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

After a chase lasting 110 days—the world’s longest maritime pursuit—the Sea Shepherd Society finally got its catch

Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Australia

Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Australia

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.


By late January, with the two vessels still 1,850 km off the southern tip of Africa, the pursuit was already the longest on record. Direct confrontations were few and far between. Toward the end of the first week of February, the Thunder again dropped its nets, only to have them cut by the Bob Barker. Afterward, there was a near collision in heavy seas. On Feb. 19, with the Sam Simon now having delivered fresh supplies and joined the hunt, small Sea Shepherd boats tried to deliver messages to the Thunder crew, believed to be mostly poor Indonesian sailors. Officers of the vessel responded by throwing lengths of chain and other metal objects, almost decapitating a photographer.

But mostly, the chase was an exercise in patience. Seeking to conserve fuel, the Thunder often chugged along at low speeds, or stopped altogether. It was boring work.

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. The Sam Simon delivered the Thunder’s recovered gillnets, and documentary evidence of the illegal toothfish catch within them, to police on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in March. Australia’s fishery-management authority, which helps to oversee Antarctic waters, says it’s waiting to see what the government of São Tomé will do. Although the answer may well be not much; it’s one of the poorest nations on Earth, and the local press has reported that the Thunder was headed to the country to change its registration and buy a fishing licence. (Attempts to contact the coast guard and government were not successful.) When Malaysian officials stopped the Thunder for illegal fishing in May 2014, they ended up letting the vessel go, after someone paid a $90,000 fine.

But with the poaching vessel now resting four kilometres below the surface, Sea Shepherd has declared Operation Icefish a success, and set about maximizing its potential. Footage shot on board will end up as part of a reality-TV show, and the “inside story” of the pursuit has been given to the New York Times as a “worldwide exclusive.”

Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Australia

Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Australia


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

  1. An excellent story; an extraordinary display of courage; a truly worthy expedition.
    Congratulations to the Sea Shepherd and Simon Ager.
    I hope that future hunts are just as successful … and may God keep you safe.

  2. Just wow! It is an excellent story, but I would hardly it “an extraordinary display of courage; a truly worthy expedition”.

    Has anyone considered the thousands of gallons of fuel oil from the sunken ship and the effect it will have on the environment? Sea Shepherd is directly responsible for that. They caused more harm than good in this case. To save one species of fish they can be directly linked to the deaths of many species of other fish now.

    Good job Sea Shepherd. Way to go! Perhaps you should really focus on saving the ocean rather than trying to be famous under the ruse of saving the environment.

    • No, the captain of the Thunder is directly responsible for its sinking. This ship left a trail of destruction behind it for years, poaching and likely dumping all kinds of garbage in the ocean. Now at least this vessel is out of it. By your logic, law enforcement should never pursue any criminal because something might get damaged in the chase. Sea Sheoherd is right to publicize it–people need to be aware of their food choices.

      • I disagree. Sea Shepherd is not law enforcement. At some point risks need to be weighed by society and not Sea Shepherd. I wouldn’t have a problem with law enforcement doing it because we as a people, in most countries, elect our leaders.

        You can hardly say that ramming vessels and intentionally cutting longline nets is good for the environment that Sea Shepherd claims to protect. Who cleaned up the 25km of longline nets that they so proudly cut? Sea Shepherd is telling you who the bad guys are without any public oversight. I agree that people need to be aware of their food choices, but who is to say that Sea Shepherd gets to determine that?

        I’m sure Sea Shepherds original intention was good at first. Intentionally causing human suffering by ramming boats and acting like cowboys on the water is just as bad as the jerks causing suffering to the animals they are claiming to protect.

        Not every member of the crew on these fishing vessels are bad people. By ramming a vessel you have the potential to harm all of its crew. Society would be better served by going after the owner of these illegal fishing vessels. The above story is not a story of courage. It is a story of cowardice by both Sea Shepherd and the illegal fishing industry.

        If I am going to intentionally harm someone because I disagree with their beliefs or money making strategy, I am only going to harm just that person. I am not going to neglect the my responsibility as an occupant of planet earth and just gloss over the the casualties in my wake. Sea Shepherd’s casualties cause more harm than good. I would rather the illegal fisherman in this particular case continue his work than take a chance of him polluting the ocean with 10,000 gallons of fuel oil. It is certainly the responsibility of the owner for sinking his own ship, but since Sea Shepherd is not sanctioned by the people they must share in the responsibility too.

        This is akin to me seeing a speeder, chasing them down in my own vehicle and forcing the speeder to drive even more reckless. My reasoning for chasing the speeder is because innocent people are getting killed on our highways daily due to reckless drivers. Let’s say the speeder runs over a child in the process. Is the speeder alone responsible or do I also share in the blame by staying on his tail and occasional smacking into his bumper? That’s not an act of courage. It’s an act of stupidity on both the speeder and myself and we both should be held responsible.

        Sea Shepherd has done nothing to make you or anyone else aware of their food choices. All they have done is publicize their blatant disregard for the environment and human life. Unfortunately, in modern society, groups like Sea Shepherd, PETA, Green Peace have many single minded followers that don’t give a damn about the casualties left in their wake. Single focused individuals get props’ from their inept followers that behave the same way. If it weren’t for the ineptitude of yourself or others providing them with donations, they would be unemployed.

        You should take comfort in Sea Shepherd showing you your food choices like the spoiled person that you are. From now on, every fish product you or anyone else obtains from that region will include a little bit of fuel oil and other contaminants, but who cares at least you know your food choices. There are others in this world that don’t get to know, but at least you know not to buy fish from that region. Good job in supporting them while making it suck for the rest of the world. I’m so happy you know your food choices now. That was important to me and everyone else on this planet. Your level of ineptitude allows you to be functionally retarded at best.

        • ” Who cleaned up the 25km of longline nets that they so proudly cut? ”

          Uh, the Sea Shepherd Society.

          ” Sea Shepherd is telling you who the bad guys are…”

          And Interpol.

          ” who is to say that Sea Shepherd gets to determine that”

          It was determined by an international convention.

          Speaking of ‘functionally retarded’, did you not actually read the article, or could you just not understand it?

          BTW, how many deaths have resulted from the SS Society’s ‘blatant disregard for human life’?

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