Rainbow buccaneers

Thousands of dolphins are killed every year by British and French fishermen using a technique called 'pair trawling'. Now Greenpeace wants the practice banned, and is ambushing the perpetrators on the high seas. Liz Scarff boards the 'MV Esperanza' to watch a risky game of nautical brinkmanship
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The Independent Online

It's a sharp February morning, and a gentle breeze conjures a light swell as the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza heads into the Channel from Falmouth docks. Last-minute preparations are being made: an on-board refrigeration unit for dead dolphins is under construction and the cameraman is fiddling with a "polecam" for capturing underwater footage. With the Cornish coast still in sight, a loud bellow comes down from the starboard wing deck, "Dolphins on the bow." Just three hours after leaving port, a group of around 20 dolphins are riding the waves of the Esperanza's rainbow-painted bow. It's a Flipper moment. The crew lean over the side and ecstatically whoop and cheer as the common dolphins, recognisable by their dark uppers and tan undersides, slice through the waves.

It's a sharp February morning, and a gentle breeze conjures a light swell as the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza heads into the Channel from Falmouth docks. Last-minute preparations are being made: an on-board refrigeration unit for dead dolphins is under construction and the cameraman is fiddling with a "polecam" for capturing underwater footage. With the Cornish coast still in sight, a loud bellow comes down from the starboard wing deck, "Dolphins on the bow." Just three hours after leaving port, a group of around 20 dolphins are riding the waves of the Esperanza's rainbow-painted bow. It's a Flipper moment. The crew lean over the side and ecstatically whoop and cheer as the common dolphins, recognisable by their dark uppers and tan undersides, slice through the waves.

But the Esperanza and crew are not on a dolphin-watching jolly: they're sailing in the English Channel for seven weeks to do everything in their power to stop sea bass pair trawling, a fishing method which kills many dolphins each year. Sarah Duthie, 30, heads up Greenpeace UK's Oceans Campaign Team and, alongside the organisation's Action Team co-coordinator and the Esperanza's captain, this feisty blonde will be calling the shots as to how Greenpeace takes on the trawlers.

Pair trawling for sea bass is not illegal. The problem is the issue of what is known as dolphin "by-catch". Pair trawling involves dragging a net the length of a football pitch between two boats for around six hours. One boat then hauls in the net, inadvertently snagging any dolphins that happen to be in the vicinity. Dolphins are a listed species under the EU Habitat Directive and, last year, Government observers on British sea-bass trawlers recorded 169 dolphin deaths from just two boats alone. Greenpeace estimates that British and French sea bass trawlers are responsible for the deaths of over 2,600 dolphins every year. Last June, based on that evidence, the Government banned sea-bass pair trawlers from fishing an area 12 miles out to sea around the entire British coastline. Greenpeace argues that the impact of the ban is negligible, as the bulk of trawling is done outside this area by French vessels, and it has launched a legal challenge against the Government in the High Court, seeking an outright ban in all British waters. French Greenpeace is pursuing a similar challenge.

At 72m long, the 'MV Esperanza' is a floating, eco-friendly rabbit warren and, for the first few days of my stay on board, I make a speciality of ending up in the media edit suite when I'm after the shower, or stumbling into the engine room when I want to be tucked up in my bunk. I've been assigned to share a cabin with Leon, an amiable Dutchman sailing with Greenpeace for the first time.

"Have you been to sea before?" he enquires. Hmm, does Dover to Calais for cheap plonk and cheese count?

The Esperanza, meaning "hope" in Spanish, was formerly a Russian firefighting ship; the 20-year-old vessel has been re-fitted with new, fuel-efficient diesel engines and on-board re-cycling of waste water. It is the greenest ship in Greenpeace's fleet. With 35 berths, three decks and a helipad, it is also the largest and latest addition. It joins the Rainbow Warrior, a sailing vessel and the Arctic Sunrise, an ice breaker.

Having worked for Greenpeace for six years, this isn't the first time Duthie has been on the Esperanza. She found herself on board last year as Greenpeace, along with the scientists from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), conducted the first winter population survey of whale, dolphin and porpoise species in the western approaches of the English Channel. This year the campaign will involve more direct action to stop the trawlers.

"When I was at university doing an economics and politics degree I'd never have imagined this is the job I'd end up doing," says the roll-up-smoking Duthie. She became involved with human-rights campaigning while studying, and worked for various NGOs before joining Greenpeace, first in her native New Zealand and then in the UK. She has worked on many campaigns.

"The most surreal moment so far was in Antarctica on an anti-whaling campaign when we were on a ship, in the middle of nowhere, hiding behind an iceberg observing a whaling ship," she says. "If we want healthy oceans we need to go out there and make it happen. I could never turn around and go back to not trying."

For the seven weeks of the tour the Esperanza traverses the Channel along a pre-determined route, or transect line, identified by the WDCS scientists. The three scientists on board then record dolphin sightings and their distance and bearing to that line, enabling them to effectively count and establish the dolphin population. All the while the captain, Duthie and other crew position themselves on the bridge and scan the horizon for trawlers while keeping a watchful eye on the radar in case two green dots pop up. Each dot represents a boat, so when two appear moving alongside eachother in a parallel line, it's a sure sign they are pair trawlers.

"It just feels like dolphin soup out there," says Duthie sadly as her eyes scan the horizon for trawlers, "I saw quite a lot of dead dolphins last year but I still find it shocking. We've even found dolphins with their stomachs slashed open in an attempt to make them sink."

Information is the key to tracking the pair trawlers and this comes from all quarters. "We talk to lots of people," she says conspiratorially, "and sometimes we do get phone calls." Couple this with the spotter plane deployed to search the Channel and it all adds up to a slick, well-financed operation.

The Greenpeace story began in 1971 when a group of anti-war protesters took non-violent action against US nuclear weapons testing in Amchitka, Alaska. They chartered a fishing vessel and re-named her Greenpeace. The US subsequently abandoned testing in the Amchitka and Greenpeace was born. The charity now boasts 2.8 million members worldwide. In 2003 it reportedly raised £8.4m in donations. Greenpeace is currently involved in action against global warming, GM crops, whaling and illegal logging.

But even the slickest operation can't magic trawlers out of thin air, and waiting is the name of the game. As the weather picks up on our second day at sea, I begin to walk with a "ship-shape shuffle" - with one step forward comes two steps sideways, then an occasional, lunge to starboard throws you two steps back again. I also learn that the best way to ascertain my chance of seeing some action is to apply the on-board knitting equation. Increased needle clacking equals a slow day, and right now, knitting fever is threatening to become an epidemic. Duthie has even put a call into New Zealand to get a particularly good hat pattern.

The Esperanza is organised like any other ship: captain, first, second, third mate and so on. Most of the crew are adept at multi-tasking. "Like the A-Team we can make anything - except perhaps the cabbage throwing machine," boasts one member of the Action Team. A blackboard in the mess keeps the crew up to date with the daily dolphin sightings and any pair trawlers that have been spotted. There are rules to adhere to. Illegal drugs are banned and everybody on board must be familiar with man overboard and fire procedures. The daily wake-up call is at 7.30 and breakfast is over by eight - expect the wrath of those on mess-cleaning duty it you are late. The ship's galley is run by a Frenchman called Loic. Everything in it is strapped down. "When it gets choppy I will cook pasta. It is easier," he says. A sign over the toaster reads, "Hey you, your mother doesn't live here. Clean up after yourselves."

Loic prepares lunch at one and dinner at six. At dinnertime, the more seasoned team-members demonstrate the art of rough-weather eating. This entails a one-armed plate hug, which not only ensures your dinner doesn't slide away from you, but also leaves a hand free to ensnare forkfuls.

The rest of the evening is spent in the lounge sinking beers and swapping stories. A veteran cameraman recalls an incident when an Action Team was stealthily approaching a chemical plant. After crawling on their bellies and scaling fences, the cameraman turned to the slightly rotund TV researcher to ask if she engaged in this sort of filming often. "No, I only left Songs of Praise last week," came the shaky reply.

The crew is a cosmopolitan bunch with eight different nationalities and ages ranging from early twenties to over 50, with a mix of backgrounds including military and medical. Most insist that they are not hippies. The cabins are surprisingly comfy; the bathrooms boast power showers and there is even an onboard sauna. Reading material in each toilet is a booklet lashed to a pipe entitled, How to Survive at Sea. With the seas still choppy at bedtime, I feel like I'm being rocked to sleep by an over-enthusiastic, slightly vindictive older sibling.

"Trawlers coming together, we need the boat away now," Sarah's urgent Tannoy announcement echoes around the entire ship. It's break time on our third day at sea and the crew in the mess hastily abandon cups of tea and toast, and cigarettes are stubbed out as everybody scrambles to help lower the "ribs" (rigid inflatable boats) into the water. Two French trawlers have popped up on the radar and are about to haul their nets. Part of the Greenpeace philosophy is based on the old Quaker principle of bearing witness, so as well as talking to the boats' skippers, it's imperative that the ribs reach the trawlers quickly so they can witness them hauling.

Down on the poop deck, in the wet room, the Action Team, campaigners, cameraman and photographer are all scrambling to pull on cumbersome, bright orange boat suits, wellies and life-jackets. Then the pilot door on the port side of the Esperanza is opened and the wooden ladder extended down towards the sea. The African Queen, one of the ribs, is bobbing alongside the door ready for action. One by one, in quick succession, like skydivers leaping out of a plane, myself and the Michelin-suited activists exit the ship via the ladder.

I'm joined in the "press" boat by a Greenpeace photographer, a cameraman, Duthie and two other crew members who are responsible for driving and navigating the rib. On board are sandwiches and flasks of hot chocolate essential for long trips. "Last year we were out in a rib for 11 hours," Duthie tells me. Our boat roars off towards the trawlers and is closely followed by Greenpeace's second rib, carrying members of the Action Team. The sea is choppy and the boat bounces over waves, smacking back down and leaving me momentarily suspended in the air. As I land back on my seat, a cold spray of seawater is slung into my face. It's undeniably exhilarating, but the Greenpeace team are ready for a more serious high-adrenalin encounter.

"When you go out in a rib into the middle of the sea, and all you have are waves and birds around you, climbing in a boat suit up the pilot ladder and on to a trawler is not easy to do," says Sarah, "especially if you have a big swell. You never know what sort of reception you are going to get. The first time I did it, I got half way up the ladder and thought, 'God, what am I doing?'"

When we reach the French trawlers I'm surprised at how small they are - around 15 metres. But they are smooth operators and have already completed their haul by the time we arrive, so we turn back.

A day later, one of the journalists on board spots a dead dolphin floating in the water. The crew haul it out of the sea and examine its injuries. These are consistent with the creature having died in a fishing net.

The main responsibility for organising operations from the Esperanza lies with Frank Heweston, 39, the Action Team coordinator. "A lot of what I do, whether it's action at sea or on dry land, is planning, researching and getting the right people. Establishing when to make our move and how to gain entry to wherever it may be. There are certain fads that go through direct action. Sit-down protests with locked arms used to be the thing but the police have got on top of that." Frank has been with Greenpeace for 14 years and cites his previous experience in organising warehouse raves as an excellent training ground in logistics.

As he talks about the numbers of Greenpeace widows left at home, it becomes apparent that working for the organisation is not just a job, it's a way of life. "I couldn't do this without the support of my wife, Nina, and two children. This is the second time I have missed my son Jo's birthday and that hurts."

Leaving family behind is not the only sacrifice; being arrested is also a real possibility. Nena Osmers, 29, is on board as a deckhand, but as a trained nurse she also doubles as the ship's medic. Osmers was arrested while on an action in Alaska, against a logging company. "It does bother me but I am in the lucky situation where it might not affect my professional career. I do not like to be arrested but sometimes you cannot avoid it. You reach a point where you have to decide it is morally right to insist on certain opinions, even if that involves civil disobedience." She first started working with Greenpeace in Germany and this is her third campaign. Others have seen her climbing on to cranes and hiding deep in the forest, clad in camouflage gear, for Greenpeace's anti-logging campaign. "It is good to have women in these situations," she says, "because they can defuse situations, especially with a male crew."

Nine days out from Falmouth, the team sees its first action, against the Scottish trawlers Ocean Star and Ocean Crest. They drop two swimmers in the water in front of one trawler, waving banners emblazoned with the slogan, "Stop killing dolphins". The swimmers, clad in dry suits, are swept away by the ship's wake. Duthie remains on the Esperanza's bridge explaining over the radio to the boats' skippers why they are taking action.

"The Government has an obligation to protect dolphins under the EU Habitats Directive," she says later, "The time has come to shut down the fishery. They can't just go on researching the issue and trying out mitigation devices like the separator grid [a device designed to allow dolphins to swim upwards and out of the net]."

With six weeks of the campaign left it will not be the last time Greenpeace put swimmers into the water. "I think change happens slowly," says Sarah. "You have to look at the little steps along the way. It's a waiting game," she shrugs, "but we have all the time in the world."

A week after arriving back on dry land, I drive to Plymouth docks to meet Brian Tate, the owner of both the Ocean Star and the Ocean Crest. His stumpy blue trawlers are moored next to each other and the crew are bustling around re-fuelling, getting ready to begin fishing again.

He explains that his boats have been trying to address the dolphin by-catch problem. For the past five years, they have been working with the Government's Sea Mammal Research Unit - they have allowed independent observers on board and are trialling a separator grid. "We don't want to catch dolphins," says Tate, "we had the grid in last year and this year we've had the camera working and we've seen dolphins swimming out. I'm not saying it is 100 per cent, but we are getting there."

Alice Mackay, from the Sea Mammal Research Unit adds, "We can reduce the numbers of animals being caught. Unfortunately with by-catch it is unlikely ever to be brought to zero, but it looks promising and we are on track to find a solution." Both Tate and Mackay will not reveal the numbers of dolphins caught this year. Tate and his rotating crew of eight fish for sea bass seven months of the year, and with loans out on both of his boats a total ban would bankrupt him.

"I used to be proud to say I was a fisherman," Tate's voice trails off as he looks down, shaking his head. Although Tate was not on board when Greenpeace put the two swimmers in front of the Ocean Star, he was in radio contact with them. "The skipper on board was shaken," says Tate angrily. "He had no idea that they were going to do that. It is very intimidating when our boats are followed."

Meanwhile, out in the Channel the Esperanza's nautical game of cat and mouse is set to continue.