Much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous takes place on the Grand Banks, described by the author as “a triangle of two hundred and fifty miles on each side—a waste of wallowing sea, cloaked with dank fog, vexed with gales, harried with drifting ice, scored by the tracks of reckless liners, and dotted with the sails of the fishing fleet.” One set of sails in the 1897 novel belongs to the schooner We’re Here in the months after it scooped up Harvey Cheyne, Jr, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate, after he fell off an ocean liner. The elemental existence aboard a working vessel transforms Harvey’s character from a whining braggart to a stalwart member of the hearty crew. Reading it this week, I’ve ached with nostalgia for the abundance depicted, for cod schools so vast “the deep fizzled like freshly opened soda-water”. Since the fisheries’ collapse in the 1990s, never again may the Grand Banks “long blue skies” be dotted with sails and clamoring with shouts as brim-full nets are hauled above the waves.
Just as lost is the rich understanding of traditions and place mastered by real-life progenitors of Disko Troop, Captain of the We’re Here. While the crew teaches Harvey everything from reefing topsails to salt-curing fish, only the Captain can read the waters themselves. His cabin-boy son relates, “Dad says everything’ on the Banks is signs, an’ can be read wrong er right.” Troop’s unassailable judgment guides his ship around treacherous shoals, through tumultuous storms, and ahead of rivals to ensnare runs of the fattest fish. Kipling, often criticized for didatic prose, portrays Troop unblushingly as “a master artist who knows the Banks blindfold.”
Yet courageous captains still exist. It was heartening also this week to learn about a new portrait of Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain of the Farley Mowat. Award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller accompanied Watson and his all-volunteer crew on an eco-adventure aimed at blocking—by any means necessary—Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Heller tells Watson’s thrilling but often heart-wrenching and even gory tale in The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals. The Mowat’s Captain honed his expertise, as did the fictional Troop, through decades of piloting ships fearlessly across every kind of sea. Called an eco-terrorist by some, the Watson Heller depicts is a dedicated but ethical warrior, proud that none of the ships he’s sunk has lost a human life. Equally dedicated followers express willingness to risk their own necks for a higher good. As one crew member put it, "I don't want to die, of course... But if I die looking to save a whale, that would be OK.”
How does Watson inspire a whole crew of Davids to confront the Japanese whaling Goliath? Peter Heller offers insights in a November 13 radio interview. Especially enlightening are Heller’s responses to phone-in critics, eager to tar Watson as a criminal. To Heller, Watson’s quest to stop illegal whaling may be justified by both the cruelty of slaughter to individuals and the escalating destruction of the ocean ecosystem. Months on the Mowat have convinced Heller that boycotting swordfish and shark, as urged by many mainstream ocean conservationists, is an insufficient response to a deepening crisis. Instead, he advocates eschewing all commercially caught ocean fish and backs other seemingly radical ocean protection policies. As Heller asserts, “If the oceans are dying in our time, and we kill them... we should have committed a crime so heinous we shall not ever be redeemed.” People like Watson prove that much can be done to redeem ourselves, that we have the knowledge and technology and lack only the public will to do the right thing. Perhaps, like Harvey Chaney, we will be rescued by sheer luck from our own arrogance, and even learn to mend our ways. But if we soon need an epitaph for the ocean, we could do worse than Kipling's bitter lamentation: “We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”