“One of the first things I told her was: ‘I'm involved with this organisation, my journey is to be on those boats so there's an element of risk being with me'… And she accepted that because she knew I was so passionate about it.”
These were the blunt words of Rob Dickinson to his then-new lover.
Rob’s passion for animal rights started in 2014, when a diving experience in Tonga had him swimming alongside humpback whales. In this moment he questioned, ‘why would people slaughter these beautiful animals?’. It gave him a whole new appreciation of the sea.
In 2015, he reached out to Sea Shepherd (a global non-profit marine conservation organisation) to start a branch in land-locked Queenstown. Over the years he became a beloved activist among the community. He volunteered around the clock, from beach cleans to silent public protests against animal cruelty.
Rob had filed for a placement on one of Sea Shepherd’s boats, but by April 2018 he’d heard nothing so decided to go on an extended holiday with his girlfriend.
“We were going to the Seychelles diving and we had this all booked for the August and I got the call up in July.”
Rob had to sacrifice the holiday and the relationship.
“There was no way anyone was gonna change my mind. Some people find love, I'm very fortunate I've found my passion.”
With more than three years’ savings stashed for his dream voluntary placement, Rob was ready to board Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker and work as a marine engineer.
“When I first saw the Bob Barker, my heart was in my mouth. The lights and the big set of teeth on the front of the bow… I thought, 'I'm finally here!”
Rob was part of a crew of twenty other ‘strong personalities’. All had differing activist agendas; human rights, feminism, animal rights, even anti-fascists.
There’s no official employment contract but the crew got ‘looked after’.
“[You] have to respect the Sea Shepherd policies and that is FULL VEGAN,” says Rob.
One of the first missions was a 42-hour journey to Port Gentil in Gabon, central west Africa. The organisation struck an agreement with government entities to protect the Gabon waters.
“These poor nations don't have the resources to patrol them. We're like external contractors except it's all volunteer.”
When out on the waters the crew work in shifts, 24/7, until they get back to port.
“The day-to-day jobs were looking for nets in the ocean, for plastic, for anything that is in trouble like turtles wrapped up in nets. But our main target was [illegal] fishing vessels.”
Typically, the illegal fishing boats have Korean captains with fishermen from the Philippians, Malaysia and sometimes Africa, all working together with major language barriers.
“There's a lot of exploitation on board these vessels,” says Rob.
“Sexual abuse, mental abuse, torture, sleep deprivation, lack of sanitary facilitates, poor safety techniques. It's really, really bad. It's like going back 50 or 60 years! You can't help (even if you’re not into human rights) feel sorry for these men.”
Rob spent two months on patrol and another two months doing boat maintenance in Italy. His placement in Africa certainly changed his mind-set.
“I'm now a minimalist, I don't want the things I used to want. All my personal belongings fit inside my van, I don't have anything. I've narrowed it all down because I think a simple life is a better life and it's the key to happiness.”
Rob will return to Sea Shepherd for his next placement this month.
Words Lauren Prebble