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Eskil Engdal & Kjetil Sæter, Catching Thunder: The True Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase

Zed Books, 2018; 400pp; £12.99

ImageIn 2014, captain Peter Hammarstedt and his crew, from the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, set off from Tasmania on ‘Operation Icefish’. Their mission was to search the Southern Ocean for six illegal fishing vessels, wanted by Interpol. These ships were accused of poaching endangered Patagonian toothfish. Against the odds, the activists were able to locate one of the wanted vessels, Thunder, stop it fishing and set it to flight.

The book is a thrilling roller-coaster story, as packed with surprises and intrigue as a John le Carré novel. For the first 100 pages, the narrative drives (or in this case sails) forward with relentless force. As the book progresses, the inexorable chase is enlivened with flashback chapters, telling the story of the ships and characters which people the pursuit.

It is clear from the start who are the heroes and villains in this tale. Some readers may be critical of the caricatures painted in some of the descriptions. Nonetheless, for activists wanting to know more about Sea Shepherd and the struggle to save our oceans, this book provides inspiring insight. There are 20 pages of footnotes for anyone whose questions remain unanswered. The text lacks an index but is available as an ebook if you want to search and scrutinise.

Some readers may want to have an atlas to hand as they read, so that they can enjoy following the 10,000-mile chase on a map.

The book leaves readers in no doubt that international waters are a ‘wet wild west’. Here, few nations have the resources or the will to combat industrial fish-poaching. That makes it all the more impressive that Hammarstedt was able to pursue the Thunder until it ran out of options. The book makes a persuasive argument that our oceans need greater protection and that Sea Shepherd has stepped in – using nonviolent tactics – where governments have been unwilling or unable to act.

This is deeply-researched investigative journalism. Illegal fishing has rarely made the headlines but the authors unmask organised crime with links to money-laundering, drug-smuggling and alleged people-trafficking.

Eskil and Saeter’s work stands in a long tradition. The sea has always inspired epic storytelling, from myths and folk-tales to sea shanties. A fondness for such stories is a prerequisite for enjoying this book, but it will appeal to anyone with a love of the sea, not only to campaigners. Nautical terms may be unfamiliar and the English is seasoned with Americanisms. Nonetheless, Diane Oatley’s translation is seamless and easy to read.

Topics: Green