The Thunder goes under: The story of the world's longest maritime chase. Graphic: Amanda Shendruk; Photo: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd Australia Ltd.

By Jonathon Gatehouse and Amanda Shendruk
16 April 2015

(Maclean's) – The captain of the MV Thunder didn’t go down with his ship. Instead, he stood cheering and applauding in a life raft as the 62-m fishing trawler sank beneath the glassy surface of the Atlantic, 200 km off the coast of Gabon. Then he and his crew of 40 meekly allowed themselves to be rescued by the boat that had been pursuing them for 110 days.

It was a bizarre finish to the world’s longest maritime pursuit, one that began in the icy waters off Antarctica last Dec. 17, and ended on April 6, practically on the equator, near the tiny islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, some 19,000 km away. Reports suggest that the captain of the Thunder—a notorious pirate fishing vessel that had changed its name and flag at least three times in recent years—deliberately scuttled his vessel, although he claims he was hit by a passing cargo ship. It makes little difference. The activists from the Sea Shepherd Society had made their point: that they were willing to go to the very ends of the Earth to protect the Patagonian toothfish.

The environmental guerrilla group is best-known for its efforts to stop whaling. But a landmark ruling last spring by the International Court of Justice in the Hague forced the Japanese to suspend their “scientific” hunts in the Southern Ocean, and freed Sea Shepherd to go after new targets.

The toothfish, as its name suggests, isn’t cuddly, although the deep-water predator’s dense flesh is valuable enough to be known as “white gold” in fishing circles. Interpol, which issued a warning about the Thunder in December 2013, estimates that its owners—suspected to be a Spanish fishing company—have earned more than US$60 million from the vessel’s illegal catches in protected waters since 2006.

Sea Shepherd launched “Operation Icefish” in early December, dispatching two of its boats, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon (named, respectively, after the former host of The Price Is Right, and the recently deceased co-creator of The Simpsons), from its Australian base to the Antarctic. Turning off their GPS transponders, they attempted to get the drop on a group of toothfish poachers they call “the Bandit 6.” The Bob Barker was the first to arrive and located the Thunder in the remote Banzare Bank a week before Christmas. The vessel cut loose 25 km of gillnets and attempted to flee, steering first into pack ice, then directly into bad weather, but the Sea Shepherd ship kept up the chase. […]

On March 26, the 99th day of the pursuit, the Thunder captain, believed to be Chilean, radioed to say that one of his Indonesian crew had tried to commit suicide. It’s not clear if it was a ruse, but he refused all offers of assistance. Little more than a week later, he abandoned his listing ship in calm waters. A boarding party from the Bob Barker found the Thunder’s hatches and watertight doors had all been left wide open. […]

The Thunder’s captain and crew are currently in the custody of the São Tomé coast guard, being put up in hotels around the capital city. Throughout the chase, Sea Shepherd had provided regular updates to authorities. [more]

Thunder gone under: The story of the world’s longest maritime chase

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