Whaling win hailed by HK crewman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am

He may have been in one of the most inhospitable places in the world, but Hong Kong photographer Gary Stokes could not have been happier.

Stokes, 39, is the campaign photographer on board the Bob Barker, one of three Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ships that successfully stopped a controversial Japanese whaling mission in the seas off Antarctica.

On Friday, Japanese Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano confirmed that harpoon ships were being called home early from the annual hunt 'to ensure the safety of the whaling crew amid the continuing harassment by anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd', public broadcaster NHK said.

Jiji Press quoted Kano as saying of the Nisshin Maru factory ship: 'Even now the mothership is being chased, and it is difficult to ensure the safety of the crew members.' The fleet killed only a fifth of its targeted catch of 850 whales.

Stokes woke on Friday facing a long day ahead as the Bob Barker battled through 10-metre seas and freezing conditions, but he was too happy to care.

'We started hearing early reports that due to our actions the whale hunt had been suspended. The atmosphere aboard the Bob Barker was ecstatic but sceptical,' Stokes said.

'Finally on Friday night, Alex Cornelissen, our captain, announced to the whole crew that it was now official, the Japanese government had ordered the fleet home and that whaling is over this year. The celebrations began onboard. The feeling can only be described akin to what our grandparents must have felt like when they heard the war was over. At first disbelief, then jubilation.

'Being on the front lines, we were one of the last to know, and even now we are still following the Japanese ship Nisshin Maru northwest, just in case they change course and head south again.'

Born in England, Stokes was raised in Malta and Cyprus before heading to Hong Kong in 1990. The Discovery Bay resident worked for years in the food and beverage industry here and is involved with Hemingway's restaurant in Discovery Bay. He is a passionate conservationist - focusing on oceans - and is a qualified dive instructor. This was his first Antarctica trip with Sea Shepherd.

'This trip has been amazing,' he said. 'As I'm the photographer I'm always thrown into all the action. It certainly gets the heart racing.'

Established in 1977, Sea Shepherd is an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organisation. Its mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.

Sea Shepherd has had a string of high-seas clashes with the whaling ships, which it tails and pelts with rancid butter stink bombs, while the Japanese have retaliated with water cannon and military-style sonic weapons.

The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban on whaling, but opponents say they are a cover for commercial whaling because whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan.

'It's all been a bit crazy here onboard for the past few days with the media phones ringing off the hook,' Stokes said.

'Operation: No Compromise is Sea Shepherd's seventh campaign in Antarctica, where we come every December to March to try and stop illegal whaling by the Japanese under the pretence of research.

'This year is our strongest year with three vessels, the Steve Irwin (flagship), Bob Barker (long-range icebreaker)and Gojira (our new fast interceptor).

'We have 88 crewmembers from 23 different countries, most of whom are volunteers who believe passionately that whaling does not belong in the 21st century.'