Whales, icebergs and Sea Shepher'ds 'Steve Irwin' ship

Compassionate Pirates: a conversation with Sea Shepherd’s Geert Vons

In 1820, ‘The Essex’ – an 88-foot, 238-ton whaling vessel – set sail from Nantucket, Massachusetts on a fateful voyage across the Pacific Ocean. During the attempted slaughter of a whale pod, the ship was rammed by an enormous sperm whale described by crew members as “appearing with ten-fold fury and vengeance… distracted with rage”. Their battered ship succumbed to the ocean, leaving the Captain and his crew stranded far at sea, forced to embark on a treacherous return journey that would see the surviving men resort to cannibalism to ward off starvation. This harrowing tale of man vs nature captured the attention of the world, inspiring Herman Melville to write his classic novel ‘Moby Dick’.

200 years on, marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd have big plans to commemorate this unique story and raise essential funds to continue their work. Known as ‘the world’s most passionate and powerful protector of ocean life’, Sea Shepherd’s brave team sail the globe confronting the devastating actions of illegal whaling, poaching and climate change.

This summer, we are thrilled to unveil ‘The Victory of The Whale’ – a collaborative exhibition and publication featuring artwork from the world’s top tattoo artists. Tattooers such as Nissaco (Japan), Deno (UK/Spain), Bill Canales (USA) and more have been confirmed to submit designs inspired by the sinking of The Essex. All proceeds from sales of the publication will benefit Sea Shepherd and lucky visitors to The London Tattoo Festival can even bid live at the show to bag an original artwork. 

We caught up with Sea Shepherd’s Global Art Director Geert Vons to find out more.

“I got involved with Sea Shepherd about 30 years ago when I was at University. I worked in a bar every weekend to help pay for my studies and that was where I first read an article in a magazine about Sea Shepherd. I was interested but there was no easy way of contacting them before the internet existed, so I had to find out how to get in touch. It was a different era, one where you had to write a letter!

It was a small movement at the time and one of my most vivid memories was people asking me, if these terrible things are really happening, why aren’t governments doing anything about it? People felt that if the issues we were facing were as bad as we were saying, they would do something. I had to say, well no, actually – governments are hardly ever willing to act in this situation.”

Geert first started a tattoo business over 25 years ago, briefly stopping when he was made General Director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands in 2009, before combining the two.

“Our ships sail under the Dutch flag, so I became the Sea Shepherd contact for the Dutch government. It started with ‘Mr. Vons’, but soon it became ‘Geert’. We are a bit more determined in our campaigns than other organisations, so I regularly had to visit The Hague.

Our government received some complaints about us. I explained that if Japan did not hunt, if they did not slaughter undersized whales and if they did not kill within a whale sanctuary in the Antarctic, there would have been no confrontations with us at all. It is absurd that we have been accused of terrorism when we are only trying to draw attention to what is actually happening. When the facts come out on the table, becomes clear what interests are at stake. 

Since the first campaign in Antarctica in 2002, Sea Shepherd’s direct action campaigns in the Southern Ocean have successfully prevented the slaughter of more than 6,000 whales. The campaigns against illegal Japanese whaling have attracted a lot of attention worldwide and partly thanks to these campaigns, whaling has stopped around Antarctica.”

For Vons, it’s simple: Sea Shepherd acts where agreements and treaties are not respected. 

It’s not like we protect whale species because we like them. Of course we think they are beautiful animals, but that’s not the point. These animals are protected on paper, but in reality they are slaughtered. If there is no-one to patrol and check, we will. According to the ‘UN World Charter for Nature’, NGOs and individuals have the right to enforce that protection. There are plenty of agreements and treaties, but what good is it if they are not upheld?”

Sea Shepherd stands for her cause and knows international law is on her side. If you are sure of your case and you are prepared to go to extremes for it, then you can always take a firm stand – no matter how big or threatening your opponent is.

Giving up is not in Von’s dictionary. The organisation gained international notoriety with their actions in the waters around Antarctica but these are far from the only achievements of these compassionate pirates. Sea Shepherd are committed to preventing the extinction of the vaquita, the Californian porpoise, and they have been successful in thwarting illegal poaching in marine reserves off the coasts of West Africa, Sicily, Panama and the Galapagos Islands. 

In the early days, Geert began offering his paintings and drawings to help raise money for the organisation and by 2000 he was a regular crew member and had designed Sea Shepherd’s iconic Jolly Roger logo.

“The Jolly Roger has a big impact. It is a strong logo and people identify with it. A good logo, to me, is a minimum of colour, lines and text in order to have the strongest impact.

The fact that this flag contributes to the image of Sea Shepherd as a terrorist gang of scurry leaves Vons completely cold. 

“Yes, that is often said about us. No, those people do not know what they are talking about. 

Terrorists are very arbitrary and make victims who are not connected to the goal they are pursuing. On the contrary, we are super-focused and we focus only on those who break certain laws. Terrorists operate in anonymity, we are all on the Internet by name. Finally, we do not want to achieve our goal by instilling fear but rather by showing what is happening. The confrontations that are taking place may look fierce but they are not in themselves acts of terrorism.”

Geert is the prototype activist; grumpy looks, loose black clothes, tattooed arms, a long grey beard, and a little recalcitrant in his ways. But as soon as he starts talking it becomes clear that beneath the surface there is a good heart that houses a great respect for the sea and its inhabitants.

“We are acting as a party that literally fights for all marine animals that cannot protect themselves against human exploitation. Most people who disgrace us just have too much free time and fire accusations out on the internet. Do I have to worry about that? Should I respond to that?

We want to save animals, save the oceans. You may think what you want, but if the decision seems right, we are prepared to face the consequences. I think that this is exactly what you miss in many other organisations. We do not hide behind the collective. It is always clear who is responsible for what and we are prepared to justify our choices and defend our decisions. With such a dedication and commitment, it doesn’t matter how big the opposition… We do what we do because we stand for what we stand for.”

Geert views the options for marine conservation through artistic connection and so he set up Sea Shepherd Tattoo as a unique way to raise awareness and funds for Sea Shepherd’s direct-action campaigns worldwide. Tattoo artists are invited to use their talent to support Sea Shepherd. They may work as a guest artist in the Sea Shepherd Tattoo Studio in Amsterdam, organise a support event in their own studio, or donate artwork to Sea Shepherd.

“Often the message does not come across. People do hear what is being said, but that does not mean the message is understood. They have listened with their rationale but it does not reach the heart. Here is where tattoo and art come in. Artists can make you really feel the issue whereas scientists talk with their heads and politicians are unreliable. That’s where I can see Sea Shepherd Tattoo making the difference. To see Sea Shepherd support expand on a truly global level by means of arts and tattoo, setting up a framework of awareness and a mindset to which anyone can contribute.”

Geert’s fascination with the ocean and with drawing and painting sea creatures stems back to childhood. 

“You can walk along the beach and look at the sea for hours without getting bored. Every time I travelled, I’d choose to meet the ocean. On one of those journeys I was struck by the spiritual aspect of art and it being integrated as part of society and daily life. It’s not something on it’s own, separated, or a sort of bonus/luxury thing.

Who came up with the idea to split the body and the mind? They are related and one affects the other. The environment is a label which automatically puts you as a person outside of it. It’s not environment vs mankind, we are part of the whole thing.”

Despite this growing disconnection between mankind and the environment, Geert stays optimistic and is convinced that one should at least try to improve things. 

“Worrying doesn’t help and neither does inaction. I think we all have to try as hard as we can to make changes. Whether it works or not is irrelevant.”

One of the overarching appeals of Sea Shepherd remains its authenticity, according to Geert.

“Every single person has a voice and can make a difference by sharing their story. Sea Shepherd has something unique; it appeals to some very strong archetypes, the pirate, the rebel, the warrior. That is something very personal, subconscious or not, and everyone can relate to that. Who hasn’t played a pirate when being a kid, or ignored a red traffic light on an empty street when waiting too long?”

Sea Shepherd ‘Get Inked’ logo

I ask Geert about the upcoming London Tattoo Festival exhibition. What is the goal of the project?

“Artists have an important role to play. People listen to them, because they touch the heart in ways politicians cannot. The support from the tattoo community is incredible. There seems to be a new vogue for tattoos, they are so emblematic of the sea and have historically been popular with crew, sailors and yachties.

How can readers of the blog and visitors to The London Tattoo Festival get involved and support Sea Shepherd’s work?

“We wouldn’t survive without the dedication of our onshore volunteers. National groups and local chapters are made up of volunteers who sell merchandise, organise fundraising events, participate in beach cleanups and educate the public about our mission.

We are also always looking for dedicated individuals to crew aboard our global fleet of ships. We want people of all ages, backgrounds and skills who are ready for the adventure of a lifetime as they defend and protect the world’s oceans.

Sea Shepherd relies on the generosity of our donors to fuel and maintain our ships. Whether it’s a one-time or monthly commitment, your donations make a real difference in keeping us ready for direct action campaigns around the world.”

Be sure to support Sea Shepherd this summer. The Victory of the Whale will be exhibited at The London Tattoo Festival 31st July – 2nd August 2020. 


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