Local Identities

Confronting the “Hurtful Truth”

Geoff Helisma|

In March of 2013, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Captain Paul Watson, wrote an untitled poem that pondered the psychological makeup of the people who volunteer their time “to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans”.

Oh what kind of men and women are these / where the snow does fall and water freeze / so far from the land, so far from the trees / [who] journey into such hostile seas?
Working long, hard, cold hours without pay / risks, without the expectation of gain / selflessly defending the whale’s domain…
This crew only acts when governments fail… / they risk it all for the sake of the whale / the sanctuary shan’t be assaulted.
So, what is it that drives these people to devote their lives to taking action, sometimes facing confrontational danger?

It’s just after lunch on Wednesday July 25. The phone rings: “Geoff, it’s Ian. Did you know the Steve Irwin is anchoring off or near Yamba tonight?”
“Sea Shepherd is campaigning against the Adani coal mine [Operation Reef Defence]. The Steve Irwin is on its way there.”
“Really, how can I get in touch?”
“I’ll try and tee it up for you.”
An hour later, the ship’s captain, Mal Holland, calls and asks if I’d like to come aboard. After establishing a pick-up point, the River Street ferry wharf in Yamba, a time was set: 4pm or thereabouts.
It’s cold and it’s already 4.15pm, so I tuck in my shirt and zip up my jacket. I hadn’t dressed for a late afternoon/early evening boat ride across the notorious Clarence River bar; fortunately, I soon discover, it is as flat as it can be.
I’m warming up on the nearby exercise equipment, pondering what I might ask the crew members. I’ve asked Captain Holland, 43, to organise four interviewees including himself, “and, please, a good spread of ages and both female and male”.
Is that my lift motoring up Yamba Bay?
I dismount from the exercise machine and walk briskly towards the wharf, arriving as two Sea Shepherd volunteers, Australian Sarah Hayward (driving) and Israeli Noa Ginat, dock at the wharf. They’ve been delayed after hitting a sandbar, says Sarah.
Noa helps me don a life jacket and I take my seat as we speed out to sea. Noa tells me she is a marine biologist and that she had previously visited Exmouth in Western Australia on a tourist visa – the Exmouth Gulf sees the highest density of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere during their annual 11,000km migration from Antarctica (June to November).
“I went home to do my masters degree, but quit after one month and returned to Exmouth,” she tells me over the roar of the boat’s engine.
The Sea Shepherd Australia website says deckhand Noa Ginat “joined Sea Shepherd because I couldn’t live with the hurtful truth that we are rapidly diminishing our oceans…. Being a part of an organisation that is actively saving lives all over the world in all sorts of ways is the least I can do to help improve the state of our seas. It’s never too late to make a change.”
Bosun Sarah Hayward’s profile says she is a two-year veteran. “In that time, I have been able to work in Antarctica on our most recent whale defence campaign, after that I went to join the Bob Barker in West Africa to assist in Operation Albacore, patrolling for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and worked to defend the Great Australian Bight for Operation Jeedara II.
“In my time with Sea Shepherd I have experienced a lot of incredible first-hand encounters with wildlife, but I have also been witness to the incredible destruction our oceans are facing. It is in these moments that show me why we fight.”
The question posed in Paul Watson’s poem – Oh, what kind of men and women are these … [who] journey into such hostile seas? – is prominent in my thinking as we rendezvous with the ship. It’s a minute after five and the sun, already obscured by smoke haze and wispy clouds, is due to slip behind the western hinterland at 5.12pm. I wonder if there’ll be enough light for photographs on the deck.
As we pull up to the ship, I’m directed to climb up a rope ladder, with wooden steps, dangling over the side of the ship. Once aboard, it became apparent that discipline and workplace health and safety were paramount – everyone knows their duties and the required protocols to perform them.
My sea legs are nonexistent, despite the swell being almost undiscernible. I hold onto the rail as Sarah, Noa and the boat are winched onto to the ship’s deck.
I’m met by a crew member who takes me to the bridge, where I am introduced to Captain Holland. He says he has three crew members waiting for me in the galley. Tara Lanbourne, the ship’s onboard photographer, guides me down several levels to the galley. “What’s your role?” I ask.
“Capturing everything that is going on: the onboard life, crew life and the different roles that everyone is playing on the ship; and, as we go up the coast, photographing all of the events, getting them onto social media and getting people aware of what is going on and happening on the campaign.”
We arrive at the galley, where I am offered a coffee. “Espresso?” I ask, expecting a ‘no’.
“Yes, we have a machine, what would you like?”
“Cappuccino please. Oh, can you make that with soy?”
There’s a chorus of muffled laughter, after which I am informed that the ship is vegan – of course they have soy milk, cow’s milk is banned.
Meanwhile, my interviewees await – Ashkr Audet, 23, Bridgette Gower, 46, and Julie ‘Jools’ Holland, 63. I’ve only been on the ship for 10 minutes and already I’ve been made to feel most welcome.


Ashkr Audet, a self-described proud environmentalist who joined Sea Shepherd in 2013, says in his online profile that “the thought of a new large coal mine being built near the Great Barrier Reef terrifies me and I’m going to do everything I can to stop it”.

Ashkr tells me he was born in Brisbane, grew up in Byron Bay and moved to Melbourne as a 10-year-old.
“I was expecting something a little more exotic to go with your name,” I say, drawing laughter from his crewmates.
“Sorry,” he laughs. “I’m about as Australian as they come mate!”
“What does a second mate do?”
“Eight hours a day I am in charge of the navigation of the watch – that’s the safe passage of the vessel –, making sure we are not going anywhere near shallow waters, staying away from the coast, not hitting any other vessels and that kind of thing, as well as overseeing the operations of small boats and general management.”
“What was your motivation to join Sea Shepherd?”
“As a young man growing up around the coast, with a love of nature and the oceans, I came across Sea Shepherd at school in a school project and was absolutely in awe of the direct action campaigns that were running in the Southern Ocean against the Japanese whaling fleet.
“Immediately, while I was still in high school, I wanted to join the crew. From there I did everything that I could to get myself into that position. I originally started as an onshore volunteer doing land-based volunteering, raising awareness, helping out on the ships whenever I could. I was lucky enough to be living in Melbourne where, at the time, we had three ships in dock.
“Before that epiphany, were you a natural born dissenter?” I ask, adding: “Some people are born rebels and when they don’t like something they take action.”
Askhr, puzzled by the question, pauses before answering. “I feel like, probably my whole life, ‘Oh, there’s something I don’t like happening, I’m going to see if I can do something about it.’ I’ve always had a longing for justice and to make things right and fair. I never wanted to see suffering of any kind. I grew up a vegetarian; I’ve always been a bit of a hippie. I went to Tasmania when I was quite young, doing logging blockades with my mum and my little brother.”
“Can you recount the most memorable incident or story from your time as a Sea Shepherd volunteer?”
“A story that is extremely close to my heart and gives me goose bumps, even telling it to this day, was during Operation Nemesis. It was in late January or early February in 2016. I was on the Steve Irwin in Antarctica and we were drifting overnight. At around 11 o’clock I woke up in the middle of the night. It was daylight outside in the summer and I woke up and thought, ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t hear anything and tried to go back to sleep. Then there was bang, bang, bang on my door and one of the crew members was telling me there were whales five metres from the ship.
“I jumped out of bed, ran [he corrects himself with a chuckle towards Jools and Gabrielle], walked very swiftly, didn’t run, walked very swiftly out onto the deck and there were two humpback whales – they were scratching themselves on the ship. They stayed with us for two hours or so. They’d do laps back and forth, scratch themselves, they’d do their big exhalations; you can feel the spray coming from their exhalations, they were playing and would rollover and look up at everyone, look around, go back down.
“You could see they had this immense connection with each other and in some way it felt like they had a really immense connection with us and could tell why we were there. At one particular moment, one of them rolled over on his side and his eye met with my eye.
“No joke: the amount of energy that I suddenly felt, straight through my body, through my head, down through my torso and down all the way to my toes; this immense energy of just awe … absolute awe. It was the most spiritual connection I’ve ever had with any other living being. There was a communication between us where I felt that he understood why we were there and what we were doing and was saying, ‘Thank you.’”
This was Askhr’s third campaign and represented a crossroads of sorts; he was questioning his resolve to continue devoting his time to his chosen cause.
“Before I left [for that campaign], I said, ‘By the end of this campaign, I will know the answer to my question, and the question was: Is this just something I’m doing in the interim while I’m young or is this what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life?’
“At that moment, that decision was made: I will be doing this for the rest of my life.”
His passionate retelling of his life-changing moment, gives way to reflection. “Lots of tears came out and I was just in this bubble. A friend came up to me and she said, ‘Are you alright?’
“Like, I just woke up out of this complete state of…” he trails off searching for the right words, “and I was back with reality.”
Bridgette pipes up: “Show him your tattoo.”
Seemingly surprised that he had forgotten his tattoo, he exclaims, pointing at it: “Oh, yeah! I got a tattoo of the eye on my arm.
“That was actually done onboard by one of the other crew members, and it was designed by another one … pretty cool,” he chuckles, clearly enamoured by the constant reminder on his arm.


Bridgette Gower is a quartermaster who has been an active Sea Shepherd volunteer since 2009. She started out “shaking the tin on Brunswick Street, Melbourne and running stalls at local events”. In 2015 she moved to Cairns to coordinate the town’s small but active Sea Shepherd chapter. She soon joined the Steve Irwin to be the in-port cook and, after several stints in this role, she “crewed in the galley for Operation Jeedara 1 and Operation Nemesis”. Operation Reef Defence is her third campaign and her first in the role of quartermaster and part of the bridge team.

“I was born in Coonabarabran,” Bridgette says, “and moved to Ballina as an early teenager, finished high school and spent many years in Ballina afterwards. I would always see the whales every migration, coming up north and then going south again. That was amazing to me, and there were dolphins all of the time, as well. I used to always love going to Flat Rock Beach. It was fantastic for looking in the rock pools for marine creatures. I was always fascinated by that. I loved it. I could do it for hours and hours every weekend. I just love the ocean and now I am a scuba diving instructor, so I sort of followed that path.”
She remembers the moment she had to “stop reading and seeing news stories about whales being slaughtered in Antarctica”.
“When one of the Japanese vessels, basically, ran over one of our vessels, a small trimaran, and cut it in half, that was the moment that I thought, ‘I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. I can’t sit on the fence and say that’s bad.’ I had to actually step up and start taking action, because I felt so enraged.
“I was living in Melbourne at the time and the head office for Sea Shepherd was only a 10-minute walk away, so I just went and knocked on the door and said, ‘I want to be a volunteer and it all just started from there.”
I ask Bridgette to retell her most memorable experience as a Sea Shepherd volunteer.
“I was in the galley and trying to find something in the dry store for the lunchtime meal. I heard people running past, like, this commotion, excited people screaming and running past. And then all of a sudden I heard, ‘Bridgee, orcas! Orcas!’
The excitement of recalling this moment causes her to laugh as she breathes in. “So I just dropped everything and ran out onto the deck and we had orcas all around us – 20 or 30 of them – and they were hunting. They were everywhere. In every direction there were orcas. They were just absolutely formidable creatures.
“I had no idea about the power they had; it was absolutely incredible. The adrenalin was pumping; they are just so powerful. It was so exciting to see them. It was such an unexpected thing and they were absolutely powering through the water and really coming out of the water as well, hunting these fish.
“I was so excited and so enthralled. I remember looking. I could see some coming from the starboard side, directly towards the stern of the ship. Then they go to 50 metres or so and disappear. The next thing I know, they came up just on the portside. I screamed – it was just amazing.”
Regaining her composure, Bridgette says “being so close to nature” is a reward, too. “Even just being on the water and seeing the sunrise and sunsets; crisp beautiful days like we had to day and just being so lucky to be out in nature and doing what we can to protect it.”


Julie Holland joined Sea Shepherd in 2008, “basically retired and looking for an NGO [non government organisation] to get involved with”, she says in her online profile. She was a founding member of the Sydney chapter and regards this era as “a crucial time for the future of the oceans, the environment and its protection”. She has been to sea seven times for transit voyages aboard various Sea Shepherd ships and has participated in two previous offshore campaigns.

Julie introduces herself as ‘Jools’. I’m surprised when she tells me she is 63. I say her age alone sends a message about the types or ages of people who choose to volunteer for Sea Shepherd. Bridgette mouths “yeah”.
“I’m a registered nurse (cardio/thoracic-trained),” says Jools. “I’d done 40-plus years of intensive nursing and I got to the stage where I’d had enough. I said to my husband, ‘I’ve got to get out of here before I burn out.’
“So I was basically retired and … there’s only so much gardening you can do and I’m not the sort of person who goes out with the girls and plays tennis, etcetera; and my husband said to me, ‘You’ve got to go and do something.’ So, I was going through the paper and I saw a tiny little ad in the Sydney Morning Herald, asking for people to come and join Sea Shepherd and start the Sydney chapter. So I went to the meeting and there were four of us. I put my hand up and said, ‘yes, I’d be more than happy to become an onshore volunteer with the Sydney chapter’.
“I was so excited about it, because I’ve always loved the ocean. I trained at Mona Vale Hospital, which is on the northern beaches of Sydney, and I’ve always been on the water. I’ve been on boats, yachts … seeing whales, dolphins, etcetera in the ocean. That was the reason why I thought, ‘yes, I’ll join Sea Shepherd’, because of my passion for the ocean”.
Jool’s most memorable experience unfolded on her first campaign, Operation Zero Tolerance.
“I was up on the bridge, because I was quartermaster as well as medical officer. I was on watch and looking through the binoculars and all of a sudden I saw the Yūshin Maru, which is one of the Japanese harpoon vessels, coming over the horizon.
“I saw it coming towards our vessel and it was just getting closer. I said to the officer on the bridge, ‘We have company’. And all of a sudden, the Shōnan Maru, which is their security vessel, was with it as well. They just came closer and closer and closer, and their harpoon was uncovered, which meant they had been hunting in [protected waters] and killed a whale. Watching it come closer and closer was a very frightening image to see.
“I got goose bumps and I thought, ‘This is the reason I am here.’ I’m here to save as many whales as we possibly can from the harpoon that I could see on the bow of the Yūshin Maru.
“They just kept coming closer and I just kept watching. Then, basically, the whole whaling fleet came up against our three vessels – the Steve Irwin, the Bob Barker and the San Simon – and we had a bit of a battle.”
She says it was one of Sea Shepherd’s most dangerous and most successful anti whaling campaigns.
“That year we saved 932 whales from the harpoon. Their quota was 1,035 whales. They only got just over 100.”
She says the catch would have been fewer but for her ship “getting low on fuel and we had to go home”.
“They followed us, saw we were going back to Australia and went back for another week. They’d only had two whales on board [during the confrontation].”
Was she scared?
“You have adrenalin. There was so much adrenalin going on inside my body that it was just unbelievable. But also, when you’ve got an 8,000 tonne vessel ramming you from behind, and also from the portside, doing eight to nine knots: wow! It was the Yūshin Maru and all you could see was the hull coming right up next to us and ramming us.”


Interviews completed, Bridgette shows me the lounge area, where several crew members are relaxing – one lightly strums a guitar, another is looking at his laptop. There are pictures and keepsakes on the walls, evidence of past confrontations and the organisation’s history. The ship lurches as a small swell passes beneath it; I topple onto one of the crew, who chuckles at my lack of balance.
“This vessel … was named after Robert Hunter, one of the founding members of Greenpeace with [Sea Shepherd CEO and founder] Paul Watson,” Bridgette says. “It was a Greenpeace campaign in 1977, in Canada, where they stood in front of the seal vessels to stop it from killing seals.”
We wind our way up the staircase to the bridge, where I meet with Captain Holland, who started his time with Sea Shepherd as a volunteer 12 years ago. We retire to a quieter place, his office. He says he’s feeling fatigued after the past week’s voyage and promotional stops along the east coast. At first, he seems a bit nervous about the interview. I later discover that he’s perturbed about how he is often misquoted when I receive an email after he has read the news story I wrote about the current mission, which was published in the Clarence Valley Independent.
“Thank you for this!” he writes. “I appreciate your style: The research and the avoidance of paraphrasing. It’s the first time I’ve read a quote or even a written statement made by myself in its original form. Not manipulative! Genuine appreciation.”
However, in a subsequent email, he laments the lack of media attention following their Brisbane stopover. “The stops since Yamba have been interesting. Each place has its character. In Brisbane, though, while there were thousands of curious and supportive visitors to the vessel, not a single journalist came. Mackay was a smaller event than the two previous, but positive I think. The vessel is at Whitsundays today, Airlie tomorrow. Abbot Point Wednesday. Thanks again for your efforts. The article is still my favourite media for the voyage.”
Captain Holland confesses to having been a “theoretical social libertarian”, that is until he made the leap from occasionally participating in protest demonstrations to being part of the solution. “I was a professional seafarer and I’d spent all of my 20s working towards the ultimate qualification [master mariner] I can have at sea. I’ve worked on big ships as a ship’s captain; but I just wasn’t loving it, I was ready to be free of it.”
His call to action arrived in the summer of 2006/07: he soon applied to become a crew member on a Sea Shepherd ship. “This vessel [Steve Irwin] had just been purchased by Sea Shepherd and had just completed its first Antarctic whale campaign. There was a big picture of it on the front page of The Age in a collision with a vessel from Japan’s whaling fleet.
“I just rode my pushbike down to Docklands and started chatting with some of the crew on the gangway, and I just couldn’t stay away. I was between jobs and I was open to doing whatever I really wanted to do. I’d achieved [being a master mariner] and had nowhere else to go after that.”
Captain Holland’s humble nature becomes evident when asked: “Was it convenient for Sea Shepherd that a captain had come along?”
“Well, I was sensitive. I didn’t want to appear that I was going to push in and threaten anyone or how things were going because I loved what it was. So I didn’t tell anyone what I did for a living. I said I was familiar with vessels and I’d like to volunteer on deck. I put a year in on the Steve. I just worked hard and then I was invited to come along on the following whale defence campaign. They called it ‘Migaloo’, after the white whale.
“I was on watch with Paul Watson. He was captain at the time and, early in the campaign, he saw that I had a good grip on it. He retired to his cabin and worked on his poetry and all that. It sort of went on from there. I went on four or five whale defence campaigns in Antarctica and went to the Ferro Islands to see what we could do about the pilot whale drives up there. We did the Kimberly against the gas campaign, as well.”
Doubt about whether or not Sea Shepherd’s campaigns are a ‘drop in the ocean’ in the face of overwhelming odds, however, lingers in the captain’s mind, particularly in the context of his leadership aboard the Steve Irwin and the responsibility that brings.
“There is such a huge force taking the human project in an unsustainable direction – it’s like, no matter how hard we push in promoting ideas that for me seem right, I don’t know, it still might not work out.
“But I’m still optimistic. Otherwise, what’s the point of hanging around?”


You can find this story on Page 14 of our Spring Scene 2018.