Intercepting poachers, being on look-out and spending three months in a ship – and all in one trip. Lex Rigby’s trip to the Antarctic was the adventure of her lifetime, as reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.
WHEN Lex Rigby packed for her holidays she didn’t include suntan cream and travellers’ cheques.
She wasn’t going to catch any rays and she certainly wasn’t going near any shops.
Lex, a 28-year-old librarian from Nether Edge, was going to the Antarctic. For three months.
She said: “People were pretty much shocked when I told them I was going to be on a ship for three months sailing to the Antarctic but they were happy for me as it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
She travelled with the Sea Shepherds Conservation Society, a marine conservation organisation founded in 1977 which aims to prevent Japanese whalers from culling whales in the Antarctic.
The charity’s patrons include French former pin-up Bridget Bardot and American TV host Bob Barker, after whom one of the Sea Shepherd’s enormous vessels is named.
“It was amazing,” says Lex. “I lived and worked on the ship for three months and learnt to do things that I never thought I’d do.”
Lex and the other 87 volunteers embarked on Operation Divine Wind, a campaign to try to block whalers from hunting in the Antarctic.
The International Whaling Commission, the regulatory body for whaling, introduced a moratorium on whaling in 1986 but Norway, Japan and Iceland have continued hunting for whales, killing as many as 25,000.
“What Sea Shepherd does is defend the whales in an aggressive but non-violent way, so the Sea Shepherd gets in the way of the Japanese whaling ships and blocks the transfer of whale meat. Whale meat spoils after about 10 hours so it’s a really effective way of deterring whalers.”
But the Japanese whalers are well equipped. Some smaller ships warn the larger whaling vessels of Sea Shepherd’s presence, and as a result they know to avoid going into a certain area.
“It’s like cat and mouse, only across 17,000 miles - that’s how many miles we travelled trying to block the whaling fleet,” says Lex.
The efforts to which the Japanese go to avoid being blocked is not surprising - the Japanese whaling industry is worth about 1.2 billion yen and the industry gives around 30 million of that to the Japanese Government.
But in spite of it being a multi-million yen industry, whale meat isn’t even that good for you, according to Lex.
“It’s really toxic, it’s got a high level of mercury in it too. That’s because the whale is at the apex of the food chain and the higher up you go, the more toxic the meat gets.
“This is because when a creature such as a whale eats another creature, it absorbs the toxins from its prey as well.”
All the volunteers for Operation Divine Wind are vegan.
Lex said: “None of us eat meat because we believe that if we’re protecting one species, it’s not okay to eat another.”
And despite being on a ship for three months, Lex said the cuisine was superb. “We had an Italian and a Frenchman on board so they would cook these delicious food like lasagne and sushi.”
But it wasn’t a glamorous trip.
“I had to wear thermals and a specially-insulated clothes and on deck you wear a special suit that would allow you to survive in the freezing waters for up to 20 minutes. The gear was necessary - temperatures could plummet to about minus 60 degrees Celsius.”
Ironically, the Bob Barker was originally commissioned as a Norwegian whaling vessel in 1950 and was later used as a refuelling bunker on the Ivory Coast.
Such is the size of the ship that it can last three months without needing to be refuelled. “All the whale meat storage areas were converted to fuel tanks - it has nine fuel tanks.”
But even on a huge ship like the Bob Barker, conditions were fierce.
Lex recalled: “Antarctica is a very unforgiving environment. We had horrendous weather, some of the worst in the Sea Shepherd’s history. It is not only the coldest continent but also the driest and windiest.”
The winds meant that at times the ship tilted at a 45 degree angle. “It was unbelievable - but amazingly I wasn’t seasick at any point throughout the campaign.”
And, rather terrifyingly, one of Lex’s jobs was to climb to the top of the mast and watch out for whaling ships.
“I suppose it was spray but the adrenalin is such that you just get on with what you have to do. There were moments when we intercepted ships and the Japanese whalers would try and entangle our propellers in nets but again, you just somehow deal with it.”
As she speaks Lex flicks through a series of images - one shows a giant vessel overlooking a small ship.
“That’s one of the whaling ships – they were equipped with water cannons and they would spray high-pressure water at us to make us move.”
The side of the Japanese whaling ship reads RESEARCH, painted in huge black letters. “That’s the loophole,” says Lex. “If the whaling is in the name of research they can get away with it.
“But the research that these whalers produce isn’t recognised by the scientific community.”
And Lex feels the epic voyage was worth the adrenalin, the cold and the wind - the campaign saved 768 whales.
But there’s still more work to do.
She said: “Our goal is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet economically to make it unviable for them to return.”
And Lex already has her name down for the next campaign. “I would love to go again, it was such an amazing experience.”
Facts about whaling
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was formed in 1977 by Captain Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace.
Watson broke away from Greenpeace in favour of a more direct approach to protect the world’s oceans – directly blocking poachers.
On Operation Divine Wind, the Sea Shepherd vessel chased the whaling fleet a whopping 17,000 miles for three months
They cut the whalers’ culling season short by two weeks.
The species of whale culled by whalers every year include Minke whales, Humpback whales and endangered Fin whales.