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Ashley Dunn

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I Wasn't Ready to Drown, So I Prepared to Abandon Ship

Posted: 06/05/09 10:00 AM ET

Last March, when the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel The Steve Irwin docked in Hobart, Tasmania, it was met by two dozen members of the Australian Federal Police. They were there to confiscate hundreds of hours of videotape, launching an investigation into what was one of the most intense and dramatic campaigns ever conducted by the Sea Shepherds against Japanese whalers in their 30-year history. It was a life-changing experience for those on the boats and will be an extraordinary television series for audiences when WHALE WARS returns for a new season, premiering on June 5, 2009, at 9PM (ET/PT). Those seized tapes -- shot by seasoned video journalist Ashley Dunn and others -- and more footage comprise the second season of Animal Planet's WHALE WARS. What follows is Ashley's account of those harrowing months at sea.


When I was approached by Animal Planet to shoot another season of Whale Wars, I was excited, nervous and apprehensive all at once. Shooting season one was the most difficult but rewarding job I had ever had but also the most dangerous. And this time the Japanese were expected to be better equipped and much more aggressive toward the Sea Shepherds. I knew the whalers did not consider the media on board The Steve Irwin off limits. We were tarred with the same brush as the Sea Shepherds -- all of us labeled "eco-terrorists."

In addition to the obvious risks, shooting another season meant being away from my wife and two young children for 13 weeks. Fortunately, they're incredibly supportive of what I do, so I headed off for another real-life game of battleship in the Antarctic Ocean.

The living conditions on The Steve Irwin are basic, to say the least. There were four of us guys sharing a room no bigger than 20 foot by 10 foot for 10 weeks. The bunks were very small -- I felt like I slept with my knees up around my ears. Not that we slept much anyway. Going 40 hours without sleep was a regular occurrence when the Sea Shepherd crew was in the midst of a confrontation with the whaling fleet.

And to top it all off The Steve Irwin is an all-vegan ship. I am not a vegan and struggled with the change in diet. My energy levels dropped and I lost a lot of weight and muscle tone.

Not long into the job my worst fear became a reality. Rough seas don't worry me but ice scares me to death. The Steve Irwin is not ice-rated which means it should never try to bang its way through the stuff. Yet, the ship ended up getting caught in a massive ice field and what followed was about 10 hours of terror. Not just for the Sea Shepherds but for our media crew as well -- especially me!

It was like a bad dream. I knew two days before we got stuck in it that it was inevitable. But we're a documentary crew so we have no input into how the ship is operated. Sure enough we found ourselves surrounded by ice almost as far as the eye could see. It was like placing the ship on the world's largest ice-skating rink. 9/10th ice. 1/10th visible water. Not good!

That day we spent a full eight hours filming the crew's reactions to the unfolding drama. All the while, I was convinced the hull was going to be torn open and we would be forced to abandon ship. I didn't necessarily feel like we were going to die, but I thought we would be spending at least 10 days standing on an iceberg or in a raft waiting to be rescued. The whole time I was filming I was so angry at the situation that it was very hard to hide my feelings. I was down in the rope locker getting shots below the water line of the hull flexing and bending as it pushed through the ice. I was the first cameraman to leave when I realized that if the hull breached, we would surely drown before we could climb back up the 30-foot ladder. I bailed out and began getting my "abandon ship bag" together. I notified the rest of my team that enough was enough and I was getting ready to abandon ship, if necessary. Some time later, our Director of Photography emerged from below telling me he too thought it was time to get out of there and he began getting his gear ready. Luckily, we managed to somehow make it through the ice but that was just the start of the journey.

My role as cameraman was to be in the inflatable boats or the helicopter during any conflict with the whalers. Being in the boats can be pretty dangerous as the Sea Shepherds get very close to the harpoon vessels and the 8,000-ton factory ship. In the midst of all this chaos, the whalers hit us with water canons, throw metal objects at us and bombard us with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADS), which emit an incredibly loud, ear-piercing sound wave designed to disorientate and make you feel ill.

In a war situation, the unwritten law is that cameramen are neutral and "off limits" to soldiers. In this battle, the whalers saw us as fair game. During the filming of these confrontations, I was hit at least five times by water canons. I can only describe it as like getting hit with a baseball bat. They bruise and cut you and destroy cameras. Two of mine were taken out by water cannons. Luckily I managed to salvage the tapes. The footage is amazing but the cameras were destroyed. On that particular day, I was in the Delta for eight hours filming the action in below-freezing temperatures, completely drenched, dodging water canons, metal objects and the LRAD. Needless to say, that night I took a hot shower regardless of the fact that it was not my shower day!

The next confrontation with the whalers found me hanging out the side of the helicopter. It was a memorable day because the whaling fleet was being extremely aggressive towards The Steve Irwin and it was amazing to see and film it all from above. It was also the day that the pilot and I were hit several times by the LRAD. It really upset the pilot because he was afraid he'd lose control of the helicopter and ditch it in the sea. We spent six hours in the air filming the confrontations, which involved both the Sea Shepherds and the whalers attempting to prop foul each other. The entire whaling fleet was engaged with The Steve Irwin, which gave us a great opportunity to get some close-up shots of the Japanese ships and their crew. It was extremely cold being in the air for so long with no door on the helicopter. In fact, it was very difficult to hold onto and operate the camera, but with the adrenaline pumping, I didn't realize just how cold I was until we touched down to refuel.

The day the whalers actually began whaling in front of us was definitely the most traumatic one for the Sea Shepherds and media crew. I was on night shift when we discovered the whalers had killed a whale at approximately five a.m. I managed to get a shot of the whale being transported up the slipway of the processing ship. Within minutes the entire Sea Shepherd crew were woken and made aware of what had happened. The ensuing confrontation lasted for over 14 hours and culminated in the ramming of two harpoon vessels. Everybody was in shock and very emotional, including our media crew, but we all had to keep filming. We were given positions throughout the ship and told to "role on everything!" which we did for the next 14 hours.

After being awake for nearly two days, my producer told me to get some sleep once things had settled down. I reluctantly agreed but said I wanted to be awakened if things ramped up again. Before I climbed into my bunk, I stepped out onto the back deck with my camera to see where the harpoon vessels were. That's when I saw one of them, with a whale tied up alongside, make a run at The Steve Irwin while trying to get the whale onto the processing ship. I started rolling and positioned myself with some of the deck crew. The whalers were throwing metal objects from their ship at the Sea Shepherds. Eventually, the inevitable collision happened -- tearing a hole in The Steve Irwin's hull. The action and the reactions were incredible. The whole day was extremely traumatic and I wondered "what the hell is going to happen next?"