Peter Hammarstedt is a Sea Shepherd

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“Throughout history, it has been passionate individuals who change things, not government.”

  • Interviewer
    ANNA GREER
  • Photographer
    ANNA GREER
  • Location
    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
  • Interview Date
    THIRD QUARTER 2013
  • Weather
    SUNNY WITH A SHORT SUN SHOWER
  • Unexpected
    BEING HELD “HOSTAGE”

Peter Hammarstedt risks his life for whales. Every summer for the past eight years, Peter has left the comfort of land to protect whales from a tragic death at the pointy end of a harpoon. He has dedicated his entire adult life to the protection of the oceans and its inhabitants, patrolling the icy waters of Antarctica, the marine parks of South America and the ice floes of Canada with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Bullied through his formative years, Peter developed an affinity with the underdog and was drawn to activism as a way to defend the powerless. At just 18, he applied to join the Sea Shepherd and in the 10 years since, has steadily risen through the ranks. At the age of 28 Peter is the captain of one of four Sea Shepherd ships, the Bob Barker.

When talking about direct action, Peter’s words are a powerful clarion call, with the message that passivity is acceptance and that if we want to see a more balanced world, we must stand out ground against injustice. Underneath his youth and humour, Peter shoes great strength and a steely resolve to end whaling for good. He showed his determination during the Bob Barker’s most recent whale defence campaign, where he put his boat in between a huge whaling factory ship and its refuelling tanker.

I met Peter for the first time as a crewmember on one of the smaller ships in the latest anti-whaling campaign. There, I saw him joke around with his crew in a way that was more friend than commander, while still showing a great capacity for leadership. The vessel I was on came back earlier than the other ships, and I felt a lack of closure. When I heard that the rest of the fleet were on their way back to the homeport of Williamstown in Melbourne, I booked a flight from Sydney to welcome them home.

When I boarded the Bob and saw Peter, I could see that his vibrancy had diminished. He was tired after a gruelling and dangerous campaign.

ANNA GREER: Sea Shepherd has hardcore fans, and it has its detractors. To some you’re an eco-warrior, to some you’re a pirate, to some you’re a hero and to others you’re an eco-terrorist– can you give your perspective? What are you?

PETER HAMMARSTEDT: I think we are law enforcers in a lawless world. I think the reason oceans are in the state they are in is because of the difficulty enforcing the law, and in most international waters there are just no laws at all. That is why there is a massive problem with overfishing. We have what is known as the tragedy of the commons: You’ll have a Spanish trawler in the North Sea and they know that if they don’t take up all the fish then there’s going to be a French trawler right behind it that will. There is a desperate grab for the little that’s left and it’s certainly anything but sustainable.

I think what Sea Shepherd does is recognise that we live on a planet that is 72 per cent ocean, more than 50 per cent of people live by the ocean and yet people rarely think about it. Overfishing and whaling are things that happen out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t affect people on a daily basis. Well it does, but people don’t perceive the effect. The founder of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson, is very forward thinking in realising that

the oceans are the true lungs of the planet and they are dying.

If the world’s governments aren’t going to enforce the law then it will take passionate and courageous individuals to do so instead. We fill this vacuum that exists between the laws that are in place and the lack of enforcement from governments–either because of their lack of political will or their lack of economic means.

How do you perceive the way humanity interacts with the oceans?

I think people have to realise that they are a part of the natural world. They are not separate from it. People need to recognise that this planet has limits, that the oceans aren’t inexhaustible. Our planet has limited… I hate the word resource itself because it reflects a power dynamic that is untenable, but people have to recognise that our planet has limits. There are only so many trees, so many fish, there’s only so much clean air. There is a limited carrying capacity (our planet can only support so many people) and there is limited absorption capacity (the planet can only take up so much pollution). Yet we act as though there are no limits. Our whole economic system is built on unlimited growth. That is just not tenable. People will realise this when they remember they are a part of the natural world, not separate from it. That is what I hope happens. It’s what needs to happen.

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Why did you start focusing on oceans as your primary concern?

I grew up, to some extent, near the oceans. I think everyone is drawn to the oceans, whether they live near them or not, simply because all life came from the oceans to begin with. The air that we breathe primarily comes from the oceans. I think it’s a primordial connection.

I started focusing on the ocean because I felt that it was one of the most important conservation issues but received the least amount of attention. You have organisations all around the world fighting to protect the rainforests; you have organisations that are fighting climate change and things like that. I thought,

People are always fighting for the rainforest but the oceans produce more oxygen than all the world’s forests combined.

I felt that the things that are accepted out in the ocean would never be accepted on land. Take whaling for example; it can take 20 to 30 minutes for the Japanese whalers to kill a whale. That would never be allowed on land. If somebody took 20 to 30 minutes to slaughter a cow in a slaughterhouse, that person would go to jail for animal cruelty.

If you look at bottom trawling, the by-catch is enormous. They’re targeting certain species of fish but every other animal killed in the course of that destructive fishing practice is just thrown overboard and discarded. Meanwhile, the ocean bottom is left like a moonscape because you’re drawing this heavy iron bar over it just to catch one species. It sounds absolutely ludicrous. It’s like somebody hunting kangaroos in the outback and bulldozing the entire natural habitat just to kill one species. The hunting methods which are used for fishing would just never be allowed on land.

Tell me about your first campaign, joining the organisation when you were just 18–it must have been eye opening.

My first campaign was in the Galápagos. We were there to work with the Galápagos National Park to stop illegal fishing in the marine reserve. Myself and five other crew were on one of the Galápagonian Islands, Isabela. While we were there, the fishermen all across the Galápagonian Islands were rioting, because there was a quota enforced on the sea cucumber fishery–they wanted that to be dissolved. Our job was to walk around and take photos of shark fins drying on the roofs of people’s houses. All of a sudden, there were three pickup trucks blazing down the road. In the back of these trucks were fisherman with clubs and chains and machetes. They ran into the National Park office, barricaded it shut and took over the only harbour on Isabela to prevent any boat traffic from coming or going. We weren’t allowed to leave the island, but nobody knew that we were from Sea Shepherd.

Paul Watson put out this press release saying six international Sea Shepherd crew members were being held hostage on the island of Isabela. It was because we weren’t able to leave, but certainly, the imagination of the international media ran wild. I think that the reason my mother and father never worry about me when I go on a campaign is because of how traumatic my first campaign was for them. My mother called the Sea Shepherd office in the States and said, “I heard my son is being held hostage, what’s going on?” Back then we had two employees at the Sea Shepherd office, whereas now we have an international staff of about 25 people. The person who was on duty said, “We have no idea what’s happening, all we know is he has been kidnapped.” Ever since then–whether it has been ship collisions on the high seas or being arrested in Canada–for my parents, it has paled in comparison. We were finally released from the island, in no small part due to pressure from the US State Department to get the “hostages” released. After that we went out patrolling and we arrested two illegal long-lining vessels.

I joined Sea Shepherd to save the world. I think when you’re young that’s how you feel; you have these grandiose goals. My perception has changed a little bit since then.

Maybe I can’t save the world, but I can save the entire world for one of these animals I’m out to protect.

I remember working eight or nine hours pulling up 20 kilometres of line with about 2000 hooks set illegally in the marine reserve to catch tuna. The crew were feeling really good because we were taking direct action, but I remember feeling disappointed because here we were, pulling up 20 kilometres of long-line, but in one single night there’s enough long-line set out to go around the entire earth 80 times. We were working at night and there was a full moon; the hooks were glinting in the moonlight… I recognised then that maybe we couldn’t save the whole world, but that each one of these hooks was a tuna or a sea turtle or a dolphin that wasn’t going to get caught tonight. To think that doesn’t make a difference is incredibly narrow-minded and incredibly anthropocentric and quite simply, wrong. That night, we removed a weapon of mass destruction and these animals were safe because of that.

How did you first come to see this as your life’s mission?

When I was 14, a girl in my class was vegetarian. I’d always loved animals while growing up, but never equated my consumption habits as being contradictory to that. When she told me that egg-laying hens at battery farms are kept five birds to a cage no bigger than an open newspaper, that knowledge hit me like a ton of bricks and opened me up to all kinds of injustice. After that, I became vegetarian. I later became vegan. That opened my eyes to the relationships that were possible between myself and the natural world. I think that when you start giving other species ethical consideration your spectrum of empathy widens. At the time, I was very religious and I wanted to do my confirmation. I remember my dad gave me $200 and I was like, What should I do with this money? I’ll give it away.

Why?

I suppose our life experiences shape us into the people that we become. We moved around a lot when I was growing up and I was forced, constantly, to adapt to new social environments. It was hard to make friends and as a result, I was often ostracised. By the time that I got to middle school, I was downright hated. I suppose that bullying–which was not just psychologically abusive but also physically violent–engendered in me a natural propensity to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

So who did you give the money too?

I remember looking on Greenpeace’s website. The first image I saw was a picture of a whale being pulled up the slipway of a factory whaling ship in the Southern Ocean. It certainly affected me in some way–I think I was appalled by the fact that whaling was still going on because, like most people, I thought that whaling was in the past. When I saw that image I felt that there was nothing I wanted to do more than physically get in between that whale and the ships that were hell-bent on killing it. I ended up using the money to join Greenpeace, and a few other non-profits.

What is your background? You have Swedish and US citizenship?

I was born in Sweden, but because my father worked for a power company we travelled around a lot. We lived in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, China and the UK… We moved to the US when I was about seven. I spent 10 years in the US before moving back to Sweden. I’m a duel citizen of Sweden and the United States.

When I was 17, I moved back to Sweden. At that time, Iceland had started whaling again and I heard that Greenpeace was sending a ship there, the Arctic Sunrise. I really wanted to go on that campaign; to fulfil the dream I had when I was 14. When I finally went to Iceland, rather than blocking any harpoons we did this public relations tour of Iceland, going from town to town. As this diplomatic mission was going on, whales were dying. The waters around Iceland were turning red. So I looked for an alternative and found Sea Shepherd.

I joined when I was old enough to submit an application at 18–that was 10 years ago. I had just started uni and was very involved with the Greenpeace chapter in Sweden, but I just felt like all these problems were dire and certainly, they were more important than anything going on in my personal life. I just wanted to make a difference. I wanted to join the “whale’s navy”, to sail on the high seas and risk everything to save something.

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And are you still religious?

I don’t think about religion at all to be honest. My ethics are based on natural law. I see that every living thing has a well-being interest. When faced with pain or death, every animal, human or non-human, will do everything within its power to survive. That is evidence that they have an interest to live free from suffering and as a result, that interest should be respected and defended.

How does one get to the point of action? So many people despair at the world–what do you think sets those apart who take it upon themselves to actually do something about it, and those who remain despairing but do little to change things?

Not to sound like a cliché, but if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. For me, the turning point is when one recognises that problems don’t go away just because you expect or hope that they will. Power cedes nothing without demand and when you’re passive, you accept the state of the world.

No sane person would accept the state of this world.

What was Sea Shepherd like back when you joined? I imagine it’s gone through a rapid transformation in your 10 years of service.

When I joined Sea Shepherd it was very ragtag. We had one ship. At one point, I was told to go Seattle because the ship was going on to Iceland. Five and a half months later, I was still stuck in Seattle. We had an issue with the propeller shaft and that required more work. The bill was $350,000–half of our annual budget. So that campaign was Seattle dry-dock. To see the growth that we’ve undergone in 10 years is certainly inspiring and it’s in no small part thanks to the successes we’ve had in Antarctica. People have recognised that Sea Shepherd is the only organisation that is saving any whales in Antarctica. As a result, every year we head down to Antarctica, we come back stronger than the year before. Now, we have four ships, a helicopter, drones and 120 volunteers for a campaign, whereas in my day it was much more spartan. The ship we had, the Farley Mowatt, wasn’t even fast enough to keep up with the factory whaling ship, but that didn’t stop us from going down and trying. That’s what has always inspired me–that at the end of a campaign, we recognise we did everything that we physically could. That the only thing limiting us is the resources we have at our disposal. We aren’t lacking courage, we aren’t lacking commitment or passion or perseverance. The only thing we potentially lack is the funds to do even more. Even though we have four ships now, that’s still the philosophy that underpins every campaign we do. That hasn’t been lost. I find that very inspiring.

It’s funny that you say “back in my day”. You’re only 28 and yet you’re a veteran. Is that strange to think about?

I’ve been here a long time for a Sea Shepherd I guess. We had 120 crew on this campaign. The only person who had really been around longer than me was Paul, who started the organisation back in 1977. I guess I’m the only one who has done eight consecutive Antarctica campaigns now. I made a promise to Paul after the first campaign that I would keep doing it until we won against the whaling fleet. I recognised that no matter where I would be in my life, no matter what path I would take, I knew Paul would be in Antarctica protecting the whales from December through February every single year. Once I made that commitment to him, that I would stand by him, that I would have his back and not give up… I don’t break my promises. So that’s what I’ve kept doing.

I keep doing it because the victories are so tangible. The result of going down to Antarctica every year is hundreds of whales still swimming free. There’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that because you intervened, life can to continue.

So is that what keeps it sustainable for you, the tangible success?

There are different levels of success. The greatest success we hope to achieve is that whaling ends in the Southern Ocean, but that is a long-term goal. There are short-term victories too, and I think the way I keep it sustainable is by recognising that every life we save in Antarctica is a victory. By keeping that in mind I am able to also remember why I do it–I’m thinking about these animals as individuals, individuals who have unique personalities, that have the same capacity to suffer as you or me, who are able to feel the range of emotions that we do, from being happy to sad, to scared, to safe. What I like, is that we’re able to keep them safe.

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What is it about whales, do you think, that captures people’s imaginations and sparks their compassion?

People care about whales because many species of whales are endangered, many others are threatened–whales have somehow become symbolic of the way we treat the environment. The environmental movement really kicked off in the 70s with anti-nuclear campaigning and anti-whaling campaigning at its forefront, so they’ve become a symbol of hope and sustainability. As human beings we have this arrogance whereby we think we are at the apex of creation, that we are not part of the animal kingdom; we’re something separate from animals and nature. And yet, whales have a humbling effect on people. You look at whales and they’re larger than us, they have ways of communicating that are far different and in some ways more developed than ours–they could communicate over an ocean using song, long before we ever laid our first telegraphic cables. We look at how their family structures are built up and how they are social in their play and in their romantic lives. They’re so similar to us–when you look at whales you realise we have more in common than things that separate us.

Going back to the success Sea Shepherd has had, can you tell me a little bit about the latest Antarctic whale defence campaign?

Operation Zero Tolerance was definitely our most dangerous campaign to date. We went down knowing the whaling fleet had a $30 million security budget–that had been taken directly from tsunami relief funds in Japan–that was specifically to try to stop us. We knew that we were going up against an adversary that had already bankrupted twice in a row, so it was a very desperate adversary. Our goal was to make sure they wouldn’t kill any whales at all–because that is the only goal that is acceptable to aim for. This campaign worked out so well because we found the whaling fleet before they had a chance to kill a single whale. For the month we were with the whaling fleet, they only killed one whale. The whale they did kill was killed in front of our eyes to test our resolve and our steadfastness to block them from transferring this whale to the factory ship, and when we did, when it took them seven hours to get this whale on board, they didn’t try whaling in front of us again.

The strategy evolved a little bit differently to other campaigns because fortunately the newest addition to our fleet, the Sam Simon, found the refuelling tanker. To stay down there for three months the whaling ships need to be refuelled at least twice. When we found them we could see they were low on fuel, based on how high out of the water they were, and we knew that if we could shut off their fuel supply, if we could prevent this refuelling taking place, then that would force them to call the whaling season off early.

That resulted in several very dramatic confrontations where we literally risked our ship and ourselves. It became this massive showdown, trying to prevent them from refuelling, which we were ultimately successful in doing because we held our ground.

Has this year been a highlight for you?

I think this year has been important for me personally because we’ve always said to the whaling fleet that the only way to stop us would be to sink us and this year we really put them to the test. When I joined Sea Shepherd we were so small, we only had one ship and we had such limited resources. Now, we still have very limited resources but we have four ships miraculously–thanks to people’s generosity. Even though we now have four ships, we still just see them as a way to accomplish our goal and if we have to risk our ships then that’s what we will do. So to be able to stand our ground during Operation Zero Tolerance against an adversary that was bigger than us, had more financial backing than us–it was the epitome of the David and Goliath struggle.

When we stood our ground against this 8000 ton factory ship, it wasn’t just standing our ground against that ship, it was standing for right over wrong and good over evil and law over lawlessness.

The Bob came close to being sunk this year didn’t it?

Well, to block the refuelling we had to put ourselves between the refuelling tanker and the factory whaling ship. I saw that the tanker had its fenders out, ready to receive the factory ship. I then came up along side it in the same way the factory ship would do, and I thrust myself into its fenders, basically occupying that position. I then radioed the captain of the Nisshin Maru (the factory ship) and told him that I wouldn’t move for him and that our intention was to block what was an unlawful refuelling to support a criminal whaling operation; that the only way to stop us was to sink us. I suppose the captain of the Nisshin Maru wanted to see whether or not we were bluffing. On the first attempt, before even hitting us, it hit the tanker four times, severely damaging its lifeboats. Then, it came up to the stern of the Bob Barker and started pushing it. It’s hard to explain what that is like: The Nisshin Maru is like a five-storey building towering over a two-storey building. Its vessel is 8000 ton compared to our 500 ton. It started pushing us along the tanker and as it was doing this, started turning the vessel towards it, so we were almost broadside to it. Then the bow of the Nisshin Maru collided with our wheelhouse (the bridge) and smashed the communications masts, damaged our radar, took out our starboard running lights… The bow was close to colliding with the most vulnerable part of our ship, where the engine is. And as we were turned almost perpendicular to it, that’s when I had a choice to make: I could either go full astern, back out of the situation or I could go ahead, right into the fender of the tanker and hold the position. But if I went ahead and they kept going ahead then they would break us below the waterline and sink us. If they had been going any faster, they could have rolled us over.

Before we even went into confrontation, I gave my crew the option of disembarking and moving to one of the other ships. Nobody took me up on that offer. Their courage gave me the confidence to stay, so as I hear everything smashing above my head and I get a report from the engine room that it’s flooding because of the water being pummelled into the main engine exhaust–I held our ground. When the bow pushed into us I put out a mayday–that’s when they backed down. We put them in a position where they would have to back down or sink the ship. There was no middle ground.

Some would say that is going too far. How far is too far?

People talk about fear and courage and things like that. I don’t think I felt much fear at the moment and I don’t think I was particularly courageous either.

Fear is never really what happens to me out at sea in these confrontations. My fear is that not enough is done.

My fear is looking my future children and my future grandchildren in the eye one day when they ask me, ‘Look at the state of the planet, why didn’t you do more? How could things turn out the way they did?’ I want to look them in the eye and say, ‘I did everything I could.’ That one time, we blocked the refuelling of a factory whaling ship and we gave them no option but to sink us or stop. I recognise the fear that these animals experience as they are hunted down and the harpoon strikes them in the back, as they take 20 minutes to drown in their own blood–that transcends anything that could ever happen to me personally.

I’m more than willing to put myself on the line. If my crew trust me and they’re 100 per cent on board–which I made sure they were–then I’m certainly willing to risk the ship to get the job done. Where I draw the line is that I would never injure anybody, but I’ll always put the ship where it needs to be.

There is a view that Sea Shepherd is aggressive and violent, but what you’ve just described sounds like classic nonviolent direct action.

I think nonviolence is preventing violence. If we put our ship in the way–I don’t think violence can be committed against an inanimate object. I think that’s absolutely absurd, you can’t commit violence against a ship. You commit violence against people or animals; you commit violence against individuals who are sentient beings who feel pain and suffer. When someone asked Ghandi if he was a pacifist, he said, “Pacifist? I’ve never been a passive anything.” If somebody has a rifle and they’re about to shoot an animal or a human and you take that rifle out of their hands and break that rifle and make sure that rifle will never be used again, for me that’s 100 per cent an act of nonviolence.

What measures are put in place to prevent any harm coming to the whalers?

What we do is put ourselves on the line by blockading the whaling operations.

We’ve never lost a game of high-seas chicken that we’ve played.

Certainly, if we we’re ever put in a situation where we felt that there was a risk to the lives of the crew of the poaching vessel we were confronting, then we would abort that action.

As the captain, how do you balance the mission with the safety of the crew?

When I leave port, my biggest mission is to return to port with the same number of crew as I left with. As captain, I’m responsible for the safety of the ship and crew but being the captain of a Sea Shepherd ship is a bit different because there is also the responsibility of protecting whales that will be killed if you don’t intervene. What allows me to balance those two things–which at times might seem at odds with one another–is the fact that all of my crew have signed up to take certain risks.

Did you feel like your life and the lives of your crew were actually in danger during this campaign?

When we blocked the refuelling it was definitely the most dangerous position I’ve ever been in. Did I feel like my life was in danger? Not really. I didn’t think anybody on my ship could die. I don’t think I could have lost my life but I most certainly could have lost the ship.

People support Sea Shepherd because we deliver tangible results. Money is hard to make. People work very, very hard and when they decide to give their money to protect something other than themselves, whether it’s animals or children or the elderly or whatever, I think that’s pretty amazing. What I like about Sea Shepherd is we don’t waste that money; that money goes straight to the ships. We can come back from an Antarctic campaign and say 100 per cent, ‘If it wasn’t for your support we would not have been able to go out. You filled up our fuel tanks and as a result, like last year, we saved 763 whales.’ That is a real result.

There’s also the fact that we are upholding laws that the governments of the world should be enforcing. You look at problems like climate change, where everyone realises that there is an issue, everybody knows that the consequences are dire, and yet nothing is being done. So I think people’s faith in governments to solve problems decreases on a daily basis. Throughout history, it has been passionate individuals who change things, not government. Government always jumps on the bandwagon near the end to take credit for the good things that happen, whether it’s the struggle against slavery, or the struggle for women’s liberation or civil rights or labour rights or whatever it may be. I think we represent hope in a world where so many people feel very little.

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Last season saw Sea Shepherd’s most successful whale defence campaign to date, protecting around 900 whales from poachers in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Crews are now busily preparing to make this Summer’s campaign even more successful. Peter Hammarstedt will be touring Australia throughout November to talk about Sea Shepherd’s work in the Southern Ocean and raise funds for the 10th Antarctic campaign, dubbed Operation Relentless.

Information on the event closest to you can be found here.