September 7, 2010

From Eco Warrior to Whale Warrior: interview with Pete Bethune

Pete Bethune is an eco-icon who holds the world record for the fastest trip around the world in a powerboat (60 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes, in case you’re keeping score at home). He designed and built his vessel, the Earthrace, to break the record while at the same time bringing attention to the viability of biodiesel as an alternative fuel.

Once that feat was accomplished, Pete looked for other opportunities and causes in which he and the Earthrace could make a difference. In the Fall of 2009 Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and entertainment industry mogul Ady Gil entered the picture.

“I had followed the whaling issue for a couple of years and just decided to get involved,” said Pete, a native of New Zealand. “[Illegal whaling happens] directly south of New Zealand and Australia and it really pisses us off; it is like our back yard. I went to the U.S., met with Paul, and we put together a deal that saw Sea Shepherd take over the boat and I would skipper her.”

Thanks to a generous donation by Ady, and a slick new black paint job, Sea Shepherd christened the Earthrace the Ady Gil, and contracted Pete to captain the ship. The Ady Gil would be the only craft in Sea Shepherd’s fleet able to keep pace with the Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.

The Ady Gil’s contribution to Sea Shepherd’s winter campaign, Operation Waltzing Matilda, was destined to be short-lived and cinematic.

On January 6, the Ady Gil was rammed by the heavy-duty Shonan Maru 2. Pete and his crew narrowly escaped with their lives, and later watched the world’s fastest boat sink tragically into oblivion in the sea.

“It was a very difficult day,” Pete said. “The Shonan Maru 2 came past at about 15 knots. As they passed, they turned sharply to starboard and into us. My guy driving tried to turn to starboard to avoid them but we were too slow for the rudders to have any real bite. So we got cut in half.”

Pete stayed on with Sea Shepherd through the end of the campaign to continue the fight to stop illegal whaling – and decided to board the Shonan Maru 2 and arrest its captain for leaving the Ady Gil crew stranded at sea in inhospitably cold Antarctic waters.

Under international maritime law, not to mention basic courtesy and compassion, the whalers were obliged to take responsibility for the Ady Gil crew and see to their safety. As the captain of the sunken vessel, Pete had a legal right to board their ship. However, Pete knew that there was a great likelihood that he would be arrested and sent to Japan for trial.

On February 15, Pete and two other crewmembers approached the Shonan Maru 2 on a jet ski. In the middle of the night, under extremely dangerous conditions, Pete was able to cut through the anti-boarding net with a knife and avoid defensive spikes to get on board. Almost two hours passed before anyone noticed him on deck. He maintained radio communication with the Sea Shepherd ship so that its helicopter could be launched to document that he boarded the vessel and was making himself known in a peaceful manner. After remaining unnoticed for about two hours, he knocked on the bridge and put his hands up.

As for his experience with the Shonan Maru crew, Pete had little or no complaints. “I have no problem with the Japanese people. Most were very nice to me. A few of them spoke English. The head of security gave me a hard time; he had lost a lot of face with me boarding his boat.”

After being detained on the Japanese ship for about a month, Pete was brought to Japan and arrested by their Coast Guard. He was indicted on five charges: trespassing, assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property and obstruction of business. Sea Shepherd spent more than half a million dollars on his defense, while Pete spent four months in a Japanese prison cell awaiting trial.

“It drives you mad. It was a very violent place,” he said. “I was not allowed to talk to anyone. It is a form of solitary. I was sick of seeing men getting beaten up.”

A Tokyo District Court sentenced him to two years’ jail, suspended for five years, and he is banned from Japan for five years. He won’t serve further time, or so it seems.

“Not unless I am naughty and they catch me.”

So: will he be naughty? Pete wouldn’t say whether he would rejoin Sea Shepherd this year, but rumors of an Ady Gil 2 are already circulating. He brought new tactics to the table during Operation Waltzing Matilda and his legal drama attracted worldwide media attention to illegal whaling, yet the whalers have grown progressively more violent each season.

“I think they will be more aggressive with their defenses,” Pete predicted. “They might start to do their own prop fouling and the like as well, I suspect. I doubt anyone will ever board one of their vessels again. They will be well prepared now. But it all costs them.”


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