I remember the whole conversation, no one said anything about being shot at with a flare gun while in a helicopter. My recruiter did mention protesting, but you expect that of Greenpeace. Not once though, did anyone mention fishermen so angry they’d try and knock my head off with a lead weight or send an iron grapple through a body part. Mind you, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, I still would have gone in a heartbeat.
You see working for Greenpeace was a dream job for me and I have a particular set of skills, not quite like Liam Neeson in Taken, but distinct nonetheless. I am an award winning underwater photographer who also takes pictures topside. I’ve photographed in hostile situations and was comfortable working from boats. Greenpeace needed just that for its Marine Reserves campaign in the Mediterranean, so it sent me to Turkey to join the Arctic Sunrise.
My first full day we were among them, one ship within a fleet of perhaps 30 vessels full of suspicious fishermen. We were shaking down a new crew, me included and, as I found out, the helicopter pilot. It was my first time in a helicopter launched from a ship. What I didn’t know was it was also the pilot’s first time too. If only my mother knew, is what goes through my mind in such situations. Thankfully the take off was smooth and we circled the fishing fleet and I got some shots of purse seine fishing.
On the way back things got heated. We didn’t know, but a rumour had gone around the fishermen that Greenpeace wanted to disrupt their fishing activities and so they attacked.
As we flew back to the ship a flare was shot at us. Our vessel was crowded by some of the larger fishing vessels and had to move away so we could land. When we landed the situation was tense and the fishing boats crowded us again. There was shouting, in Turkish, and gesticulating. A shotgun appeared in the hands of one captain and the tension just kept building no matter how much our Turkish crew tried to convince the fishermen we were there to observe and ensure they were fishing within the law, which we were.
Then a tipping point came and another vessel barged in and its crew were ready and started hurling fist sized lead weights at us. The metal on metal thwang caught me a bit by surprise, but I raised my camera and started to shoot. Thwang, thwang, the lead weights came in and I realised some of the fishermen were targeting me. A weight crashed through the helicopter windscreen as they fell like rain so I took refuge in the wheelhouse and the fishermen turned their anger against the helicopter.
When the violence abated the windows of the helicopter were smashed and lead weights littered the deck, but we were all unscathed. That was only the end of my first day and this job was going to be awesome.
Working as a photographer for Greenpeace is not all about stepping into harm’s way though. I have spent weeks sat in Valletta harbour in Malta while the wind was so strong not even the Tuna fleet would go out. I also spent days flying over an empty sea searching for a tuna fleet with its Automatic Identification System off.
Over the course of a campaign there are sporadic times of mayhem, some extremely fascinating times and a lot of boring times, but I have to be ready for the action, because it comes at the most unexpected times. On my last day of one season I was inspecting the inside of my eyelids at 4.30am when I was shaken awake and told to grab my gear. On the bridge people were huddled around the radar screen. On it was a vessel in the middle of nowhere doing nothing. We were in swordfish country (well waters) at prime time for long netters. This form of fishing involves deploying a kilometre or more of shallow net designed to catch surface swimming sword fish. The trouble is it also catches endangered turtles, dolphins, sharks… you get the idea, it’s a nasty way to fish, not to mention illegal.
We motored over in a RIB to find the vessel hauling its net and I caught it pulling in an endangered swordfish with the Greenpeace ship behind. Understandably the fishermen were not happy about being caught illegally fishing by Greenpeace. So cut the remaining net and fled. They’d covered the vessel’s name and number so we had no proof who there were so as our crew grabbed the now ghost fishing net, I jumped into the helicopter and we headed after the fisherman. A 12 knot fishing boat is no match for a 200mph helicopter and our pilot was used to dropping commandoes behind enemy lines so a fishing boat with some buoys covering its name was no problem. We skimmed the water and used the downdraft from the helicopter to brush the buoys aside, which is why I could photograph the name and number of the vessel, which was passed on to the authorities.
Life as a Greenpeace photographer is not all as extreme, but it is interesting. I have dived in places no one else has; photographed scientists doing underwater surveys; and jerry rigged a macro system to photograph plankton on the back of a moving ship. It has been one of the scariest, but most enjoyable set of assignments I have ever had.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.