DANGERS AT HIGH SEAS: MEET CAPTAIN JASPAL OBEROI OF THE SEA SHEPHERD AND HIS INCREDIBLE JOURNEY TO SAVE THE OCEANS
SPOTLIGHT | WORLD OCEANS DAY
“If the oceans die. We die,” Paul Watson, Founder — Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd.
The world’s oceans are beseeching. The life revolting against the tyranny of manmade sixth mass extinction. A crisis so existential and cataclysmic that if one were to truly comprehend the speed at which earth’s species are dying, one would be more than just alarmed. One would be militant — about protecting the Mother.
Our search for eco-warriors this Oceans Day led us to an outlandish clique of seafarers whose love for the oceans was a callsign for the legendary. They are called the ‘Sea Shepherd.’
The name ‘Sea Shepherd’ inspires confidence, passion and respect in a world far exhausted by passive dissent and keyboard activism. Established in 1977, the group uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas. The group has an illustrious past.
The NGO also has the world’s largest private navy with 11 seafaring vessels and other smaller boats.
TheVibe reached out to Captain Jaspal Oberoi, the only Indian currently serving with the Sea Shepherd, and who has captained some of the most inspiring and dynamic conservation missions in recent times. Here are the reveals from a telling interview.
“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it,” Jonathan Winters.
A MAN OF THE SEA
Captain Jaspal Oberoi was drawn to the lure of blue waters early. He reveals, “Soon after my schooling, I had joined a pre-sea training course for two years. At 19, I started sailing on oil tankers.” The seas in his own words “had a strangely energising effect” on him. “Fast forward 18 years — having sailed as Captain for a few years, I realised this was not the life I wanted to continue to pursue. I had two little daughters by this time, and I wanted them to see that it is possible to live a happy life, if you just follow your heart.” A change of heart saw him incongruent with enabling the fossil fuel industry. “On March of 2015, I decided to quit sailing as Captain on oil tankers, in the pursuit of something more meaningful.”
This was when he first came across the Sea Shepherds by his friend Siddharth Chakravarty. Captain Siddharth was the only Indian working with Sea Shepherd at the time. (He has since moved on to other equally important things.) “I had been watching from the sidelines, the wonderful work SS was doing to defend, conserve and protect our oceans. Following the work of SS had also made me realise just how important it is to protect the oceans,” explains the now Captain of the M/V White Holly — a 421-ton vessel which once served the US Navy during WWII in Pearl Harbour delivering ammunition to naval vessels. Jaspal found his calling and soon joined the bandwagon at Sea Shepherds.
THE FIRST MISSION: OPERATION GOOD PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN
“In September of 2017, when the Caribbean islands were hit by two hurricanes (Irma and Maria) Sea Shepherd decided to scramble a quick response mission to bring relief supplies to these islands. This was when they reached out to me to Captain the M/V John Paul DeJoria for Operation Good Pirates of the Caribbean,” reveals Captain Jaspal who has been at the high seas for over two decades now.
The M/V John Paul Dejoria, a cutter-class vessel runs direct action campaigns against illegal fishing activities the world over. “I was thrilled to have this opportunity, not only to lead a humanitarian operation but to do it with an organisation that I had so much respect for,” explains Captain Oberoi.
#OpGoodPirates was hugely successful, with Sea Shepherds running supplies weighing 38,000 Kg (of food, water, blankets, tarps, pet food, medicines, generators and tents) to various islands of the Caribbean.
Describing an incident that proved to be life-changing, Captain Jaspal reveals how he met Flavia, a resident of the Dominican Islands. “After losing everything she owned in the hurricane when we were giving her food supplies from our ship, the only thing she kept asking me was if we have enough food for ourselves! The resilience and compassion displayed by these people gave me so much hope for the future.” The human-interest stories from the mission would change everybody’s lives.
OPERATION MILAGRO V: DANGERS ON THE HIGH SEAS
Following the operation, the Captain ran a tech company for a year, before Sea Shepherd reached out to him again. This time, it was to be a part of Operation Milagro V. The Milagro campaign in the fifth year, was organised to protect the most critically endangered marine mammal, the Vaquita Porpoise.
The Vaquitas are only found in the Sea of Cortez, in Mexico. There are only about 6 to 22 Vaquitas remaining alive today.
These few numbers are only alive because of the hard work that the Sea Shepherds have been doing for the last five years, pulling up illegal gill nets from the sea, night and day. These illegal gill nets, that are put out by poachers are meant to catch Totoaba fish, whose swim bladders sell for tens of thousands of dollars in China. The Vaquitas are caught in these nets as unwanted bycatch. The situation in San Felipe, which is where the operation is run from, is quite precarious.
Reveals Captain Jaspal. “The Totoaba poachers lose millions of dollars every year, because of the Sea Shepherd crew present there, so our lives are usually at risk. We are not allowed to go into town except to buy food and other important supplies, and that too usually with guards accompanying us. The Mexican government keeps armed military personnel on our ships, for our protection.”
The group has singlehandedly removed about 101 miles of illegal fishing gear, saved 3069 animals, including a humpback whale, 21 sharks, and 88 of the most critically endangered totoaba fish. Thanks to their lone initiative, the poachers lost short of a million dollars on their operations.
Describing a heart-wrenching moment while on the mission, the Captain shares, “It was when we pulled up an illegal net which had 57 dead sharks in it. The most emotional moment for me, though, was when we saved a Bat Eagle Ray from one of the nets.”
He explains, “I happened to be on deck at the time and our marine biologist asked me for help with keeping the animal calm, while she freed her from the net. She asked me to place my hand over the animal’s eyes and I felt her breathing relax as soon as I did that. I felt an immediate connection with this beautiful animal. Watching the dead animals is hard, but we feel so happy that we are saving all the animals that we can, and preventing further animals from getting caught in these nets once we pull them out and destroy them.”
THE ROAR OF THE SEAS
“I am currently working as the Captain of the M/V White Holly, which is the latest addition to the Sea Shepherd fleet. I have an amazing crew of volunteers from all over the world. It is heartening to see a team of untrained volunteers, who are paying for their flights to get to a ship that they are not paid to work on, doing work that is potentially life-threatening, to save animals that cannot even say a word of thanks. And they achieve the impossible every day.”
The perils are real. Poachers don’t tolerate financial loss. And it gets really dangerous. “Because of the extreme nature of the job, the Sea Shepherd needs to have a robust system in place for filtering out people who are just trying to get in for the glory.”
Clearing the misconceptions he adds, “Working for Sea Shepherd is much more than just looking cool in SS gear, in the photos and videos. It’s a very tough lifestyle. You have a strict vegan diet onboard. Working hours are usually not well defined, which means you can be called upon to work in ridiculously tough conditions at any time, night or day. You usually have only a couple of bathrooms onboard to be shared by 12-18 crew. Water is usually in very short supply. You are sharing tiny cabins with up to 8 other crew. You will be seasick, and dead tired, but still working hard. It is the toughest, most satisfying job you will ever do.” This is not a mere job, it is a calling.
Log on to seashepherd.org and the job description tells it in no uncertain terms: “No pay, long hours, hard work, dangerous conditions, extreme weather.” There is but one guarantee: “Adventure, fulfilment, and the hardest work you will ever love. The experience of a lifetime.”
As he parts ways, he explains the rationale. “Yes, my family does worry when they hear about the risks involved, but this is a very important job. I think it needs to be done, even if it comes at personal risk. I am qualified and have the motivation to do it, which makes me one of the very few out there who can. And therefore, I must.”
Photos/ Videos Attribution: Sea Shepherd
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