Last month, when Eliza Muirhead — who is currently working aboard Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin — wrote a feature for Our Hen House entitled “You’re Lucky to Love What You Do”: My Journeys On and Off the Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin, many of you joined us in being both smitten and awed by this changemaker’s stories from the front lines. In today’s second installment of Eliza’s three-part series, she writes from the Ross Sea — the “bottom of the world” — where she has what you might call a unique vantage point from which to ruminate on animal sentience.
Does Your Smile Mean the Same as Mine? Thoughts from the Bottom of the World
by Eliza Muirhead
It’s easy to romanticize sailing on a ship in Antarctica; being among the castles of ice in a land that cares little about you, providing only two hours respite from sunlight per night. Freezing winds that give little warning of the sudden turn of sunshine into a snowstorm. The only thing beneath your feet being a speck of a hull floating above miles of dark ocean in a place so remote that, even in a society where you can step on a plane and be almost anywhere within 24 hours, still remains off the traveled map. The bottom of the world.
Not many people ever get the opportunity to take a step outside of the demands and habits of our modern society. To go somewhere that has no need or respect for money, where the day of the week or the time of day means only what you choose to make it mean.
It’s a place that gives you the opportunity to peel your life back to its elemental needs and pleasures. Mashed potatoes have never tasted so delicious, a radiating heater has never been so comforting, and the company of a good friend is actually, consciously, appreciated.
When you are stuck with what you’ve got, the small pile of warm clothes in plastic tubs under your bunk, a dwindling supply of soft apples in the cool room and the company of whoever is sitting beside you, you appreciate it.
iPhones are so useless that they go missing between cushions in the mess for weeks at a time, sometimes never to be found. Rings, earrings and necklaces are stuffed into the backs of cupboards, only to induce paranoid search parties when the time to return to land approaches. Before we pulled into Dunedin to refuel, it took me two days to find my wallet in a cabin that, at a stretch, is three meters squared.
This simplifying of one’s world, this utter reduction of stimulation and choices, forces sea goers to appreciate what they have and question the need for those extraneous items that have crept into our lives on shore.
I’ve always considered humans to be a lucky species – lucky to be able to use these brains of ours to question things. Question what we need or what makes us happy. But there’s no doubt that the more choices we have, the more confused we can become.
Yesterday we drifted by a sea of pack ice in a calm foggy sea and on one of the floats was a small Leopard seal stretched out on her back. We passed her slowly and I watched her stretch and yawn. Was she tired, cold, bored or maybe even lonely? How could I ever know?
Conclusions for these questions have plagued scientists and philosophers for centuries. But I don’t believe that they have been as troublesome to the average person, even one that shares life with an animal. We just apply them inconsistently between species.
If I saw a dog left alone in someone’s backyard portraying these same behaviors, no one would call me crazy for calling this dog lonely, bored, or tired. It’s not because I’d necessarily be more accurate with my assumptions. But few people would argue that dogs do not have the capacity for feeling these things. Because we live more closely with dogs, we are well aware that they have a wide variety of emotions that they express and we can understand.
Is a Leopard seal cold when sitting on ice in negative ten degrees? Probably not. They have, presumably, adapted to this environment; I have not. Could she be bored? Maybe. Tired? Perhaps she caught the yawn from one of the crew-members passing by. (That yawns are contagious across species is a well-documented phenomena.)
I don’t know enough about the life of seals to say with any certainty what she was experiencing at that moment. But what I do know is that asking these questions is at the root of empathy. And when it comes to the science of empathy and the development of compassion, some assumptions have to be made.
When I smile and feel happiness, I can only assume that when the person next to me smiles along with me, they feel something similar, or at least a version of it. If I didn’t assume this, then it would be impossible for me to feel compassion for other human beings.
With animals, it’s harder and often less accurate to make these assumptions. How can we know whether similar behaviors indicate similar emotions? Maybe we can’t, but what we can say for sure, is that animals do experience emotions, even if we don’t always understand them. It doesn’t make sense that humans evolved with emotions but all other animals did not.
And, though, even with our big brains, it might be hard for us sometimes to decipher our own needs, desires or emotions, what we can be sure of is that our emotional lives mean something to us. And, at an even more basic level, our lives mean something. The state of being alive might mean something slightly different to each individual, but it does mean something. We can feel that it means something to ourselves and recognize that feeling in others – non-human animals included.
In early January, we flew over the blood-stained deck of the Nisshin Maru where three dead Minke whales awaited the knives of men who had no regard for what it meant to take those individual lives and turn them into cuts of meat. I don’t know what those whales left behind, or how they felt when they were dying on the end of that rusty harpoon, but I do know that their lives meant something.
Since this day in January, we have found the whaling fleet two more times, and then lost them because of their ruthless attacks on our ships.
We are now approaching the end of a whaling season. As the weather increasingly gets rougher and the krill disappears beneath the expanding ice, we are left with one final chance to find the whaling fleet for the fourth time.
During last year’s court proceedings, the Captain of the Nisshin Maru was asked whether or not he believed anything would stop Sea Shepherd’s campaigns in the Antarctic. He simply answered, “No, because they never retreat.”
I like to believe that, in the back of his mind, he knows why we won’t ever give up. That he knows why, even after three failed attempts, we will never retreat.
It’s the same reason why, in the face of an ever-expanding intensive animal agricultural industry, there is an ever-expanding number of people fighting against it. In the very picture of hopelessness, there is hope.
Last year we saved the lives of 932 whales, and, over the course of our Antarctic campaigns, we have protected over 3,000 more. Each and every one of those lives matter.
And if we keep on remembering that, we will always find the resolve and the hope to keep fighting. To never retreat.
Eliza Muirhead started volunteering for Sea Shepherd while she was studying animal science at Melbourne University in 2008. After learning about the ways in which animals are treated and the environmental concerns that face our planet, she completed a masters in science communication in New Zealand and dedicated her life’s work to the documentation and communication of these issues to the world. In 2012, she joined the crew of the Steve Irwin to produce and develop visual media and communications. Over the past 12 months, she has sailed enough miles to circumnavigate the globe, and has been part of defending two of the last remaining pristine wilderness areas left on this planet: Antarctica and the Kimberley region in Western Australia. As part of this work, she has seen the same humpbacks breaching against the blue mountains of icebergs while they’re feeding in Antarctica, breach against the red cliffs of the Kimberley coast while they socialize and calve in Western Australia. In the middle of 2013, Eliza sailed on the Odyssey for Operation Toxic Gulf to investigate how the pollution caused by BP’s 2010 oil disaster was building up in the largest toothed predator to have ever lived on earth: the sperm whale. Her job on board was to document the campaign and share this story with the world, both the beauty of the surprisingly resilient ecosystem and the continuing destruction of it. Now, on her second voyage to protect the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary from the illegal harpoons of the Japanese whaling fleet for Operation Relentless, Eliza feels honored to be one of the few individuals who are part of defending these whales and documenting and sharing Sea Shepherd’s story.