Izumi Stephens, the Bainbridge Island woman who traveled to the Antarctic to defend whales against Japanese whalers, has ridden an emotional roller-coaster during her first 40 days at sea.
One thing Izumi has learned is that the sight of a humpback whale can lift her spirits, she told me today by satellite phone from the Southern Ocean.
A native of Japan, this single mom signed on with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as a translator. She is serving aboard the Steve Irwin, which is part of a three-vessel anti-whaling fleet in pursuit of four Japanese whaling ships. (Check out previous descriptions of Izumi in the Kitsap Sun Oct. 31 and Water Ways Nov. 1.)
The Steve Irwin left Hobart, Australia, on Dec. 2. Izumi was at sea about three weeks — having survived a bout of severe sea sickness as well as homesickness — when she spotted a massive humpback whale off the side of the ship.
“Before I saw a whale, I was desperately wanting to see my daughter and go back home, and I wanted to touch my dogs,” she told me. “Then I saw a whale, and I think my determination and motivation and everything caught up with me.”
She still misses her children, her friends and her community, she says, but seeing that first whale reminded her why she had joined the battle in the first place.
“I’m doing this for the whales and our future and our community,” she told me, “and I’m so proud.”
Spending weeks at sea is an experience like nothing she has ever faced before, Izumi said. She takes her turn at mopping floors, washing dishes and cleaning toilets. She has used her language skills on only a few occasions — mostly to speak to Japanese reporters covering the story and updating Sea Shepherd’s new Japanese-language website.
Watching whales swimming in the ocean has brought real meaning
to the anti-whaling campaign, she said. A day or two after that
first sighting, Sea Shepherd faced its first encounter with the
Japanese whaling fleet.
It was New Year’s Day, and all three vessels in the Sea Shepherd fleet were tailing the Japanese processing ship, the Nisshin Maru. As the vessels moved through large chunks of floating ice, the three Japanese harpoon ships tried to block the way so that the Nisshin could get far ahead. The pursuing ships were slowed but able to get by.
“There were very dangerous blocks of ice everywhere,” Izumi said. “It was a scary moment. I was here on the bridge, and I saw the beautiful sky and the crisp air. It was like a scene in a movie, and I still can’t believe it is reality.”
So far, the Sea Shepherd has had no need to hail the Japanese crews, but Izumi could be called into action at any moment. As I write this on Friday, the Sea Shepherd fleet is following a tanker ship just outside the Antarctic Treaty Zone. The current strategy is to keep the Japanese vessels from refueling from the Korean-owned tanker Sun Laurel. Apparently, nobody on board speaks Japanese, or perhaps they are simply refusing to respond to Izumi’s radio calls.
“Life here is inconvenient,” Izumi told me, “but the people are so nice, and they have a passion, and that makes a difference.”
I asked her if she had been filmed by the crew working on the television show “Whale Wars,” which is scheduled to enter its fourth season this summer on the Animal Planet network.
“They’re here right now shooting me,” she said as we spoke on the phone.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether any shots of
Izumi survive the production process and make it to the television
Here are the actions reported so far by Sea Shepherd since leaving Hobart on Dec. 2:
Tuesday, Dec. 2: Sea Shepherd leaves Hobart with two vessels: Steve Irwin, the longstanding command ship, and Bob Barker, a faster ship added last year. The newly added Gojira, a monohull trimaran capable of 24 knots, is enroute from Western Australian to join them. This year, Sea Shepherd is deploying a faster, longer-range helicopter capable of carrying more people.
Wednesday, Dec. 10: Steve Irwin arrives in
Wellington, New Zealand, for a four-day celebration and send-off
for the anti-whaling crew. The ship takes on a maximum load of fuel
for the ship and helicopter along with a ton of donated supplies.
The ship leaves at noon on Tuesday, Dec. 14.
Saturday, Jan. 1: The three Japanese harpoon ships attempt to block all three Sea Shepherd ships from pursuing the factory ship Nisshin Maru through the ice. Clashes involve high-speed chases and near-collisions. The whalers fire their water canons, while Sea Shepherd crew members toss stink bombs.
Wednesday, Jan. 5: Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd orders a pontoon boat to go after the harpoon ship Yushin Maru 2, which he claims is fast approaching and possibly threatening the Gojira as it tries to refuel. Those aboard the small boat are able to toss several stink bombs onto the harpooner’s deck while attempting to tangle a rope into its propeller. The Institute of Cetacean Research, which represents the Japanese fleet, releases this short video, complaining of the Sea Shepherd attacks.
Friday, Jan. 7: Two of the harpoon boats, Yushin Maru 2 and Yushin Maru 3 continue to tail Sea Shepherd’s large vessels, which are trying to catch up with the factory ship, Nisshin Maru. The faster Gojiro goes ahead to look for the Nisshin Maru and begins deploying a new tool — high-altitude weather balloons equipped with cameras and radar to search large areas for the factory ship.
Sunday, Jan. 9: The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research claims Sea Shepherd threw a flash-bang grenade and releases a video that shows a flame on the side of Yushin Maru 2. Sea Shepherd denies ever using such “dangerous weapons” in retaliation, saying they are stink bombs and smoke bombs.
Wednesday, Jan. 12: Sea Shepherd announces that it has located the supply ship for the Japanese fleet. It is said to be a Korean-owned, Panamanian-registered tanker named Sun Laurel. Said Watson, “We have found the Achilles heel of the whale fleet, and we intend to stay on it like a bloodhound and keep this ship from delivering fuel and supplies to the whaling fleet.”
Thursday, Jan. 13: Sea Shepherd advises the Sun Laurel that it is a violation of the Antarctic Treaty to refuel vessels in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The captain of the Sun Laurel reportedly agrees to leave the sanctuary by heading north across the 60th parallel.
Friday, Jan. 14: The Sun Laurel is now north of the 60-degree line, still being followed by the Steve Irwin and Bob Barker. Yushin Maru 1 replaces Yushin Maru 2 behind the Steve Irwin, meaning all three harpoon ships are within sight of the Sea Shepherd vessels. Because of the close proximity of the harpoon ships and speed of travel so far this year, few if any whales have been killed by the Japanese, Watson says, adding that a third of the hunting season is now over.