Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sea Shepherd Flag

When I visited Hobart last year I took a tour of the Sea Shepherd vessel the MY Steve Irwin which is registered under a Dutch flag but which flies the Jolly Roger (right). I was quite irked by the ship's Skull and Crossbones ensign and I confronted the nice young man giving me the tour. "Isn't that a pirate flag?" I asked him. "It is," he replied happily. "Oh, so I suppose you consider yourselves pirates then," I said somewhat annoyed. Why was I irked by a silly flag? Well, I come from a Royal Navy family: my dad was in the navy for twenty five years, I had a great uncle at Dunkirk et al. Piracy is a huge problem in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and ships sailing under the Black Flag are not cool in my book. But the young man had an answer for me. "We fly the Jolly Roger because we have sunk enemy boats," he explained. This completely disarmed me. I knew that since World War I Royal Navy submarines that have sunk vessels in combat are allowed to fly the Jolly Roger on the day that they return to their home port. It began as a goof (because the First Sea Lord had called the submarine service "piratical and damned un-British") and quickly became a tradition. The Jolly Roger was last flown - somewhat controversially - in 1982 by the returning submarine HMS Conqueror after the Falklands War. The Sea Shepherds have embraced this tradition and when their vessels collide with whaling ships (the Shepherds claim that they do not deliberately ram ships) and the whaling ship is forced to be scuttled then that's another ship sunk.
Morally this is all pretty dodgy. On the one hand they say they are not terrorists or pirates because every ship they have sunk has been an "accident" but on the other hand they embrace the Jolly Roger and its connotations with piratical glee. The flag of course isn't a true skull and crossbones: a shepherd's crook is crossed with (presumably) Poseidon's trident under the skull and there are three dolphin motifs, but basically its the same. (For more on the history of the Jolly Roger, click here.)
I was thinking about all this yesterday when I read in the New York Times that under pressure from the Sea Shepherd ships the MY Steve Irwin and the MY Bob Barker the Japanese Whaling Fleet has completely abandoned their Antarctic whale hunt for 2011, has steamed back to Japan, and has said that they may never return because of the Sea Shepherds "dangerous tactics". It therefore looks like the Sea Shepherds and their aggressive methods have triumphed where governments and more pacifist groups like Greenpeace have largely failed. Even today it seems the Black Flag can be intimidating.