The story of Sea Shepherd, in Captain Alex Cornelissen’s words

Quella volta che Sea Shepherd è venuta nella redazione di LifeGate e Alex Cornelissen ci ha raccontato la sua storia e le sfide che attendono gli oceani.

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation you’ve always dreamed of almost by accident, thanks to an email you receive or a phone call you make just in case, to leave no stone unturned. This is more or less what happened when Sea Shepherd, the organisation committed to protecting ocean biodiversity, visited LifeGate’s newsroom. Because the secret is not to make any plans. It just took replying to an email sent by Filippo Cabrini, coordinator for the Lombardy region, announcing the visit of Sea Shepherd Global CEO Alex Cornelissen to Italy to have the honour of having him here, the next day, together with Sea Shepherd Italy President Andrea Morello.

Love at first sight

After a cup of coffee and a glass of water, Cornelissen began telling the tale of how it all started. “I joined Sea Shepherd in 2002. I met Captain Paul Watson through a friend of mine who went on board the one ship Sea Shepherd had at that time – the Sea Warrior – to make a documentary about Sea Shepherd for Dutch television. I got in touch with the organisation, which I hadn’t heard of before, and I was so impressed that I quit my job and my apartment and joined for a sabbatical”. Cornelissen’s plan was to go back to Holland but nothing was ever the same again. “That year basically changed my life,” he said. “After two months I decided to return back to the ship and then I stayed on board for a total of about six and a half years”.

“I started as a cook and I worked myself up to the bridge, became the second officer, the first officer and then captain. After that I just did one campaign after the other”. 25 campaigns over six years led captain Cornelissen to become Director of the Galapagos at the organisation’s offices. He stayed there another six years, starting a family. While telling his story, his wife and daughter waited for him outside our recording studio.

“At the end of 2013 we decided to move our head office from the US to the Netherlands,” he went on. “After 12 years I came back to my home country”.

Sea Shepherd in Italy

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd was instilling itself in Italy: “It happened in 2010 with the arrival of the Steve Irwin in La Spezia,” said President Morello. “On that occasion an Italian support group was established, which later led to the establishment of the organisation in our country”. Today, more and more people want to help support and protect Italy’s 7,000 kilometres of coasts. “What you can do is to become a volunteer and make your time and knowledge available,” he continued.

Since then, when Sea Shepherd only had one ship, things have changed a lot. Now nine ships are sailing the world’s oceans carrying out national and international campaigns. “We’re just everywhere,” said Cornelissen proudly. “It’s very much needed because the problems have become bigger for the oceans. But it is also good to see that more and more people are supporting and joining us because they understand that direct action is really needed to save the oceans”.

Plastic is killing the oceans

The organisation’s main aim is the conservation of marine biodiversity through direct actions against illegal activities (illegal fishing, illegal whaling and overfishing). But there’s another enemy in our oceans: plastic. “We definitely see that there’s more to save in the oceans than just stopping illegal fishing. We have to educate people on the use of plastic, about pollution,” Cornelissen went on. “I think that everybody should be aware that if the oceans die in the next 30 years we’ll have a serious problem”. Another way to cut our environmental footprint is changing our food habits in favour of a vegetarian diet: “We at Sea Shepherd are advocating a vegan lifestyle. We don’t say that everybody should be vegan but in the organisation we’ve made a conscious choice to only serve vegan meals on our ships and I think we’re actually stimulating and inspiring others to make that choice too”.

alex cornelissen sea shepherd
Sea Shepherd Captain Alex Cornelissen © Facebook

Japan and hunting for scientific purposes

A talk on the activities carried out by Japan was essential, even if those who love Sea Shepherd are already aware of the issue. After the International Court of Justice of The Hague rejected Japan’s whaling plan as its practice is in fact commercial and not scientific, Tokyo resumed hunting activities presenting a new research programme, but it is basically the same thing. “They just changed the wording. But the good thing is that they lowered their quota from 1,000 whales to 333”.

To demonstrate how Japan is trying to hide this illegal activity, Cornelissen told of the time that one of the organisation’s helicopters flew over a Japanese whaler with a minke whale on deck. “As soon as they saw the helicopter they used a tarp to cover the whale so we couldn’t see it, but we had already seen it. We proved that what they were doing is illegal. It’s clear that they are aware of their illegality. A scientific research permit probably would allow you to maybe kill a whale every five years if needed, but not a thousand whales. Everybody knows that whaling in Japan is purely commercial”.


We ended the interview talking with President Morello who invited us to visit their website to understand how we can support Sea Shpeherd, given the increase in requests: “Everybody can get involved in events to spread awareness on the state of health of the Planet’s oceans. You can help by going into schools and talking with students or organising ‘vegan’ events to raise funds to support the activities of ships all over the world”.

There’s more: “You can get on board and join the organisation by applying online, specifying your skills and expectations. You’ll be contacted to take part in expeditions needing crew members,” said Morello. “To keep our oceans alive, we need support. Because fighting to protect marine biodiversity is the last resort to save ourselves”.

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