Life aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic sunrise

I’m here in the Norwegian Arctic for a few days, cruising the waters of Svalbard as a guest on Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise. Fish like cod are moving north as ice melts and waters warm. So Greenpeace has worked an agreement with fishing companies and giant retailers like McDonald’s to put fishing expansion here on hold while a plan is devised for protecting sensitive areas. Good work so far, Greenpeace!

Today I just want to talk about what it’s like to be aboard. (I’ve written about our work and this region in several other posts.)

An able ship. Credit: Carl Safina
An able ship. Credit: Carl Safina

The ship, about 162 feet (50 meters) long and 37 feet (11 meters) wide, feels much bigger inside. It’s capable of ice-breaking and was built in Norway in 1975 for—this is ironic—seal hunting, but it never fulfilled that task. Just inside the main deck there’s a big staging area for equipment operations and launching small boats, then stairways up to a little living-room-like lounge, a couple of small offices for communications, sleeping and eating quarters, and the bridge.

The crew—there are about 30 people on the ship—is highly international. German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Spanish, French, British, Irish, Ukrainian, Austalian, Russian, Brazilian, Mexican, Filipino, U.S., Canadian, Korean, Indonesian. On this leg these last few days there are a couple of German journalist/photographers and an American reporter based in Moscow who writes for the Economist. The captain is personally committed to peaceful protest of injustice (whether in his job or ashore), and is vegan.

Third officer Daniella Montalto and deckhand prepare to anchor. Credit: Carl Safina
Third officer Helena DeCarlos and deckhand Louisette Sanchez prepare to anchor. Credit: Carl Safina

Everyone has their tasks. For some it is galley or deck duty, or systems maintenance, or bridge duty. For others it is photography and video editing. My task is observing. It’s relaxed. No part of the ship is off-limits. I’ve been told to write anything I wish. No one asks to check anything before I post it. I like the refreshing openness.

There are barely noticeable rules that resonate with the overall tone here. There’re no illicit drugs allowed, and basically no harassment or bad manners permitted. But there doesn’t seem much need for such rules for the kinds of people this ship attracts.

On government ships where alcohol isn’t allowed, people tend to drink a bit heavily when they go ashore. Here there’s a beer and wine available (you have to sign for it and pay for it) but most people seldom drink.

There’re more men than women but not by a big margin (the ratio is reversed in their on-shore offices). Many talk of their partners and spouses and kids ashore. The complement is always rotating and changing. Many people have other jobs ashore, some with Greenpeace, but not all.

On government ships, rank and hierarchy matter, and for many such crews it’s just a job. Not here. Everyone is valued for their needed contribution. From mechanic to captain to volunteer, these are pretty idealistic people.

A splash of color in the Arctic. Credit: Carl Safina
A splash of color in the Arctic. Credit: Carl Safina

Idealistic but—the crew members seem to have a deep but thoughtful, non-fanatical commitment to the mission. That’s also refreshing. A topic that comes up from time to time is to what extent “direct action”—such as hanging banners—helps or perhaps impedes the organization’s ability to advance their causes such as, say, sustainable fisheries policies or clean energy development. The world is changing, they say, and how they did things 20 or 30 years ago might not be the best approach now. Such ability to question ones’ deepest-held beliefs—so openly—shows, I think, great intellectual fearlessness and high integrity.

The ship is—how shall I say this—not fancy. It’s getting a major re-fit this year, and that’ll be nice for the crew. But time leaves both marks and markers. Throughout the halls and bunk-rooms are stickers about saving the ocean; posters of wildlife; small murals painted by people who’d been aboard; commemorative plaques; and on the wall in the lounge are a couple of gigantic broken u-bolts and industrial carabiners straightened when big things broke during huge storms. In the galley is an erase-board where notes get posted such as, “lunch may be late L, maybe not J.”

There is a healthy attention to safety; life jackets required when in the small boats and sometimes helmets and, depending on what we’re doing, sometimes immersion suits. But the rules are flexible depending on prudent sense and what we’re up to. While photographing a fishing boat’s catch, for instance, we got close enough for photos but not for physical hazard. (Our ship radios the fishermen about our intensions, and often one of our crew can have a conversation with the captain in their shared native tongue.)

Conversing with Spanish fishing-trawler. Credit: Carl Safina
Conversing with Spanish fishing-trawler. Credit: Carl Safina

During meals, we serve ourselves buffet style and rinse our own dishes. There’s nice vegetarian food for dinner but there’s also meat at lunch, cheese in the fridge, and a vegan option.

Time goes fast in a slow way. There is the rhythm of meals, the continual slowly changing scenery, the conversation. Out on deck there’s the hiss of the hull and drone of engines, the sea air and changing weather.

Everyone dresses casually; lots of tattoos and, for instance, the guys’ hair ranges from shave-headed to pony-tailed. I like the individuality, the easy tolerance of differences, the sort of peaceful-pirate attitude (though these people also have incredible nerve and many have done some very hairy things, gotten arrested—).

Part pirate ship, part dorm room. Credit: Carl Safina
Part pirate ship, part dorm room. Credit: Carl Safina

Part pirate ship, part college dorm, this is, after all, the only ship running around the Arctic with rainbows on its hull. So all in all, this band of hippies and peace-pirates—I am honored to be among them for a few days. And yes, I’ll miss ‘em.

And now I smell lunch. The cook likes his music and I can hear it from down the hall: “I’ve seen the rain down in Aaaaaafricaaahhhhh.”

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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.