To me, every day is World Oceans Day. In my world, ocean conservation takes no break. Many seem to think that they own our aquatic realm, and our underwater animal friends are often viewed as property, mere objects to use and abuse however our governments and big corporations see fit. But today, we recognise the Oceans, and the importance of its inhabitants.
I was 22 years old when I first walked onto the rusty decks of the 50 metre ship 'MV Steve Irwin' in Melbourne, Australia in 2015... with my silk maxi skirt, big crystal earrings and what I now know to be zero knowledge of the real state of the oceans back then. I was a naive budding ‘hippy’, having dropped out of my Vet degree because I wanted to make more of an impact.
“I’m gonna go change the world!” I told anyone who doubted my decision.
Vaccinating rich dudes' poodles wasn’t gonna cut it for me. Little did I know that this decision was to shape the future of my identity, and I was going to come back angrier, deflated, but also more motivated than ever.
The MV Steve Irwin, (or Stevie as we called her… named after the famous Aussie conservationist) was the conservation organisation Sea Shepherd Global’s flagship vessel, and she had been a part of most of Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling campaign history. Now decommissioned and resting after a long and successful life, she was my home for years.
Within her bulkheads I learnt the most about conservation, the planet, myself, and the most skills I’ve ever obtained in my lifetime so far... welding, carpentry, painting, rigging, navigation, sailing, fire fighting, crane operating and small boat driving to name a few. I developed into the woman I am today during those early years of my twenties. It shaped me and I’ll remember that time for the rest of my life; where I found my feet, my passion and my reason for living.
I was shaped into a soldier whilst serving as crew. I undertook 9 months of vigorous training on land before I was selected for my first at-sea campaign: Operation Icefish, which then later turned into a duel campaign with Operation Driftnet. These two back-to-back campaigns were to be my first of many. I had no idea what kind of career I was walking, or sailing, myself into.
During our first few weeks at sea, we accidentally stumbled upon a fleet of 6 illegal Chinese shark finning vessels in the Indian Ocean en route to Antarctica to find the notorious toothfish poaching vessel, The Viking. After the fleet spotted us and we realised what they were doing, they abandoned their nets and made a run for it. We then spent the next 48 hours hauling onto our deck 5 kilometres of illegal driftnet by hand, owned by the vessel named the Fu Yuan Yu (featured in Seaspiracy). Caught in this net were 321 dead animals, including 100s of blue sharks, common dolphins, seals, a swordfish, critically endangered bluefin tuna and pomfrets.
321 animals strangled to death and drowned by this floating nightmare of a net, left to rot on our deck for the duration of our months at sea to bring back to land as evidence. You can imagine the stench. The most terrifying thing was that this was just ONE net. We estimated that these vessels are bringing in 1500 sharks a day for shark finning, plus all the bycatch that comes with it. This was just one ship from one fleet... one net. Imagine what else is out there.
For many of the crew, this was our first time at sea. It was hard to describe the 100s of different emotions that were pulsating through my body during the hauling of this illegal driftnet. We were all so focused, putting all of our energy into getting this 5km of hell out of the ocean as fast as we could, that it was hard to stop and think and actually realise the extent of what we were doing and seeing. Just like during any emergency situation, the adrenalin hits and you go into autopilot mode, your body instinctively knowing what to do. It was a pretty surreal experience to be able to properly examine a dead dolphin, shark and seal up close… really examine it… its scars and markings, the feeling of its skin, the look and feel of its teeth.
18,000 nautical miles later, 115 days, 3 countries, one illegal fishing vessel blown up by the Indonesian government and the others awaiting investigation, we made it back to home soil in Melbourne, Australia, after chasing the Fu Yuan Yu in circles around the Indian Ocean for weeks, eventually losing them in a port on the east coast of China.
I was a kid. Barely out of high school... I shouldn’t have had to be doing this as a career choice. 6 years later and now with even worse changes to the state of our oceans, I’m still having to fight this fight. I worked 7 days a week with one day off here and there for almost 5 years. I didn’t get paid. None of us did. We didn’t want money! We just wanted to see these animals safe… we didn’t want our oceans to die. Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time at sea, knows how hard and gruelling she can be. Today I reflect on everything me and my fellow crew of the MV Steve Irwin achieved during those long months at sea.
My experiences give me hope. Looking back I can see how weak and unprepared for life I was compared to who I am now. I really had no idea how cruel the world could be, and I wasn’t prepared for the things I saw... yet I still did it. I still showed up every day. I worked through literal blood, sweat and tears to save our oceans. If someone like me can do this… then YOU can certainly take mindful approaches towards a healthier planet. And we need you now. We need you to show up and actively take accountability for every single action you take in your daily life. As human beings growing up in a western culture, we have the capacity to actually make informed decisions and then choose to act on these decisions accordingly. We have the choice to make our world a better place and to partake in this by living sustainably and educating ourselves. There is still so much left worth fighting for.
How will you show up in the fight towards saving our planet?
About the author: Maddie Rasmussen is an Aussie currently living in South Africa. She is a marine conservationist, scientific diver and dive instructor, ship’s captain and all round water woman. Her rich and diverse background in conservation includes working for Sea Shepherd Global as a Dive Master and Senior Deckhand, as Camp Provider at The Tropical Research and Conservation Centre in Borneo, and as Project Manager for Perhentian Marine Research Station, Malaysia.
Follow her on Instagram: @mvddiee