Going, Going, Gone: Thunder Sinks, Captain Cheers, Sea Shepherd Saves More Than Just Patagonian Toothfish


A record breaking ocean chase came to a dramatic close early last night when an Interpol-wanted poaching vessel – the Thunder – sank off the coast of Africa leaving the Sea Shepherd activists who’d been tailing it to rescue the pirate crew.

And as the ship went down, it's Spanish captain reportedly clapped and cheered from his life-raft.

The Thunder, which is thought to be backed by a Spanish crime syndicate and crewed by Indonesians working under duress, has responded with hostility to its eventual rescuers since the 110-day chase began in February.

“We were very worried to start with, and we were looking at options of handcuffing, particularly the officers, and detaining them,” a spokesperson for Sea Shepherd told New Matilda.

The Spanish officers in charge of the Thunder, with their faces obscured by ski masks, have previously thrown metal implements at Sea Shepherd crew, who were trying to pass messages offering to take on board members of the Indonesian “slave” crew.

Poaching vessels have also attempted to ram Sea Shepherd ships a number of times this fishing season, and the Thunder’s crew had to be searched for weapons before being taken on board the Sam Simon, one of the Sea Shepherd fleet.

But when New Matilda spoke with Captain Peter Hammarstedt of the Bob Barker, one of two Sea Shepherd ships involved in the chase, he said there’d been no trouble.

“Well we’ve had the entire Thunder crew segregated from the rest of the Sea Shepherd crew,” Captain Hammarstedt said.

“It’s also a matter of vessel safety,” he said, “there’s about twice as many of them as there are Sam Simon crew”.

“They’re all in the aft deck – we have two crew members who just keep an eye on them and just escort them to the bathroom if they need, and things like that.”

While the Indonesian deckhands “have been jovial, happy and kind,” the Spanish bosses have been less appreciative of their rescue.

As the chase has played out – from the Great Southern, to the Indian and finally the Atlantic Oceans – Sea Shepherd has been collecting evidence which will likely be used for prosecution by Interpol.

Since 2013 there has been an Interpol ‘purple notice’ warrant against the Thunder, and it is believed to have been illegally targeting the threatened Pategonian Toothfish.

While the captain of the Thunder, and his backers, would have “lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash” from the fish in the ship’s fish hold and “the vessel itself would be worth a coupled of million dollars”, Captain Hammarstedt believes the ship was intentionally scuttled to do away with evidence.

“It is an incredibly suspicious situation, to say the least,” Captain Hammarstedt said.

“Usually when a vessel is sinking, the captain will close all hatches so as to maintain buoyancy. However, on the Thunder, the reverse was done – doors and hatches were tied open and the fishhold was opened.”

“When the deck officers saw that I was putting some of my crew on to the Thunder the mood really soured,” he said.

“And when the Thunder finally did sink the captain of the Thunder – still in his life boat – was clapping and cheering and he seemed generally really relieved.”

However the evidence against the Thunder – including more than 70 kilometres of illegal gillnet and over 50,000 kilograms of fish retrieved off the Antarctic coast when Sea Shepherd sprung it with its nets down – is substantial.

Computer records, nautical charts, and a GPS, were among the “additional physical evidence” collected by Sea Shepherd crew before the Thunder went under.

Needless to say, the Spanish deck officers are “really a surly, surly bunch”.

While it will be left to specialists to work out whether the Indonesian crew amounted to ‘slave labour’, Captain Hammarstedt said, “what we can tell is the Indonesian crew and the [Spanish] deck officers don’t mingle at all – they sit in separate groups”.

He said the Indonesian crew are “really jovial, happy and kind”, and are taking photos on their mobile phones, laughing and chatting.

It’s a far cry from the mood late last month, when Thunder’s captain radioed the Sam Simon and Bob Barker claiming one of his crew had attempted suicide after a third ship joined in the pursuit.

“I believe that the Indonesian crew are being held against their will and know that they are not allowed to communicate freely,” Captain Hammarstedt said at the time.

“This on board a vessel suspected of numerous fisheries crimes and one that has exhibited violent behaviour toward my crew.”

He said he suspected the crew was being trafficked under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

“The attempted suicide on board the Thunder, and the Captain's apparent intention to stay at sea, gives me strong reason to worry about injury and death on board that vessel in the absence of government intervention,” he said in an appeal to the world’s navies to intervene.

Now, with the Thunder “3800 metres below the surface of the sea”, the Spanish officers could also face Spanish courts under new legislation, introduced on January 1.

“We know that the Spanish police raided several locations around Spain about a month ago as part of an operation called Sparrow,” he said. It is believed the raids, which targeted Spanish crime syndicate Vidal Armadores, turned up information about a number of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing vessels, including the Thunder.

Two other such ships – the Viking and Kunlun – were detained in south east Asia last month.

Over the next couple of hours the Sam Simon, currently located a few kilometres off the coast of Sao Tome, will hand the Thunder’s crew over to local authorities.

Captain Hammarstedt’s crew will step ashore for the first time in 125 days, and with at least three of the six known poachers that have been illegally plundering the world’s oceans this fishing season now all washed up, he hailed Sea Shepherd’s 11th Southern Ocean Defence Campaign, Operation Icefish, a resounding success.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.