Long Read - A media mindbomb lobbed into a dark corner

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 13 June 2023
Chris Pash, with Hettie Geenen, the captain of the Rainbow Warrior, and David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. Photo by Greenpeace

The first time I met Greenpeace it came in the form of Bob Hunter, a Canadian with wild hair, a beard, and a tendency to hold court, telling stories and debating.

The year was 1977. The place, a bar in Albany, Western Australia. The location wasn’t unusual. Hard drinking came with the job.

But the fact that Bob was a journalist had me confused. He was clearly an activist, pushing one point of view.

My understanding then was that the role of reporters, using the torch of objectivity, was to shine light into dark places where others don’t want attention.

Bob, the first president of the the campaigning organisation, had unashamedly dropped the objectivity but kept the beam focused on the environment and the downside of its exploitation.

This was a radical position at that time. I suggested to him that what he had planned -- taking on the last whaling station in the English-speaking world -- was perhaps a little on the violent side.

He shook his head: “We’re peace crazed.” He took the peace part of Greenpeace seriously.

Decades later, when going through Bob’s personal papers some years after he died, I found a note from the editor of the Vancouver Sun urging his columnist to not forget a scheduled meeting. He added a PS: “Please wear shoes.”

Bob Hunter, said to be the first person to wear jeans and have long hair in the editorial department, was unashamedly non-establishment and partisan in his actions.

This informed the ethos of Greenpeace, to bear witness and take action against wrongs sometimes taking place out of sight.

When I met Bob, I was a junior reporter at the Albany Advertiser newspaper, covering an extraordinary direct action campaign in 1977 by Greenpeace - what was then an emerging global environmental group.

Decades later I turned it into a book, The Last Whale (Fremantle Press, 2008), written from the perspective of both the activists and the whalers.

Greenpeace invited me back to Albany for the arrival of the global environment group’s Rainbow Warrior ship in April 2023. I couldn’t resist witnessing the contrast between the arrival of environmental activists this year against that of 45 years ago.

The pitchforks were absent this time. It was more a virtual shoulder charge to get tickets for a tour of the purpose-built floating platform for environmental activism, the Rainbow Warrior.

The first time Greenpeace came to town the welcome was chillier than the weather coming off the Southern Ocean swells rolling in from the Antarctic. Locals weren’t impressed by outsiders telling them they should stop their livelihood, whaling.

What followed could be described as a contest between gnats and eagles, a form of theatre, designed to get the attention of the media.

That direct action was exquisitely audacious. And crazy.

Then the activists, led by Bob, had two zodiacs -- tiny open boats powered by outboard motors -- which they took over the horizon and put themselves between harpoons and sperm whales.

They had no backup boat. If anything went wrong, they were on their own. Nothing like the current Rainbow Warrior, 50 metres in length with berths for 30 and sails to assist the engines.

I took Australian photographer and activist Jonny Lewis back to Albany in 2007, his first time since 1977. He stood looking out across King George Sound and said: “We went out there?” He was amazed. He agreed it was a crazy scheme, one he got caught up with and just let himself be carried along.

henk manussen and chris pash rainbow warrior april 2023

Jonny and his friends were up against three steel-hulled whale chasers about 48 metres long and equipped with cannons firing explosive head harpoons.

No humans were harmed in that operation 45 years ago.

(PHOTO: Henk Manussen from the original 1977 direct action crew, and Chris Pash on the Rainbow Warrior)

Albany has changed since then.

The whaling station is now a museum, a world-beating and magnificent community resource with a whale chaser ship to explore on dry land.

Whale watching, a business supporting many, is celebrated from June to October as humpbacks and southern right whales return each year.

The city gets much of its power from a large-scale wind farm, a fact that tickled the late Tom Barber. Two Harpoon Tom, who had two harpoons pass over or near his head in 1977 as he piloted a Zodiac, went on to build the world’s first commercial wind farm in California.

Other major players from 1977 also aren’t with us anymore including whale chaser masters Paddy (James) Hart, Kase Van Der Gaag and Gordon Cruikshank.

Both Paddy and Kase later turned gamekeepers from poachers, speaking out against whaling. I know they both would have loved exploring the Rainbow Warrior and chatting to its captain, Hettie Geenen, in whom they would have recognised a fellow professional seaman.

I told Hettie, from the Netherlands, a story about her whaling countryman, the whaling ship master and gunner Kase Van Der Gaag, who drew the activists, in what he derisively called their rubber duckies, away from the other two whale chaser ships.

Kase had the activists where he wanted them. He knew they couldn’t get back to shore unless they followed him.

He radioed the whaling station asking permission to stay at sea overnight. He got what he asked for.

As it got dark he had second thoughts. If the activists drifted away during the night, they could just disappear and never be found again. He headed back to port, ensuring the activists followed.

On the activist side Jonny Lewis and Bob Hunter are no longer with us. A Frenchman, Jean Paul Fortom Gouin, who with deep pockets orchestrated the campaign and piloted a Zodiac, turns 80 this year.

In 1977, many then thought the aim of the activists was to beat the whalers at sea. That's not what they were there for. This view was too literal.

That wasn’t a physical fight with the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company. What the direct action crew had was Bob Hunter. He coined the phrase “media mindbomb”.

The strategy was to lob information, the images of dying whales, into the minds of media consumers, preferably those watching television. Changing public opinion.

The internet wasn’t around and mobile phones were decades away. A mass media message had to make a big splash on the highways of traditional media.

Most Australians then didn’t have any idea that Australia was whaling. Their knowledge of whales was from reading the book Moby Dick. So the plan was to get the message out nationally, and internationally, that Australia was whaling and that it was cruel and unnecessary

In Albany, whaling was a big employer and part of the town’s identity. So, while the activists didn’t get much local applause, they did get national and global attention via reports from a mass of journalists gathered to report the confrontation. Conflict is news.

Despite the humble nature of that campaign, in terms of resources, it was the first by Greenpeace outside North America. You could say that Albany was the birthplace of Greenpeace International and of Greenpeace in Australia. That, as Australians like to put a stamp on events, probably deserves a plaque.

While it didn’t stop whaling dead in its tracks, the whaling station closed the next year -- the result of a few factors. But a key one was that the market for sperm whale oil collapsed as buyers, seeing a threat to supply from Greenpeace action across the world, switched to alternatives.

The closure was announced on the first day of hearings of a judicial inquiry into whales and whaling, established by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser because of public opinion. Years later, Malcolm Fraser told me that he got more letters about whaling than he did about any other issue.

Bob Hunter’s Mindbomb, and the work of many, worked.

Among the many media interviews (with me as the subject) in Albany during the latest trip, I said: “These days you don't have to have long hair and a bandana to be an environmentalist. You can do that from your own home in the choices you make and what you consume.”

I also said that, like Bob Hunter, we need organisations such as Greenpeace to shine lights into dark corners where others don’t want us to look.

chris pash rainbow warrior april 2023 - selfie

While in Albany, I took some of the crew of the Rainbow Warrior to the White Star Hotel, favoured by the whalers in the 1970s, a time of blokey pub comradery lubricated by large amounts of beer. A sperm whale penis of great size then sat in the corner.

Tense would be an understatement if activists had walked into that bar in 1977. The pub was the closest to the town wharf where the three whale chasers tied up and while most were well behaved there was the occasional confrontation with local shearers to see who was the toughest.

Now the pub is something of a boutique, craft beer place where you go to listen to a folk band. Gone are the prizes of whaling hunting. 

From the White Star Hotel, we followed local Rod Vervest (after he had finished his set with the band) up the hill to the Earl of Spencer, an historic inn, where the Greenpeace crew, identifiable by their t-shirts, caused a ripple of friendly curiosity.

Vervest was part of a project called Voiceprints, along with Kim Lofts and Malcolm Traill, which gathered recorded interviews with many players from 1977, both activists and whalers. Much of that ended up in an ABC radio documentary of the same name as the book, The Last Whale.

He reminded me that he’d come to the local airport in 2007 to meet Jonny Lewis and I as we arrived. Paddy Hart, the whaling skipper, also came. He told Jonny: “We wouldn’t have hurt you back then.”

Later that same trip, we recorded a meeting between Jonny and Kase Van der Gaag. They apologised to each other. Kase, for the whales he killed. Jonny for being a smartass, coming to town to tell everyone what to do.

I’m in regular contact with a few from those days in 1977.

Bobbi Hunter, the first treasurer -- read fundraiser -- of Greenpeace, who was here in 1977 with her husband Bob, has just released a book, Mr Mindbomb about Bob Hunter. There’s a chapter in it about Albany (written by me).I asked Bobbi and Aline Charney Barber, who was also there in 1977 and later married Tom, to send a message to be delivered to the Rainbow Warrior on its arrival in Albany.

Hettie Geenen and chris pash greenpeace photo april 2023 (media use only)

Bobbi Hunter said, in part:

“Greenpeace was started by a handful of passionate people in 1971 and has evolved to the organisation that it is today. My husband, Bob Hunter, was there at the start as a popular local news reporter. He was on the first ship to Amchitka to stop insane nuclear testing and along the way he lost his objectivity but in return found his meaning in life. He was a brilliant charismatic leader who became the first President and guiding light of Greenpeace. He would be proud of all the current day Environmental crusaders and he would be proud of Chris Pash for being a messenger for the planet.

“The Rainbow Warrior has special meaning to Bob and I. Bob read the original Rainbow Warrior story as is told in an indigenous story book and adapted it to become a key symbol for the early Greenpeace campaigns. Its core meaning is one of a hopeful path of shared concern for the planet.

“Bob and I also had a key role in the purchase of the original Rainbow Warrior ship. The first Rainbow Warrior was originally called the Sir Thomas Hardy and was renamed the Rainbow Warrior at Bob’s request.

“That ship was purchased directly after we came down to Australia in 1977 to help the Australian group of crusaders shut down the last land-based whale station in Australia.

“We felt in the mid ‘70s that we had won the battle to save the planet after we came back from many hugely successful anti-Whaling campaigns. As Bob said, ‘the war has been won, it is now just a two hundred year mop up operation.’ Maybe that was vastly optimistic, but, one must be an optimist to stay on for any length of time as an Eco Warrior.                                             

“I thank you for your crusading spirit. Please continue with this difficult and most important mop up operation.”

Aline Charney Barber:

“I'm proud to say that our efforts made a difference in the final closure of Cheynes Beach Whaling Station. Also that it resulted in the creation of Greenpeace Australia. It brought together a most interesting group of people…from all points of the globe. Primarily Aussies, I was an American. There was Bob and Bobbi Hunter from Canada, Jean Paul Gouin from France.

“This wasn't a slick operation, but it was successful because of the combination and character of the people involved … it wouldn't have happened otherwise.

“The conditions were terrible and the Zodiacs going out to sea was on one hand mad but
also courageous. Tom Barber and I fell in love on the frontlines and later married.

“We went on to the US, where in California Tom designed and helped build the first commercial wind farms in the world. He was an Australian architect, an environmentalist, and I truly believe our prior experience in Albany, our experience with the locals, helped us prepare in how we related and connected with the community.

“With all the negative that is going on in the world, it's so important especially for the young that they learn and see success and positivity. That one can and should make a difference no matter in what form, each in their own way.

“You pick your battles. When I look at Albany today, where whale watching is the primary tourist attraction, where a wind farm is generating the electricity of the town, it swells me with pride. This is not the time to give up or give in. Our oceans are under attack. The ocean peoples must be protected.

“Thank goodness for Greenpeace … It's mind boggling that it's been 45 years since whaling was stopped in Albany and wonderful that the Rainbow Warrior is coming to honour and celebrate it. Also to honour the start of Greenpeace Australia, as well as continue up the coast to join local communities to protest Woodside's terrible plans for offshore gas drilling.
It has to be stopped and there should be a moratorium throughout the Pacific.

“I've always believed that Save the Whale, Save Man, the same thing. Wishing much success....and a whale of celebration. I will be there in spirit.”

Footnote. The Last Whale is now out of print. I have a secret desire to get it updated -- correct a few errors, add new material (and some scenes that were cut by editors) -- in time for the 50th anniversary of the closure of the whaling station 2028.

I am also working on another book. It will include details about how the global fight to save the whales was won (mostly) and how commercial whaling was stopped.

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