Book extract: Catching the Thunder - Operation Icefish

Catching the Thunder by Tafelberg.
Catching the Thunder by Tafelberg.

May 2012. After having presented his identification to the security guard, Peter Hammarstedt was led behind the walls of the more than 100-year-old, high security prison Preungesheim. He had been asked to come right away; therefore only a few hours passed from the time he boarded the flight from Stockholm until he was standing before the prison on the outskirts of Frankfurt city centre.

In one of the cells was his boss.

Paul Franklin Watson had been on his way from Denver to the film festival in Cannes, but when he stopped over in Frankfurt, he was taken aside by the German police and placed under arrest. During the almost 40 years that had passed since he founded Sea Shepherd, Watson had had his regular altercations with the law. While in custody, Watson learned that Costa Rica had circulated an arrest warrant for him through Interpol due to a dispute between Sea Shepherd and a shark fishing vessel ten years earlier.

The Sea Shepherd leader was at risk of being extradited to both Costa Rica and Japan. It was the thought of a legal battle in Japan that frightened him the most.

When Watson came out of the cell to meet Hammarstedt, he sat down at the tiny table in the visitors' area and glanced up at the walls, which were decorated with children's drawings. Hammarstedt thought Watson appeared collected and unworried.

"In the time ahead, you will represent me in the media and at all events. If anyone should question it…" Watson pushed a small piece of paper across the table. The text was written in longhand.

"Peter will represent me. Paul Watson."

Hammarstedt was already a loyal veteran. He had taken part in all of Sea Shepherd's large-scale campaigns since 2003. For ten Antarctic summers he had chased Japanese whaling ships through Antarctica, and had spent almost five years at sea. He always obeyed the lines of command and had proven fearless. When he left the prison, Captain Peter Hammarstedt was Sea Shepherd's new front man – the Commander.

After eight days in prison Watson was released on bail in the amount of EUR 250,000 and placed under house arrest in a flat in the Bornheim district of Frankfurt. Every morning at noon he walked over to report to the local police station.

He stepped down from his positions of president of Sea Shepherd USA and the captain of the flagship SS Steve Irwin. Now he had received a tip that Japan wanted him extradited and he was convinced that the nation would not give him a fair trial. There were also rumours circulating that the mafia in Costa Rica had put a price on his head of 25,000 dollars.

Watson killed time in the evenings by walking along the bank of the Main River. And planning his upcoming escape.

One evening in August he shaved off his beard, dyed his chalk-white hair and disappeared in a car over the border to the Netherlands. He felt ill and weak from an infection in his leg, had neither a passport nor a cell phone, and didn't dare use his credit card.

On the coast of the Netherlands Watson was met by the sailboat the Columbus. The Sea Shepherd logo was covered up so the boat wouldn't attract needless attention. After the Columbus had sailed out into the English Channel and onward into the Atlantic Ocean, four months would go by before Paul Watson appeared again in public.

In the Southern Ocean.

When the German police realized that Watson had escaped, Japan also requested that Interpol issue a Red Notice – the type of notice issued for war criminals and murderers. With two Interpol notices hanging over his head, Paul Watson had extremely limited freedom of movement.

In the summer of 2014 Watson lived on a farm in Woodstock, Vermont. This corner of the American dream was owned by the billionaire Pritam Singh, one of the largest property developers in Key West on Florida's southern tip.

There, by chance, he met Paul Watson. Pritam Singh was quickly incorporated into the movement's entourage of high-profile celebrities. He part-financed Sea Shepherd's flagship the Steve Irwin, named after the Australian environmentalist and crocodile hunter, and took the position of vice president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Paul Watson understood the value of connections with celebrities from the business and entertainment worlds. As he expressed it: "With two James Bonds, Batman, Captain Kirk and MacGyver on the board we are invincible."

In Vermont on this warm midsummer evening, Watson was the host of Sea Shepherd's first global conference. The 250 guests, the majority dressed in black, were blessed by local Mohawk Indians. Seminars were held on the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, sharks in China, meditation and veganism – and demonstrations of drones. Captain Peter Hammarstedt gave a lecture on the whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean.

The whale defence movement constituted Sea Shepherd's history and was its signature cause. After having left Greenpeace because he felt the organization was not sufficiently militant, Paul Watson purchased a 20-year-old trawler, christened it the Sea Shepherd and set out to hunt for the whaling vessel the Sierra. The Sierra was an uncannily effective hunter, said to be behind the slaughter of as many as 25,000 whales. When Watson found the ship in the waters between Spain and Morocco, he gouged a three-metre large hole in the hull of the whaling ship with his own bow.

It was a foretaste of what was to come.

In an open letter to the Norwegian people Paul Watson claimed that he had sunk eight ships and damaged eight more. In the letter he also gave an account of the movement's ideology: Sea Shepherd did not submit to anything but what Watson called the laws of nature.

"The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a law-abiding organization. We rigidly adhere to and respect the laws of nature or lex natura. We hold the position that the laws of ecology take precedence over the laws designed by nation states to protect corporate interests … The smell of guilt is already a stench in the nostrils of God," he wrote.

In response to the reality series Whale Wars, which depicted Sea Shepherd's fight against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, the influx of funds and volunteers to the organization increased dramatically. Due to the success of the Animal Planet series, the whaling campaign overshadowed everything else Sea Shepherd did.

Now Peter Hammarstedt wanted to do things differently. During the former expeditions to Antarctica, he often saw gillnet floats that fleets of toothfish poachers had left behind, before disappearing into obscure ports in Southeast Asia. Hammarstedt wanted Sea Shepherd to change its profile, abandon the whaling campaigns and become known as a protector of the untouched Antarctic.

In Vermont, Peter Hammarstedt took Paul Watson by the arm and requested a chat. The UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague had ordered Japan to stop its whaling activities in the Southern Ocean and a portion of the Sea Shepherd fleet was standing idle.

"What do you think about our taking on the hunt for illegal fishermen in Antarctica?" Hammarstedt asked.

"Do you think it's possible to find them?" Watson replied.

"I'm sure of it," Hammarstedt said.

"OK," Watson replied.

Four months later, the captains Peter Hammarstedt and Siddharth "Sid" Chakravarty were sitting in a hotel room in Wellington. Operation Icefish had been publicly announced. Down in the harbour the campaign vessel the Sam Simon was ready to set sail for the Southern Ocean. For weeks Captain Chakravarty had been travelling around visiting ship graveyards in Mumbai in search of parts for the powerful winch he must build on the Sam Simon to haul up the kilometre-long gillnets he expected to find. The Bob Barker, with its large fuel capacity, more powerful engine and a hull reinforced to withstand the ice, would find and pursue the ships.

That was the simple plan.

"For how long will you follow them?" Chakravarty asked.

The question came as a surprise for Hammarstedt. He had no ready answer.

"For however long it takes?" Chakravarty asked.

"Yeah. For however long it takes," Hammarstedt answered.

* Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter were the first to tell the story of the hunt for Thunder in a series of newspaper articles. Both are awardwinning investigative journalists in their own rights, between them winning the SKUP journalism award, the International Reporter's Journalism Award and the Golden Pen, among others. Catching the Thunder is published by Tafelberg.

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