, the furious fifties and the roaring forties — the perilous latitudes that every vessel must navigate as they pass in and out of the Southern Ocean — showed us no mercy.

The view from the bridge as we continue to trail Thunder through six metre swells.

With the swells already rearing up, the Thunder purposely led us into heavier seas that would see the Bob Barker roll some 40 degrees either way, the bow rising forever skyward before a gut-wrenching drop into the trough.
Shuddering violently from the hull-breaking waves crashing over us, the view from the lower deck portholes was reminiscent of the inside a giant washing machine. Anything that wasn’t tied down could be heard crashing against the walls and floors somewhere throughout the ship.
Leaving the stormy seas behind and continuing northwest, it was still anyone’s guess as to where we were going. Killing time on the bridge watch meant taking headings from the Thunder to countries on the charts and throwing out wild guesses as to when we might arrive and how it was going to play out when we did. However, as the Thunder was changing course every few days or so, the guessing game became pointless.
This game of chess was a game of mental and physical endurance for the crew and the ship. We knew how many days we could last, but the big question was how much fuel and stores did the Thunder have onboard? How long had they been out already? How long did they have left?

Crew of the Thunder retrieving illegal fishing nets.

Finally, after almost fifty days sitting on their stern in near radio silence, a flurry of movement on their deck prompted us into action — fishing lines and nets were being made ready. It seemed that running short on food wasn’t an issue for the crew of the Thunder.
Picking up speed, the Bob Barker raced ahead in an attempt to block the path of the Thunder as she played out her lines and net.
Indifferent to the impending collision that lay before them, the Thunder stubbornly maintained her course, black smoke spewing from the smoke stack as she increased speed. Quick reactions saw the Bob Barker quickly head astern, the Thunder narrowly missing us with mere feet to spare.

Near collision with the illegal fishing vessel Thunder.

Frustrated that we had failed in our attempt to stop the Thunder from fishing, the following day was a different story. Ignoring Captain Hammarsted’s warning that any attempt to fish would be met with resistance, the Thunder once again began trailing out her lines and net.
Chomping at the bit for a moral victory, our deck team stood ready on the bow, the Bob Barker positioning herself alongside the buoys, as our grappling hooks hit the water. Taking a firm hold of the lines, our deck crew began heaving the illegal fishing gear onboard.
The Thunder turned a vicious 180 degrees, now storming towards us at full speed, crashing waves off her bow in anger. Chilean Captain Cataldo was screaming over the radio at us: “You have declared war! We are coming to take back our buoys, the easy way or the hard way.”
With their fishing gear retrieved we turned tail, the Thunder attempting to chase us down. Again, she was no match for our speed. Eventually trailing off, she turned and resumed heading for the African continent.

Bob Barker’s deck crew use grappling hooks in an attempt to retrieve buoys, after Thunder starts setting her nets.

The crew of the Thunder consisted of Spanish and Chilean officers, with the deck made up of Indonesians. In an industry that is rife with exploitation, human trafficking is commonplace, as is kidnapping, sexual assault, physical violence, and poor living and working conditions.
Actively concerned for the well-being of the Indonesian crew, we embarked on several attempts to communicate with them. Launching our small boats, we approached the Thunder’s stern with caution, not sure of the welcoming party. Once alongside, we threw bottles up onto the deck, each containing a note and questions in English and Bahasa Indonesian, in the hope we could get an idea of what conditions were like for them.

Crew launching message bottle on Thunder's deck.

Our action was thwarted by officers of the Thunder, who arrived on the deck and proceeded to hurl our bottles into the ocean. Not content with this, one individual wearing a black balaclava approached the stern.
With all the power and accuracy of a baseball pitcher, he hurled the chain we had used to weight the bottles, back at our small boat.
I was looking through the camera at the time and watched in slow motion as the chain hurtled toward me. I dodged right, the chain glancing past my helmet and over my left shoulder, before smashing into the A-frame of the boat. Moments later the same masked individual threw a piece of metal pipe in our direction. Thankfully, I was wearing a well-padded survival suit, as the pipe hit me hard on my inner thigh — a close call!

A Thunder officer, hiding his identity in a balaclava, hurls a chain at our small boat.

Rounding the Cape of Good Hope and the Gulf of Guinea, Bob Barker’s internal temperatures rose, as we headed north into equatorial waters. It was akin to floating around in a tin can and broiling from the inside. With the only working AC on the ship, the lounge turned into a night-time refugee camp for crew seeking respite from the sweltering heat.
Well over three-and-a-half months at sea without seeing land, the Thunder was riding high in the water, still heading north. Surely we would start heading in soon. With plenty of countries on the African Coast, the guessing games began again.
Where, and how, would our chase come to an end?

Crew of the Bob Barker and Sam Simon escort illegal vessel Thunder.

On April 6, 2015, the quartermaster on watch rushed into my cabin at 6:30 AM to spit out the words: “They’re abandoning ship!” Still in a daze, I double-timed it to the bridge, camera bag slung over my shoulder.
Looking out, I saw a hive of activity, the Thunder crew scurrying around in life preservers, and life rafts dropping into the water, exploding open.

Thunder crew confronts Sam Simon small boats wearing balaclavas.

My first thought was one of disbelief. This is it. This is how it’s all going to end. They’ve scuttled the ship to sink the evidence.
Captain Cataldo’s voice came over the radio: “Assistance required. We’re sinking. We may have collided with something, possibly a cargo ship.” There was no sign of damage to the exterior of the vessel. In all likelihood they finally ran out of fuel off the coast of Sao Tome, and what better place than to send the ship to Davy Jones locker, 3,800-metres down.
This could have been a volatile situation, as if we helped recover the crew of the Thunder, bringing them all aboard the Bob Barker, we would have been seriously outnumbered. Instead, it was decided to wait for backup. The Sam Simon was inbound, and would arrive on scene in a few hours.
Maintaining a safe distance, we used our small boat to assist the life rafts, offering food and water, and towing lines to bring them together. Aboard the small boat, I was able to get up close to the very guys we had been tailing for over one hundred days. For the most part, the Indonesian crew seemed in good spirits, although a few couldn’t deal with the motion of their life raft, offering up this morning’s breakfast to the fish.
It was almost three hours before the captain and chief engineer finally disembarked to a waiting life raft. The officers bore stern looks, but their chief engineer had a rather sheepish sorry look about him. Captain Cataldo himself, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, was poker-faced, staring back at the Thunder. Now it was a waiting game.
How long until she goes bow up and slips beneath the waves?

The Spanish and Indonesian crew look on as Thunder lists, and we tow their lifeboats past the Bob Barker.

“We’re to board the ship,” came down the order from the bridge.
The second mate and our chief engineer joined me on the small boat for the short ride over to the Thunder and its waiting pilot ladder.
My heart was racing. I’ve sat under the bow of Japanese harpoon vessels in the frigid waters of Antarctica, but this was something different. We were boarding a unpredictable sinking ship, looking for anything we could salvage as possible evidence to take to court.
Captain Hammarsted gave us ten minutes to grab what we could.
It was a surreal experience finding our way to the bridge with the power off. The chief’s headlamp offered up faint glimpses into the cabins as we headed further in. It was downright creepy as all hell. Glancing round the galley, we saw food and utensils strewn about, evidence that there had been time for the crew to have a leisurely breakfast before disembarking.
In the bridge, we set about turning the place upside down.
We recovered mobile phones, computers, and charts, lowering all of the evidence into our small boat. The Thunder officers looked on in disbelief, one shaking his head and putting it in his hands.

Aboard the Thunder, collecting evidence from the bridge and the deck as she sinks.

“Your ten minutes are up.”
But we needed more time. We knew we had to locate the “white gold” in the fish hold. Heading for the lower deck, I followed the chief into complete darkness and down two flights of stairs. Opening a door leading down to the engine room, we could see that it was flooded out, the water almost to the ceiling, frothing as it licked at the top of the stairwell.
I looked back up the stairs into the black nothing. If she went over now there was no way we would be able to find our way out of here.
The chief said, “We can’t save her,” and we began a hasty exit back into the light. Moving forward, the floor slick with fish oil, we found something in the darkness of the fish processing area.
While all of the hatches in other areas of the ship had been tied into an open position, this large square hatch was firmly in place. As we slid the cover open, it was difficult to tell what was down there. The chief’s light revealed many white sacks, now floating in two to three feet of water. Some ice still remained around the rim of the hatch cover, but the fish hold had completely thawed.
Then over the radio came the words, “There’s somebody left onboard with you. The pilot ladder is being retrieved.”
A heart-stopping moment, as our small boat headed back at break neck speed to get us. It was with great relief that we saw the Bob Barker’s second mate coming through an outside companionway, dragging the pilot ladder down with him, and descending into the fish hold to join us.
Now knee deep in the stench of fish oil and sea water, second mate Anteo grabbed one of the sacks. That thing weighed a ton. Still somewhat frozen, we managed to haul it up onto the deck and cut it open.
It was indeed toothfish.

Fish sample saved from sinking Thunder.

Meanwhile, the Sam Simon had arrived, and was now picking up the crew of the Thunder, detaining them in a secure area on the aft deck. Watching from back onboard the safety of the Bob Barker, it took some time for the Thunder to sink, almost six hours since the initial mayday.

Thunder crew removed to Sam Simon for transit to Sao Tome.

Captain Peter Hammarsted looks on as Thunder sinks.

We circled slowly, waiting for that pivotal moment, as the waves washed over her back deck, and the stern vanished completely. The processing area where we had retrieved the toothfish, now completely submerged.
Finally, her bow began to rise, as foam and spray spewed from open hatches. Pointing skyward, she hung there for a moment, before sliding gracefully below the waves, the crew of the Thunder cheering. Very little debris came to the surface, apart from a life ring that was retrieved and now sits in the rope hold of the Bob Barker.
It was a surreal, sad moment as we watched the ship that we had tailed for 110 days, over 19,000 miles through the Southern, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, disappear down into a watery grave.
That evening the crew and officers of the Thunder were handed over to the authorities of Sao Tome and Principe. The Indonesian crew were repatriated, while the officers were detained to stand trial.
In the months that followed, the remaining vessels dubbed the “Bandit Six” were all successfully captured, with the Indonesian government blowing up the last toothfish poaching vessel, The Viking, in March 2016.

Thunder officers sitting motionless contemplating.

As for the officers of the Thunder, the captain, chief and second mechanic all received sentences between 32 and 36 months in jail, in addition to being ordered to pay a fine of 15 million Euros.

The illegal fishing vessel Thunder, in her last hours above water, just after her officers have declared Mayday and their crew begin to abandon ship.

Operation Icefish was a campaign that went beyond all expectations. In the span of just 15 months, unprecedented cooperation between numerous countries and authorities enabled Sea Shepherd to achieve its ambitious goal of ridding the Southern Ocean of toothfish poachers and illegal fishing. An issue that had largely been seen as unsolvable under current international legal instruments, was relentlessly confronted and dealt with, using two direct-action, at-sea campaigns.
Six of the most notorious and persistent poaching vessels on the planet are now entirely out of commission, making Operation Icefish one of the biggest successes in marine conservation history.
Today, this powerful cooperation and conservation work continues, as Sea Shepherd crew and vessels work with the authorities of countries like Gabon, to patrol their waters and prevent illegal fishing.

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