Posted: 1st March 2017 | Written by: Captain Mark Russell
With a degree in Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology from the University of Plymouth, marine wildlife has been a passion of mine for many years.
In early 2015, Sea Shepherd announced that they were building a new custom patrol vessel in Antalya, Turkey, thanks to the generosity of Dutch Postcode Lottery Dream Project fund. I love the design of these vessels and immediately I wanted to get involved in the build and crewing of this new addition to the fleet.
I contacted Sea Shepherd to find out what they needed but unfortunately the timing wasn’t right for me. They said they’d keep me on file and I thought no more about it until, out of the blue, they contacted me in October 2016 to ask if I would be available as a delivery captain.
The mission was to take one of their larger vessels, the 56m motor yacht Sam Simon, from Italy to the Gulf of California in Mexico to support ongoing work to protect the few remaining Vaquita porpoises from imminent extinction.
I was to join the ship in La Spezia and move her up the coast to Genoa for final preparations ahead of the 7,700 mile trip. Cruising at just over 10 knots this would take around five weeks, with a day to bunker in Gibraltar and a day or two to transit the Panama Canal and take on new crew, victuals and more fuel.
The Sam Simon was originally built as a research vessel in Japan in 1993 and was used primarily for the collection of meteorological data. With a gross tonnage of 720, she’s an all steel construction with a single screw CCP (controllable pitch propeller) and bow thruster.
I was a little out of my comfort zone being more used to fixed twin screw propulsion, with my hands firmly on the controls. On this vessel I was to stand on the bridge wing and relay commands verbally to the helmsman who was inside the wheelhouse several meters away, with her hands on the controls, and the harbor pilot standing next to me observing it all.
This first trip went well and we proceeded to make plans for my return in a few weeks’ time to deliver the ship and 24 crew safely to California.
Crewing the Sam Simon
The bridge team consisted of me as captain and a 1st and 2nd officer, each paired with a quarter master for one of the three watch systems during the voyage.
The engineering team consisted of the chief engineer and a 2nd engineer (also an experienced chief engineer unlimited), four further engineers and an ETO, as a vessel with this age and equipment is labor intense.
We also had five deck crew lead by the bosun and bosun’s mate and later took on four additional crew members in Panama to help with the final preparations for the upcoming campaign in the Sea of Cortes.
Last but not least, we had a head cook and a 2nd cook, catering entirely vegan, which is mandatory for all crew on board Sea Shepherd’s vessels in support of animal welfare. It was my first experience of a vegan or even a vegetarian diet but it wasn’t a problem - I was very well fed, although I had my fill of tofu! Sea Shepherd’s vessels are also free of smoking and alcohol but that’s fairly standard on luxury yachts too these days.
Sea Shepherd is largely made up of volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to the cause of marine conservation and on this trip there were several couples who had already participated in multiple campaigns in the Southern Ocean.
The organization relies entirely on the donations and good will of the public, which has increased considerably in the wake of TV programs such as Whale Wars. Many of the crew were on board as a direct result, myself included.
Underway: Genoa to the Gulf of California
Our departure from Porto Antico in Genoa was delayed while we waited for a new hot water boiler to arrive. This had been quite an inconvenience for the crew, being berthed in port during a chilly autumn with no hot showers for a couple of months.
A couple of the local Italian ground crew were busy driving around the country trying to track down a replacement, while another volunteer had driven up to Amsterdam and back to collect a large donation of vegan chocolate from a manufacturer there. According to the cook ‘Vego’ is the holy grail of vegan chocolate.
With such a diverse range of experience on board, we spent the first three weeks doing safety training to get everybody to a reasonable level of competence and confidence in their emergency procedures, either as part of the first aid team, boundary cooling team, BA team or on other duties.
We finally departed Genoa at 20:00 hours, heading into the black night and a 3m head sea on the first leg of the voyage to the Gulf of California. It was a bit of a rough start for the crew, several of whom had never been to sea before, so they were warned to take seas sickness tablets.
Heavy Winds & the Golf of Lyon
As we headed south through the Ligurian Sea the outlook was very poor with strong winds forecast for the next 10 days, with a small window of slightly better conditions if we left right away, otherwise we might have been delayed for a further two weeks. We slogged it down to the Porquerolles against head seas all the way and anchored up for a few hours to give the propeller a good clean as our RPMs and speed were well under the curve. This made a big difference and gained us a couple of knots.
With 6m seas and Beaufort 8-9 winds forecast in the Golf de Lyon, I shaped a U shaped course to avoid the worst of it, but that night we logged 65 knots of wind (hurricane strength). Although the ship was built for the open ocean and for heavy seas, and light on fuel with no stabilizer fins and the anti rolling tank empty of fuel, I felt it best to be cautious.
By staying away from the middle of the Golf we made it safely past this hurdle without incident and the weather started to improve as we came through with the remaining wind and sea pushing us along. The rest of the voyage was much smoother by comparison, with force 3-6 trade winds pushing us along with following seas adding an extra knot or two.
Off the Central American coast the water was smooth as glass for the most part, allowing us to observe the prolific marine life including whales, huge pods of spinner dolphin, turtles, and manta rays.
Thanks to the sharp eyes of the bridge watch teams, on two occasions we spotted and saved turtles that had become trapped in flotsam, one off the coast of Mexico tangled in some old rope and another off the coast of Costa Rica tangled in an old life jacket.
We sent the information ashore along with the IMO number printed on it. The ship name and home port was written in Chinese or another Asian language which none of us could read. Perhaps it was wreckage from a missing ship or just discarded rubbish, we never found out, but freeing the turtles was a great morale booster for the crew; all of us were here to protect marine life.
In the northern end of the Gulf of California, known as the Sea of Cortes, the once mighty Colorado River now discharges only a small volume of fresh water into the sea. So many states of the USA divert the flow of water for residential and industrial use that, by the time the river reaches the Sea of Cortes, the flow is a fraction of what it was 80 years ago.
Along with illegal fishing in the area, this has pushed the Vaquita porpoise to the very edge of extinction with estimates of only 40 - 60 individuals left in the whole world. The Vaquita porpoise is the smallest of only six known species of porpoise, nicknamed the Panda of the Sea, and it is found only here.
The problem of illegal fishing has been known for some time and the Mexican government has set up several protection areas for the Vaquita within a marine park. However, the problem persists and, with more and more Vaquita drowning in illegal fishing nets every month, more had to be done.
A major factor is the Totoaba, a local variety of giant Sea Bass which grows to over one meter in length. The dried swim bladders of these fish are illegally exported to China where they can fetch up to 20,000 US dollars per kilo. The Totoaba is a protected species in Mexico but rich rewards are too great a lure for the local fisherman. They lay their nets at night and return to haul their catch a few days later, often abandoning their nets in the water, but these ‘ghost nets’ continue to trap and kill marine life for years to come.
Vaquita porpoises need to surface regularly to breathe so if they get trapped in a net they eventually die by drowning. Other species found dead in these nets include a massive great white shark, sea turtles, Totoaba and numerous smaller fish.
Sea Shepherd has been operating in the area for a few years now, trying to prevent illegal fishing, raise awareness of the problems it causes, and recover as many of these ghost nets as possible. Dozens of nets have been removed from the sea preventing future harm and, wherever possible, trapped marine life has been freed before it dies. Some of the species saved in recent years include a hump back whale, numerous turtles, fish and invertebrates.
There is an odd micro climate in the North of the Gulf with a 6-7 meter tidal range compared to less than a meter a little further south, as well as tidal streams of up to 6 knots and wide fluctuations in seasonal temperatures.
The Gulf is also known for the appearance of large red tides caused by algae blooms, first noted by the Spanish explorers in the 17th century. These algae are highly toxic to marine life, including dolphins, but curiously the Vaquita porpoise has managed to thrive in this environment so it must have adapted or evolved to survive these blooms.
The large tidal range allows the fishermen to operate on the large mud flats formed when the tide goes out where there they lay their nets regardless of the danger to themselves. Unfortunately, from time to time, the poachers get stuck in the thick, deep mud and drown in much the same way as the Vaquita.
The day before the Sam Simon had arrived in the Sea of Cortes, the Sea Shepherd vessel we were on our way to support, the motor yacht Farley Mowat had had a great success. They had notified the Mexican Navy of poaching vessels laying nets in the area. The fishermen tried to disperse and get away but they were tracked by the Farley Mowat who led the navy in to arrest them.
The Farley Mowat is well suited to this type of task. Originally built as a 34m US Coast Guard patrol boat, she is fast with speeds over 25 knots and a shallow draft of around 2.5m. The local waters are poorly charted and the Sam Simon, with a draft of nearly 5m and much slower, is more suited as an operational base, but they will complement each other well.
With the use of modern technology such as aerial drones equipped with night vision and closer cooperation between the Mexican Navy, Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups, it is hoped that the Totoaba and Vaquita can be saved before it is too late.
As I flew home at the end of the voyage from Hermosillo to Los Angeles, the small air craft flew along the eastern coast of the Gulf and I was able to observe the low cloud formations over the area where the Colorado River enters the Sea of Cortes, mixing the cold mountain water with the warmer sea.
Reflecting on all that I had seen and learned, the objective seemed more achievable now than ever before. The President of Mexico has since visited the area and personally voiced his support for these conservation efforts and, if these measures are maintained long enough to allow these endangered species to recover, there’s real hope that one day they can be removed from the critically endangered list.
*Image Credits: Mark Russell; Giacomo Giorgi/Sea Shepherd Global