Q & A with Pete Bethune: Author, Conservationist and Star of Animal Planet's "Whale Wars"

E: Pete, tell us a little bit about yourself

 

P: I am a world record holder, reluctant star of Animal Planet’s ‘Whale Wars’, author of two successful books, (one written during my time in a Japanese maximum security prison) and most recently, founder of Earthrace Conservation, a new marine conservation group. My mission is to protect endangered and vulnerable marine species, preserve ocean habitats, and put a stop to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices.

 

This year I will be leading a group of former Special-Forces operatives focused on catching foreign pirate fishing vessels operating illegally in Africa, and we have a new amphibious assault vessel just launched that will become a key tactical asset in this battle.

 

E: How long have you been involved in boating and marine conservation?

 

P: I started boating when I was about 15, so around 30 years. I had a small boat called Scumbag with an Evinrude Ocean Pro 115 on. Then when I started on the Earthrace boat (75ft) it was a big step up.

 

Recently, I’ve been running a small team of special operatives in Africa and Latin America and we use 530 Zodiacs. Most of our work is low profile, working on fisheries enforcement against illegal foreign vessels. I have clocked up about 150,000nm, and been to 187 port cities around the world including about 40 in the US.  I have also been through many canals, including Panama and Suez. Basically, I’ve spent a lot of time on boats of varying sizes and in many places. 

 

My work in conservation is more recent and I am involved more to ensure future generations can enjoy fish and seafood as we do today.  Our oceans are under threat from overfishing, and I work to ensure that this is stopped.  My focus today is mostly on poorer countries that lack the funds to conduct suitable fishery enforcement.   

 

E: We know you were on the TV show, Whale Wars. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience in the Southern Ocean?

 

P: I captained a boat called Ady Gil down to Antarctica to oppose Japanese whaling.  The issue is huge for people from New Zealand and Australia. We consider Antarctica our back yard, and it is really offensive to many of us to see the Japanese sneak past us each summer to hunt whales in what the IWC has declared a whale sanctuary.  I went down to disrupt their operations. On January 6, 2010, we got so low on fuel we had to stop to await refueling.  We were stopped and when we got run over by the Japanese security ship called theShonan Maru #2.  It cut the boat in half. 

 

After that I hatched a plan to board the Shonan Maru #2 and present them with a bill for $3 million. On Feb 13, I boarded the vessel off the back of a jet ski. It was difficult because of the ice, darkness, cold water, swell and waves.  I fell in on the first attempt, but on second attempt (amazingly), I was successful. I spent 2 hours hiding and sneaking around the vessel gathering intelligence, and then I presented myself to the crew. 

 

The real reason for the boarding was to go to Japan and take the story to the Japanese people.  I spent nearly a month on the Shonan Maru #2 as they took me back to japan then 4-1/2 months in prison there.  I was considered a dangerous prisoner and they put me in a maximum security prison. The food was pretty ordinary, the security was very strict, and I witnessed a lot of violence. Thankfully I kept my nose clean and got released without getting beaten up. Still, I was nervous every day. 

 

E: Do you think that televising conservation efforts like Whale Wars is beneficial to conservation efforts?

 

P: Television remains the strongest medium for influencing people. Shows like whale wars can be very beneficial to promoting an issue. If you were to ask the US public what is the biggest marine conservation issue today – most would probably say whaling.  That is the result mostly of Whale Wars.  It has set a benchmark for promoting a cause on TV.

 

E: What was it like to circle the world in 60 days?

 

P: It was most extraordinary. I was the lucky guy who got to captain the vessel, but it was a real team effort.  There are few times in our life do we work so long and hard on something, and then there is the moment where it all happens and you succeed.  To cross the finish line and get the record was such an amazing feeling. I wish everyone could experience that emotion. It was made all the sweeter because we had failed miserably in the first record attempt.   

 

E: Where is your latest campaign taking you?

 

P: We are working on combatting foreign vessels that trawl and long line illegally in Africa.  Countries with no Navy or Coastguard are easy targets for foreign gangs. The boats come from mostly China, Korea and a few from Spain, Portugal and Greece. It has a devastating effect on local people in coastal Africa.  My team is a small unit of ex-military lads – Special Forces predominantly. There are a couple of Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Rangers, SAS type lads and a Marine. They all bring a certain skill set to the table. We run operations to catch the pirate fishing vessels then bring them back to port and have them prosecuted locally. We work with local authority to maintain legitimacy of operation. This is important to us because we need to work within the law.  

 

E: Sealegs boats are an interesting concept. Why did you choose them in your latest campaign?

 

P: When I looked for tactical assets for Africa, the main requirement was for a vessel to carry 6 men, go at least 172.5 miles and be able to board other vessels undetected.  We wanted a vessel with a low radar signature to allow us to get close without detection.

 

We have run Zodiac 530s in Africa until now. They are great because we just unpack them from a car and 15 minutes later we are on the water. They are a little small really except for really close range stuff. They are also limited in hardware options like radar and FLIR so I knew we needed something bigger. But then it becomes difficult to launch without a boat ramp. The solution was an amphibious vessel. Sealegs has what I consider the best amphibious platform available. It is proven and the engineering behind them is really sound. They have made some impressive vessels for the military so we started with a basic design from one of them then modified it according to what my SEALs and I wanted. Sealegs have been outstanding in giving me the exact boat I wanted.

 

E: Why did you choose Evinrude engines on your Sealegs boats?

 

P: There was much debate over the engines in terms of horsepower. We could fit two 90hp Evinrude engines, but not 2 115s or any bigger. The 115 goes to a V4, whereas the 90hp is inline 3 which is considerably narrower. The 115 has counter rotating props which offers efficiency and slow speed advantages and a healthier torque curve. So there were aspects of the 115 or bigger I liked. In the end, we went with two 90hp engines because it was the only configuration we could fit in. If I was to say the one thing I’d change on the vessel in future, and given suitable time for development, I’d put on larger engines, which requires complete redesign of the vessel. Sealegs is talking about it and I suspect in our next Sealegs boat we might see a little more horsepower on the stern. Aside from that, this is a serious vessel that in all other ways has been outstanding. 

 

The E-TEC engines are the best option for us. Africa is a difficult place to work in, it is so hard to get spare parts so reliability and the reduced service intervals were very attractive to us. The E-TEC also offered the best power to weight ratio – something really important on this vessel. The engines are very quiet for a 2-stroke. There was no way I wanted the weight and size of a 4-stroke, but 2 strokes are often noisy. These E-TEC engines are super quiet. Finally, there is the consideration of fuel type.  I have used a couple of the 55hp multi-fuel military engines and they really impressed me. An ability to use other fuels can be so helpful when running operations in difficult places like Africa.

 

E: We read that several members of your group are former Special Forces. What did they think about the performance Evinrude E-TEC engines?

 

P: My unit has operatives from a number of elite military units. SEAL team 6, Delta Force, Army Rangers and some SAS type lads. A couple of them have used the E-TEC engines before. I believe they are standard now for the SEALs in the US.  The 55hp multi-fuel engine is perfect for Special Forces work on zodiacs – super light, quiet, reliable, easy to start; easy to bolt on and away you go. Plus of course the ability to use other fuel types.  Our new Sealegs vessel has only just been launched. I think we’ve only done about 50 hours running thus far, but the engines have been flawless to date and the lads all rate them highly. 

 

E: What makes the Sealegs and Evinrude such a great combination?

 

P: For the engines, the service periods, power to weight, quiet and narrow profile. For Sealegs, they offer the best amphibious vessel available today.  

 

E: Do you have any suggestions for Evinrude owners and how they can do their part to preserve the oceans and waterways?

 

P: If you game fish, use tag and release. Species like Marlin, Tuna and Mahi Mahi are coming under such enormous pressure and they will be all gone for game fishing unless action is taken soon. You can also pressure U.S. legislators to work in halting purse seining in Pacific and Atlantic and to have better control of commercial tuna fishing.

 

Second, you can support the ban of FADs (fishing aggregated devices) by commercial fishing vessels. These cause significant by-catch of turtles and other non-target species.

 

Finally, do not catch sharks. Or if you do, let them go. They are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, but sadly so many large sharks are now targeted for shark fin soup. 

                                

E: Could you share some conservation issues that may not be known to the public?

 

P: The average number of shark deaths per year around the world is five.  The number of deaths by vending machines is 19. Turtle populations today are about 10% of historical levels and in Africa, pirate fishing is over $1 billion annually. Globally, pirate fishing is over $20 billion, making it the 3rd largest illegal trade in the world, behind drugs and weapons. This trade does affect US waters!