Generally, when most people think of organized crime, they immediate associate the term with narcotics, human trafficking, illegal arms sales and the like. A key part of this portfolio, it turns out, is illegal fishing. Using the most environmentally damaging gear and employing unsustainable fishing practices, these poachers rake in huge profits while causing incredible damage to some of the world’s most important and fragile fishing grounds. Into this lawless milieu has stepped Sea Shepherd, a salty group of conservationists who, aboard a small flotilla of ships, have made it their mission to stop these criminal fishing operations down by any means necessary. In the documentary Ocean Warriors: Chasing Thunder the filmmakers take us on thrilling high seas adventure as the crew of two Sea Shepherd ships sail across three oceans and travel over 10,000 miles in a mammoth effort to shut down one of the most notorious of these illegal poaching vessels, the Thunder.
“…depicts all high stakes action and confrontation one might expect from such a documentary as well as surprising moments of humor.”
Sea Shepherd has a famous, some would say infamous, reputation. Created more than forty years ago by American conservationist Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd has its origins in Greenpeace from which Watson acrimonious split as he felt they were too docile in their tactics (which is saying something). Whereas some environmental groups use the rule of law or legislative maneuvers to effect change, the all volunteer crew of Sea Shepherd’s small navy favors direct action. They regularly place their bodies and ships between illegal whalers, harp seal hunters, and poachers of all stripes. And, like modern day eco-pirates, Sea Shepherd has rammed a number of illegal fishing and whaling vessels, sending several to the bottom of the sea. Their exploits, tailor made for television, have not gone unnoticed by the media as Animal Planet created the show Whale Wars to showcase their exploits. Never before, however, had a full fledged movie been made about the group.
Into this void stepped award-winning directors Mark Benjamin (CIA: Americaʼs Secret Warriors) and Mark Levin (SLAM). Structuring their film like a latter day Sam Peckinpah western, the directors join the crew of two Sea Shepherd vessels – The M.V. Bob Barker and the M.V. Sam Simon – as they encounter The Thunder in the unpoliced and relatively unspoiled fishing grounds off of antartica. Over the course of 110 punishing days, the filmmakers travel with the crews of the Barker and Simon as they haul the Thunder’s illegal and deadly nets out of the ocean, brave frothing seas and hull tearing icebergs, and risk life and limb to gather enough physical and photographic evidence to put the ship and its owners out of commission.
Beautifully shot and masterfully edited, Ocean Warriors: Chasing Thunder depicts all high stakes action and confrontation one might expect from such a documentary as well as surprising moments of humor, provided in large part by roguish Spanish speaking captain of the Thunder whose evasiness at sea and on the radio is nothing short of remarkable. Interviews with a square jawed official from Interpol underpin the facts about the scope of illegal fishing operations. And cutaway interviews with the Sea Shepherd crew – who could easily be dismissed as a bunch (mostly) white tattooed/pierced searchers – help illuminate the motivations that drive these young men and women to daily risk life and limb for zero pay and little glory.
“If the oceans die, we die.”
As good as the film is, one wishes that the filmmakers had found someway to interview the crew of the Thunder. While the captain and engineers of this ship were criminals who knew they were flouting international law, the Indonesian deckhands tasked with the scut work on the Thunder looked for all the world like unwitting hostages who had been press ganged into the ship’s service. By failing to provide this context, the director inadvertently casts the Sea Shepherd crew in the role of the “white savior” – a seemingly undying cinematic motif seen in films from Dangerous Minds to The Blind Side – come to save the day.
Despite this shortcoming, Ocean Warriors: Chasing Thunder accomplishes the difficult feat of being both wildly entertaining while imparting a strong conservationist message. In one poignant interview, Sea Shepherd founder Watson says without hyperbole, “If the oceans die, we die.” Words to think about the next time you’re perusing the catch of the day at your local market.
Ocean Warriors: Chasing Thunder (2017) Directed by Mark Benjamin and Mark Levin. Featuring Captain Paul Watson and Captain Peter Hammarstedt.
4 out of 5 stars