From Bardot to Cook - a Pacific tale

Sea Shepherd's Brigitte Bardot The Brigitte Bardot

From the anti-whaling ship the Brigitte Bardot, to Captain Cook's Endeavour, the history of the Pacific could be told through powerful foreign vessels, writes John Pickford from Tonga.

It was a languid Tongan Sunday morning and I was on a ferry crossing the lagoon from the country's capital, Nuku'alofa, to the small resort island of Pangaimotu.

Just off the palm-fringed shore a strange vessel appeared among the anchored yachts. It was painted battleship-grey with wing-like stabilisers on each side.

From every angle it flashed speed and power and emblazoned on its hull were two words - Brigitte Bardot.

It was, I learned, an ultra-fast "scout" ship for Sea Shepherd, an environmental pressure group that takes direct action in pursuit of its goals.

The French film star is a loyal supporter and one of its prime targets has been Japan's whaling fleet.

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A depiction of Brigitte Bardot on the side of the ship
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In spite of the international ban on killing whales, Japan still hunts a limited number for scientific research.

Last year Sea Shepherd's disruption forced the whalers to return from the Pacific with a catch well below their quota.

On Pangaimotu I joined a group of expatriates at a beachside table. Bardot was quite a talking point. But one woman said little and looked uneasy.

"She's from the Japanese embassy," an American confided to me. "She supports whaling."

The next day in Nuku'alofa I met two of Bardot's crew who were loading crates of beer into an inflatable.

They would soon be leaving Tonga, they said, for the southern ocean and they gave a graphic account of what "disrupting" whalers at sea can involve.

Once Bardot locates the Japanese fleet, more robust Sea Shepherd vessels approach. The bigger ships then try to impede the refuelling of the whalers.

The Sea Shepherd ship Sam Simon moored in Sydney The Sea Shepherd ship Sam Simon moored in Sydney

The Japanese respond with water cannon and non-lethal concussion grenades.

As I listened to these young activists, I thought back to Sunday lunch on Pangaimotu and the Japanese lady's nervous smile.

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Crew with their catch

"Every whaler I met insisted whales were eating too many fish, leaving too few for them. Many wanted to be allowed to hunt bigger whales, and seals too. The fuss baffles them."

Jo Fidgen on board the whaling boat the Jan Bjorn

Tricky waters to steer a safe passage through.

An appeal court in the United States has described Sea Shepherd's tactics as "piracy", while a verdict is pending in a case brought by Australia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Japan's claim to be hunting whales for scientific purposes is spurious.

The Bardot, at anchor off Pangaimotu, is in a long tradition, I thought afterwards.

You could write the history of the Pacific as a succession of arrivals of powerful, foreign vessels in palm-fringed lagoons, beginning with Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour, off Tahiti in 1769.

Later in my travels, on remote Kiritimati - better known as Christmas Island because Cook got there on Christmas Eve 1777 - the appearance of another foreign ship brought some of that history right up to date.

I had just arrived and was gazing at the ocean from the island's only hotel, thinking over a wealth of first impressions - the giant dragonflies at the airport, the hubbub in the dilapidated terminal, including the surprise of Spanish voices, and a sense that the whole island had been energised by something.

Then the receptionist appeared. Would I like a trip to the wharf in the hotel's truck to collect some ice?

Man with tuna

The wharf is busy, thronging with people. We get the ice, the truck lumbers back along dirt roads close to the sea.

We stop again outside a small house and there in the yard is a beautiful, freshly caught yellowfin tuna. So that's why they needed the ice.

As one of two guests in the Captain Cook Hotel I would feast on that fish for the rest of the week.

More from the Pacific Islands

Christmas Island beach

Suddenly the hull of a big ship looms like a black shadow between the coconut palms.

"Is that where the ice came from?" I ask our driver.

"Yes".

"Is it a cargo ship?"

"No, Spanish purse seiner" he says.

And it all clicks into place. Christmas Island has become a logistics base for Spanish fishing vessels. The shipping agent is one of the island's richest men.

Purse seiners, with nets kilometres across, are scooping vast quantities of tuna from the ocean each year.

The sale of fishing licences to dozens of countries, not just Spain, is a major source of income for Pacific governments but there are fears tuna stocks today are being viewed as whaling was in the past, as a limitless bonanza, with the collapse of the fishery a catastrophe waiting to happen.

It was an astonishing juxtaposition that I viewed from that truck - the single locally caught tuna in its box of ice and the Spanish ship looming past us with a capacity for thousands.

And I was sharing the ride with a group of low-paid islanders, laughing, singing and oblivious to the contrast I was feeling between the power in that ship and their weakness.

The history of the Pacific, some might say, since 1769.

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