They were on the water for 8 days before spotting the Chinese shark fishing fleet. The scale of the armada was absurd. Not only were there 30–50 liners, but there were double that many support vessels — supply schooners, gas refuelers, security ships, and two gargantuan reefer ships. It was a bristling, rusty mass. The slums of a city on the water.
Kyle looked through his telescope in awe. This was the first time he’d ever seen the massive floating societies that were the result of illegal distant-water fishing operations, and this was certainly the first time he was planning on shutting one down. A tendril of apprehension snaked its way down his spine. Even with the menacing, blue/black camouflaged Sea Shepherd vessel beneath his feet, discrediting this Chinese behemoth, clearly backed by enormous wealth, seemed an impossibly difficult task.
“Are they all this big?” he asked Eitan, the dark-haired man standing next to him. He was about 40 yet incredibly fit. Aside from the tattoos, he looked like a corporal in a war movie.
“No, not at all,” he responded, chuckling darkly. “Chinese ships usually don’t come all the way across the Pacific. They’re only here because they killed off most shark populations near Asia. When they do though, it’s vastly more economical to set up massive camps for long periods of time.” Eitan shook his head and clenched his jaw. “And here they must be catching thousands of sharks a day. This single fleet could decimate all the shark populations off of Ecuador in a year, and they would. And from there the ecosystem will begin to fail. And the reefs will die. And billions of tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere. And then more reefs will die, and more carbon will be released. And ecosystems everywhere will collapse. And so will we. And all this time these fishermen will be massacring mindlessly.”
“But we’re here,” Kyle responded.
“We’re here,” Eitan said, nodding. He turned to Kyle, looking at him with hard but compassionate eyes. “Thank you for joining us. It’s brave.”
“Thank you, but honestly, it wasn’t really a choice. We can’t keep letting them do this.”
“No, we can’t,” Eitan said, and then walked away to help Sofia verify this was the fleet they had been looking for.
Kyle looked out at the endless blue and the events that had guided him here pressed against his psyche. At 24, he had seen more than most people ever do, yet he rarely pondered the past, momentum and fate pushing him forward. Now, something pulled him back to where it all started.
Growing up on a catamaran, Kyle had always held an appreciation for the ocean, but his devotion to sea life didn’t begin until he was 12. His family had been island hopping in the Philippines when they befriended another catamaran traveler who happened to be an avid scuba diver. Kyle’s parents had never been strict. Actually, one could probably characterize them as careless, Kyle thought. So, after an hour of safety training, uncertified Kyle was sinking below the waves with a borrowed BCD as his lifeline and a stranger as his guide.
These were the moments that lent credence to Kyle’s suspicion that he was being guided down a path more than he was forging his own. Put any 12-year-old in one of the most beautiful and complex coral reefs on the planet and they will forever be enamored with the alien world of the undersea. The crystal-clear Philippine water exposed otherworldly vibrance stretching in every direction and colors occurring nowhere else in nature. Bright pinks and oranges, subtle purples, that endless blue. All of it at a mind-numbing scale. Fish dancing and floating in perplexing, unlikely shapes and colors. Eels from hell peaking their evil eyes out from dark crevices. Massive lobsters wavering across the sandy bottom, wielding spikes and feelers.
Reefs sport the densest wildlife imaginable. Denser than the African savannah, than the Amazon rainforest. And Kyle saw all of it working in perfect unity. This was unparalleled beauty. This was nature’s finest work. This was Good.
He hadn’t gone more than a month without visiting the undersea since then, and at some point his love of sea life expanded into a devotion towards conservation. Having dived all over the world, the global destruction of the ocean was horribly apparent to Kyle. Every swathe of reef that had been bleached by warming oceans seemed to the young boy like it had to be the last one. How could there be so much destruction? But in every country, every island he visited, there were signs of decay. These reefs looked like cities decimated by atomic warfare, and to Kyle, the forces behind their destruction were just as evil as those of war. It was the slaughter of innocents. Innocents that formed a world far more beautiful than the one destroying it.
The crew of the Ocean Warrior grouped up in a semicircle on the bridge. As they waited for Sofia, the captain, to start her brief, Kyle looked around at his 11 crewmates. He chuckled to himself. They were almost as variegated as the sea life they were trying to protect, composed of people from every corner of the world. Their only shared characteristics were their blue/black camouflage uniforms and the bright, hard eyes of humans entirely dedicated to a cause. They were unified by their obsession, dependency, love — whatever it may be — for nature and their devotion to its future.
Kyle felt a soft hand grab his arm and he turned to find Dea looking at him with her large, round eyes.
“How are you?” she asked, hand still wrapped firmly around his forearm.
Kyle smiled. Dea had been helping him greatly with integrating into the flow of the boat. He’d been training at the Sea Shepherds’ homebase for months, but this was his first time on the Ocean Warrior and with this crew. Kyle was pretty sure Dea had a crush on him, but pursuing a relationship seemed like a bad idea on such a tight boat. Even if he did find her cute. And capable. And they were devoted to the same cause… Kyle shook his head. He had to focus.
“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted.
She smiled. “Same. And it’s not my first expedition.”
Her eyes strayed past Kyle as Sofia strode into the bridge, her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She looked cut from stone or pulled straight out of a video game. She stood at the front of the group for a moment, scanning everyone’s eyes.
“Morning, crew,” she finally said. “As you all know, about half an hour ago we spotted the shark liners 4 kilometers southeast from our location. They seem to have anywhere from 100–200 vessels, which fits estimates from the satellite reports. As always, our mission will not be to engage, but only to expose their illegal fishing practices and force the hand of the Ecuadorian government to shut the whole operation down. That being said, these fleets are unpredictable. They are beholden to no country, given China will never condemn their own vessels, and they are pulling in thousands of valuable sharks a day. They will not take kindly to being observed. We’ve been over the procedure for hostility. Be prepared. What we are doing here is of the utmost importance. We are not only protecting the ocean, but we are also protecting the whole of the environment, and the future of humanity.”
“Any questions?” Sofia asked.
“Great. Let’s get prepared. We move in tomorrow.”
The pit Kyle had been carrying in his stomach throughout the previous day was gone when he awoke. He might have only joined the Sea Shepherds half a year ago, but he’d been committed to saving the ocean for much of his life. He knew this was where he was meant to be, so there was no room for doubt.
The crew was sprawled around the dining area, eating with their hands. They would set off in an hour, but for now it was breakfast time.
“Bah, I miss hummus,” Eitan said, to no one in particular, as he shoveled a pita slathered with hummus into his mouth.
Kyle laughed. “Eitan, you’re literally eating hummus right now.”
“No, no, no.” Eitan said. “Come to Israel, I will show you what real hummus is. This is smashed chickpeas.” He motioned to Kyle’s left. “Pass me the cucumber.”
Kyle shook his head, smiling, and passed over the platter of vegetables.
“I’ll come to Israel and try your hummus if you come to Indonesia and try gudeg,” Dea said to Eitan.
“What is that?”
“It’s how we prepare jackfruit, it’s delicious.”
“Hm. Can I put hummus on it?”
Dea frowned and the rest of the crew burst into laughter. Eventually the room settled down and the conversation drifted to what was on everybody’s mind.
“Have you ever been in a firefight before?” Kyle asked Eitan.
Eitan paused, and Sofia responded for him, “the Ocean Warrior has been through a lot while we’ve been crewing it. We can’t let up, you see? We can’t set a precedent that they can scare us away easily because then we’d never get anything done. And no one else does anything. No one cares.”
A few members of the crew raised their glasses.
“What we’re doing for the next week shouldn’t be too bad.” Eitan said. “Only when we get closer into the fleet to try to capture footage of them transferring catch from the liners to the reefers might it get hairy.”
“Knock on wood,” one of the other crew said.
“Yes,” Sofia said. “We should always be prepared. We’ve trained for anything.”
After a few more preparations they were off, blasting towards the shark liners through the choppy ocean. Kyle stood at the front of the Ocean Warrior, the salty sea spraying his face. He still felt surprisingly relaxed. Home, to Kyle, was a fine mist of salt water on the face.
He felt a hand on his arm and jolted.
“You gotta stop doing that,” he said to Dea, chuckling. “A little warning would be nice.”
Dea looked up at him. Her usual smirk or delicate smile was gone, replaced by a ferocity he never would have expected to find there. Anger, it must have been.
“You ready?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He paused, squinting at her. “You seem very ready.”
“I am. These people just take and take, Kyle. They don’t even have regard for human life, much less marine life. I will never, ever rest until they are gone.”
Kyle nodded and put his arm around her and then Sofia called them to positions. Kyle went to the bird’s nest where he would relay the positions of the other boats to Sofia. Soon, they were about half a kilometer away from one of the shark liners on the outside of the fleet. It had a large fishing line strung out behind it. Kyle knew that under the water it stretched for at least a kilometer and probably many more. At intervals along the line there would be shorter lines stretching to the side, and everywhere attached to the lines there would be large hooks with fresh bait. This method of fishing, even when used to catch legal fish, caught an unsustainable number of incidental sharks. When done to catch sharks explicitly, the results were sickening.
The Ocean Warrior slowed down to keep pace with the liner and the crew got into action. The two journalists set up their massive zoom cameras and began to record. The philosophy was to record the liners hunting sharks without permits and/or in restricted waters, so the Sea Shepherds had to be close enough to not only identify the shark fishing but also the markings on the boats. Ideally, they would capture many instances of this fishing, needing a lot of ammo to motivate the bloated, inefficient, and often corrupt governments they needed help from.
About an hour into this slow pursuit Kyle saw the line start moving. Ever so slowly it was reeled up the back of the boat. Through his telescope, he made out men cutting the wriggling gray bodies from the line. After cutting the sharks from the line, the tiny men would do something with the animals and then drop them off the side of the boat. Even though he couldn’t see well, Kyle knew what they were doing. Not only was it extremely illegal, but it was the perfect sensational material for motivating action. He climbed down from his post and walked to Sofia.
“They’re finning,” he told her.
Sofia took his telescope and pointed it towards the boat on the horizon. Shaking her head in disgust, she walked over to the journalists.
“We have to get the finning on camera,” she told them.
“We technically have it,” one of them responded, “but we’re too far for a good shot.”
“We’ll move in,” Sofia said.
She went back to the cabin to get them closer, and Kyle went back up to the bird’s nest.
They moved up until they were about 200 meters away from the liner. At this range, Kyle could clearly see the slaughter. Whenever a shark appeared on the retracting line, the men, in teams of three, would grab it, throw it to the deck, and swiftly slice off all of its fins. Four quick movements and the shark was immobile. Then the men would hoist the shark and toss it over the side of the boat — all they wanted were the fins. Totally immobile and horribly alive, the sharks would plummet to the bottom of the ocean and suffocate, unable to do what they were put on earth for. Kyle imagined a trail of mutilated shark caracasses littered across the sea floor behind this liner. Waves of disgust and fury sent his pulse skyrocketing. This wasn’t just greed. It was greed enabled by a fundamental disregard for life.
After a few minutes of the Ocean Warrior trailing that close, the fishing boat must have been aware they were being watched intentionally, yet they weren’t stopping. Kyle looked toward the horizon. And yes, there it was. A smaller, sharper boat speeding towards them from the main fleet about three kilometers away. Instead of stopping their illegal activity, the fleet sent a security boat to scare off the Ocean Warrior. Kyle felt his pulse quicken. He’d trained for battle, technically, but he’d never been in a real combat situation. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but like Sofia said, the Sea Shepherds made it a policy to push the limits. They all knew that from the start.
“Security boat incoming!” Kyle yelled.
Sofia picked up the call. “Man your defense stations! Grab the hoses!”
The boat was coming quick. Kyle swallowed. He noticed Dea on the deck revving up her hose.
And then it was on them. It floated up on their starboard side and stopped, blasting a pre-recorded English warning: “LEAVE. LEAVE. NOT WELCOME HERE. LEAVE. LEAVE.”
Down below, Sofia put June on the megaphone, and she responded in perfect Mandarin: “You are fishing illegally. You have no permits. We will report you. We will not leave.”
For a few minutes, nothing happened but this exchange of words, all of it falling on closed ears.
And then there were gunshots. One of the fishermen was pointing an assault rifle into the air, screaming and shooting to try to intimidate them.
“HOSES!” cried Sofia.
The four crew members on hoses let loose torrential jets of water that pounded the enemy deck with a roaring thunder. The fishermen threw themselves to the ground or inside the cabin, desperately avoiding the skin-splitting water pressure. Kyle held his breath. It seemed like there was nothing the fishermen could do but retreat.
And then another shot rang out. It whizzed past one of the hosers.
“STEADY!” screamed Sofia, and the hosers kept pounding. They were trying to target the source of the bullet. But then another shot came, and another. Four hoses simply weren’t enough to stop the fishermen from peeking out and shooting.
“DOWN!” commanded Sofia, and the hosers threw themselves to the deck.
The hosers and most other crewmen grabbed their assault rifles, tucked into boxes along the side of the boat. Kyle pulled his gun out, hidden in the bird’s nest.
They began to return fire.
“We will not back down! We will not back down!” screamed June into the microphone, over and over. The Sea Shepherds wanted to scare the fishermen off. And yet the firefight continued. At this point, the cameras were no longer rolling, the journalists hidden in the cabin. This fight was off the books, and neither side would ever report it.
And then came a horrible yell from the deck below. Eitan was clutching his chest and groaning. The crew medic crawled along the deck to tend to him.
“SHOOT TO KILL!” screamed Sofia.
Kyle shuddered. This was a possibility that he had been warned about, trained on, but he never really thought it would happen. He didn’t think the fishermen would push it this far. He had underestimated the power of greed.
Amid the shots, Kyle heard Dea shriek in fury, spraying in sharp bursts. She got one in the chest. He staggered backwards, eyes wide, and crumpled to the ground. Kyle stopped shooting. A grotesque, bitter taste flooded his mouth. No one was backing down. Kyle’s vision went blurry. He dropped his gun.
And then it was over. Kyle sat in his bird’s nest surveying the scene. He felt sick. Five or so bodies littered the enemy deck. The Sea Shepherds had sustained no more casualties. The fight had shown they were far better trained. The few remaining fishermen walked out with their hands up, and the Ocean Warrior began to back away. They would leave the ship and get out of there before any reinforcements arrived. They’d come back another day for more footage.
“Wait!” cried one of the fishermen, in Mandarin. “Let us come aboard! We want to leave!”
June translated to Sofia: “They want to defect.”
Sofia hesitated. Dea walked up to her and whispered something in her ear. Sofia nodded.
“Drop the ladders,” she called, “and make sure they’re unarmed.”
An hour later they were far away from the fleet and talking with the newcomers. Eitan was being treated below deck. One of the refugees spoke clipped English. He was a small Indonesian man. He sat cross-legged, with his head bowed. When he asked if Covid had hit the US yet, shivers went down Kyle’s spine.
“That was a year ago,” Sofia said. “How long have you been on that boat?”
“One year. 2 months,” he said. “I want to leave since I got on boat. Not what I signed up for. Not allowed leave. Hundreds of us in fleet. Be slow, no food. No follow orders, you die.”
He looked down at his hands and began to sob.
Kyle took a shaky step backwards and then rushed to his bed below deck. He lay there, mind racing. What am I doing? he thought. I’m not equipped to deal with these people. And I’m not a killer.
Footsteps marked someone’s entry into the bunkroom. Kyle knew who it was. She sat on the end of his bunk, and he sat up.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“No,” he responded. “I know what we’re doing here is right. I know that.” He paused, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I just don’t think I can bring myself to fight like this.”
Dea nodded. She looked past Kyle, her mind floating away, and then refocused on the young man.
“My brother went missing three years ago. Then two years ago, we heard vague reports he was on a Chinese rig. There’s been nothing since… My brother died on one of these boats, Kyle. I’m sure of it. He was worked to his death. A slave till his end. We aren’t just fighting for marine life. We aren’t even just fighting climate change. We’re fighting injustice on a mass scale. We’re fighting the product of rampant greed. What we do may not be good, but it is right.” Her face contorted. “These pigs will stop at nothing to keep fishing. It’s all they do, it’s all they know, and they have no regard for human life. We do not owe them any pity.”
“I’m so sorry, Dea. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not your fault, and truly, it’s not your problem. If you aren’t prepared to fight, I can’t force you to. But just know it may get messy tomorrow, and we could use all the help we can get.”
She left and Kyle sunk back down into his bed. He thought about the horrible things those Indonesian men must have gone through. He thought about the screams of the fishermen as they died. He thought about the pure, beautiful, good wildlife that humans were working to destroy every day. About how greed was dug deep into the state of humanity. How no shred of morality would outweigh the heft of riches.
Sofia called on the intercom for everyone to come to the med room. Dread rose like bile in Kyle’s throat. Everyone was there when he walked in. They were circled around something he couldn’t see. Kyle walked deeper into the room, around the circle. Eitan lay there, eyes closed, not breathing. For what seemed like an eternity no one said a word. The only sounds were the faint sobs of a few of the crew.
Finally, Sofia spoke. “Tonight we will have a proper ceremony, and tomorrow we will carry on. Our mission has not changed. If anything, it’s clearer than ever. Tomorrow, we will get closer to the liner and record the finning and shut down this operation forever. We will avenge our brother.”
Kyle nodded. He would do what had to be done.
The next day they patrolled in a large circle around the fleet to find a shark liner far from the main group. Finally, they found one about 5 kilometers off. To Kyle’s surprise, it had no security boat with it. He thought the fleet would be extra cautious knowing they were out there.
“They want the majority of their security boats to protect their haul back in the central fleet, especially the reefers,” Dea told him, when he asked. “And they probably assumed we wouldn’t find this one so far from the center.”
And so they moved in and began to record. They got closer and closer until they were about 100 meters away, giving them a direct line of sight into the horrors occurring on the deck. There were no nearby security boats and still the fishing boat seemed to not care about being watched.
However, at one point he noticed a few fishermen had come up onto the deck and seemed to just be milling about. One of them pulled out some binoculars and focused on the Ocean Warrior, and then he called something to the crew. At the call, most of the other fishermen began to head below deck.
What’re they doing? Kyle thought. And then it hit him: why there was no security, why they let them get so close.
“ARMS!!” he screamed.
“What?” Sofia responded.
“ARMS!” yelled Sofia, just as a squadron of armed men poured out of the liner’s cabin.
The fishermen began to shoot as the Sea Shepherds threw themselves to the deck. Waves of bullets flew over the ship and slammed into the reinforced side, making it impossible for the crew below to safely pop their heads up. The fishermen didn’t seem to be targeting Kyle up in his bird’s nest though. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed him. Kyle raised his assault rifle and aimed down at the ship 100 meters away. In his crosshairs he found a man letting loose at the Ocean Warrior, completely unaware his life was in Kyle’s hands. Kyle let his scope hover. He saw the contours of the man’s face. The fear.
He realized suddenly that Dea was screaming at him.
“GET DOWN,” she yelled, huddled behind a barricade. She was gesturing wildly for him to crash to the ground. Even from the bird’s nest he could see the panic in her wide eyes. But they needed him.
Kyle looked back up the sights and squeezed the trigger. The fear on the man’s face disappeared with his head. Kyle shifted the gun to his next victim. The Sea Shepherds used the attention Kyle drew to pop up and start returning fire.
Now Dea was screaming at Kyle even louder. “DOWNNN!!” She shrieked, but Kyle had the next man in his sights. And then he felt a thud in his side. He looked down and felt his stomach. It was wet and sticky. Everything went black.