Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Battle Over Frigid Seas


In the Sea Shepherd’s mission to find and stop whaling ships, the helicopter is key


It was a beautiful Antarctic day with high, thin clouds, light winds and flat seas. There were big icebergs on the horizon, and with them, the Japanese whaling fleet. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to have the most intense flying experience of my life.

During those two days, I performed a total of nine flights in the 300C from our ship, the Steve Irwin. We were accompanied by the bulk of the Japanese whaling fleet, and at any given time, there would be five large ships and two small boats jockeying for position, while always within a few miles of each other. During missions like this, my head seems to be on a swivel. Since I have the best view of the engagement and have the ability to communicate with everyone involved, it can take all my focus just to keep up, and these two days were no exception. I had to keep track of the movements of all the vessels, confirm the position and status of the small boats, monitor all radio traffic, keep an eye on the weather and constantly update the bridge crew. Plus, I needed to make sure the aircraft was always in position to get all the aerial footage we needed to show the world what was happening down there.

Those two days were concluded with an event that I often describe as my best and worst moment as a helicopter pilot—the filming of the harpooning of a minke whale.

From a distance, we saw that the Yushin Maru #2, a harpoon vessel, was in pursuit of a pod of whales. Once we arrived on scene, I did everything to keep the aircraft in position, so that we could record the moment that the whaler fired the deadly harpoon. For 20 minutes, I flew the aircraft to the limit of my ability as the ship constantly swerved underneath and around us. Finally, the harpooner fired, and we were right behind him, looking over his left shoulder. That was the best moment, knowing that we had captured that historic footage. But what came next was the worst moment. For 25 minutes and 16 seconds, we hovered and recorded the slow death of that whale, which came only after being shot seven times in the head by a high-powered rifle.

It felt like watching a car crash for the same period of time. You want to look away, but you can't. When I landed hours later, I was utterly spent. There are whole portions of that last day that are still a blur of emotion and adrenaline. Still, I'm proud to have been there.

Flying for SSCS has been the most rewarding professional and personal experience of my life. I have the best view of any office in the world. I fly in some of the most remote places on earth, and have seen things that few, if any, other pilots have seen. It has challenged me in ways I never thought possible, and I look forward to every flight as if it's the first.

Chris Aultman is a dedicated environmental conservationist and commercial helicopter pilot from Long Beach, Calif. Prior to joining the Sea Shepherd team, Aultman served for six years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter-avionics technician. During this period, he spent 13 months at sea and became a veteran of the Gulf War. As part of Sea Shepherd, Aultman has completed six Antarctic campaigns and one Mediterranean campaign. He has flown a total of 450 hours, and conducted over 400 takeoffs and landings from Sea Shepherd vessels. The fourth season finale of Whale Wars will air on August 12, 2011, at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Visit www.seashepherd.org and www.animal.discovery.com/tv/whale-wars.





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