Sea Shepherd is an international direct-action ocean conservation movement fighting to protect all marine creatures and habitat destruction of the world’s oceans. Established in 1977 by Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd now has 20 independent institutions around the globe.
With campaigns ranging from stopping illegal fishing in West Africa to defending the Great Australian Bight from oil companies, Defend, Conserve, Protect focuses on the Antarctic Whale Defence Campaign. The ninth campaign, Operation Zero Tolerance, took place during 2012-2013 and was the largest campaign yet, with more than 120 crew representing 20 nations on four vessels: The Steve Irwin, Bob Barker, Brigette Bardot and Sam Simon. With the mission caught on camera, the crew spent 70 days in the grips of the rough and unforgiving Southern Ocean.
Defend, Conserve, Protect is fresh from winning Best International Feature Documentary at the American Documentary Film Festival. Narrated by Dan Aykroyd, who gives a voice to the whales, it captures the thrilling chase of the Sea Shepherd fleet trying to track down the Japanese whaling fleet which consists of the 8000-tonne factory vessel Nisshin Maru, Nisshin Maru 2 and the fuel tanker, Sun Laurel. At the heart of the passionate eco-activists is Captain Peter Hammarstedt of the Bob Barker. Hammarstedt leads this epic battle in the freezing Antarctic ocean, carrying with him the determination of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab––except he’s pursuing the hunters not the whales.
Grok sat down with the film’s director, Stephen Amis, at Luna Leederville and discussed the making of the film, its challenges, illegal whaling in Antarctica and the world’s environmental crisis.
Born in Melbourne, Amis has always been interested in the arts with his mind set on making films since he was 10 years old. “My mum took me to see Star Wars, of all things and on the way back I just started plotting and planning how I would make my own film,” he says. Dreams for a future filled with film took off from there.
Amis has made movies his entire life. Some may have seen his 2012 sci-fi film The 25th Reich or may be familiar with the (2018) The BBQ. However, Defend, Conserve, Protect addresses a more pressing matter. Taking archival footage from Sea Shepherd and combining it with new underwater footage and interviews, Amis—as director, producer, writer and editor—has created a thrilling battle between the Sea Shepherd crew and the Japanese whaling fleet against Antarctica’s beautiful but hostile environment. Sea Shepherd’s cameras and Go Pros have captured dramatic moments and decisions that are sure to have you paralysed in your seat with your heart racing.
Amis had already been producing some of Sea Shepherd’s commercials and videos—knowing his background in film they approached him to discuss options for a feature film. “Sea Shepherd have always been making films in the US and Europe but the Australian part of the organisation hadn’t really made anything of that size yet. We got talking and that was the beginning of it really,” he says.
Using this never-before-seen campaign footage provides an insight into one of Sea Shepherd’s historical missions and shows just how intense and emotional the journey to the end of the Earth is. The volunteers are risking their lives for the Minke whales, but Amis says the film is about a lot more than just saving a species.
“What I like about this film, is it’s not so much about the whales—as much as that is an important focus—for me personally, what gives it its power is activism.”
With so much new and archival footage the production team ended up with more than 1000 hours of material to use for the film. A huge four-year effort, Amis spent at least one year going through the footage to get it into a workable form, before eventually cutting it down to the finalised running time of 76 minutes.
“It was a big effort and the biggest editing job I’ve ever come up against, compared to a normal feature where you might end up with 50 to 100 hours,” he says.
Amis shot the underwater footage off the Great Barrier Reef with wildlife photographers Dean Miller and Rory McGuinness. The three of them got up close and personal with the Minkes before they migrated down the east of Australia headed to Antarctica. “The Minke whales are beautiful, just spectacular. They were very curious and inquisitive, it really was an amazing experience.”
Amis says that the massive editing and technical work, along with ensuring the narrative of the film would make sense to the audience, were some of the biggest challenges. “As a film maker, it’s really trying to get the story coherent. With a documentary, particularly with one that’s been mostly shot, it’s How do you get this to work as a narrative? How do you transcend it [being more than] simply just a documentary?” Amis wanted this film to be an emotional and inspirational feat, to cause the audience to walk out of the cinema not only thinking about what they just watched but feeling it too.
“It’s been great, at some of the screenings people have been in tears, that was the objective, to really make people feel,” he says.
The Japanese whale hunters disguise themselves as research boats, taking samples of whales for scientific purposes––of course this isn’t true. Sea Shepherd and the Australian Government say this is a cover to hide their actual intentions of commercial whaling. Venturing into Australian waters of the south-pole, the Nisshin Maru and its fleet are on the hunt to kill the protected Minke whales in the world’s only international whale sanctuary. Japan’s Whaling Association estimates the hunting of whales to have begun in the 12th century, however, industrial Japanese whaling didn’t take off until the 1890s. The country has argued it is entitled to continue whaling activities because the practice holds important cultural heritage. Whale meat is sold in restaurants and shops; in the past all parts of the whale were used, unlike Western hunters who killed the majestic mammals purely for their oil. When asked for his opinion on the illegal whaling in Antarctica he immediately replies, “It’s terrible, they shouldn’t be there. Throughout history whales have always played a key role in maintaining climate control and that mechanism is damaged now. It was called the whale pump: they used to bring nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the top and it would help regulate climate and that’s just not happening the way it used to.”
Considering the footage from this film is now six years old, the Japanese have since made some announcements. In December 2018, they announced an end to their so-called ‘research’ whaling in the Southern Ocean. The Japanese have now quit the International Whaling Commission and just this month—after a 30-year break—they have unfortunately restarted commercial whaling in their own waters.
With the Nisshin Maru set to sail again, will Sea Shepherd continue their fight and embark on another cat-and-mouse chase?
One thing filmmaker Stephen Amis knows for sure is that we are in the most critical time of human history, we need to start maintaining the environment and its creatures—not destroying it.
“What I would love for the audience to feel is the importance of activism. The environment is really on a bit of a precipice and it’s up to all of us to make fundamental change,” says Amis.
“I think Defend, Conserve, Protect shows how people can do that and yeah you got to change your ways and take a risk, but it’s possible to go out and make a difference.”
Defend, Conserve, Protect was made possible due to a global crowd-funding campaign with more than 750 environmentalists pledged funds. The film is in cinemas today, July 25th!