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I work on a Conservation Vessel as a Deck Hand

Some of you have probably thought about living or working on a boat one day and what a life at sea would look like. So have I, right before I joined the Sea Shepherd conservation vessel ‚Farley Mowat’ for three months in the Gulf of California, Mexico. When I got the phone call asking if I wanted to join the crew and fight on the frontline for the survival of a species, I was thrilled and felt so honoured. I mean - of course I want to do that - take direct action and help the beautiful creatures in our oceans that can’t help themselves to survive.

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

After the euphoria about this life changing opportunity calmed down, I started thinking: you have 10 days to make a decision and arrive in Mexico to join the vessel, you have to rent out your room, you have no idea what life on a vessel like that would be like, will you have friends, you have to pay the flights and in my case I also have a master thesis to write. All these thoughts and doubts (…and a million more) suddenly popped up and I got very worried and indecisive - also about travelling there, even though I have been solo travelling for the past 5 years. But that’s probably just a mechanism to find excuses to avoid a situation which makes one feel insecure or even scared.

Well, in the end it is the cause that overweighs all doubts and questions…so after a few days of asking veterans and my closest friends and family it was pretty clear to me that I had to take this opportunity and help as much as I can to save the most beautiful place on earth and its inhabitants - the ocean.

I have to say at this point that I was very lucky to have a great deal of support and the `vesselveteran’ I mentioned above helped me a lot to be less scared. Also my university was very supportive in letting me go for 3 months instead of working on my thesis, which is about the same organisation and therefore, could be seen as field research. Why I mention all this is to explain that even with a lot of support and a clear purpose in life, it wasn’t easy to take the step and sign up for the first time - but I can tell you: I haven’t regretted it for a single second whilst being here. But I understand that many of you probably want to take direct action and fight for our favourite environment, but the step to commit fully to it seems sometimes bigger than it actually is.

As soon as I had booked the flight a couple of days after the call I felt so relieved and stood 110% behind my decision, sometimes making a change is just one click away - if you consider joining a group of direct action conservationists, I would definitely recommend you to try it.

Right now I’m sitting on the fly bridge of the Farley Mowat, I’m looking at the beautiful sea and every day we are out here, we make a change. We are guarding an area in the Gulf of California which is the home of so many vulnerable marine mammals and fish, of which many are not extinct yet because there are so many awesome people on our boats fighting for them.

You might wonder what exactly Sea Shepherd does here, but don’t worry that’s one of the reasons this article is especially important to me: to explain what we do to save a species and also how it actually is to live onboard a boat like this.

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

Most of the time we, the crews of the ships, are searching for illegal fishing nets in an area in the Gulf of California which is defined as a refuge for the smallest known species of porpoise: the Vaquita. For many people, even people that live in the area, these animals remain a fairytale, since they have never seen those shy fellas. However, Sea Shepherd is taking a stand against illegal gill net fishing for the Totoaba fish. The Totoaba is a very popular fish in China for its swim bladder and is being sold by the Mexican Cartel for a ridiculous amount of money. So far Sea Shepherd has removed more than 1000 nets since Operation Milagro started in 2015.

When Sea Shepherd removes illegal nets, the crew takes care of and set free any animals that are caught in them still alive, recording data as well as location of the nets and animals (dead and alive). Sea Shepherd tries their best to get those hundreds of meter long nets out of the water as soon as possible to prevent animals, fish and especially the Vaquita from getting caught in it and painfully dying alone for no need at all as bycatch. A great white shark, turtles, juvenile hammer head sharks, several whales, many many crabs and fish, dolphins and even a Vaquita have been found in the illegal gill nets. It is especially hard to find fishing gear that has been abandoned and just floats around as a deadly trap for everything that gets caught in it, but even getting those nets out of the water helps other mammals and fish to survive. Don’t get me wrong, as tough as it might be at times to see dead animals and fish while pulling nets, it is equally as rewarding when you can save them. I had the chance to be in charge of the animals in the nets for a while and got lucky with a net, which had 2 California Flounders in it, that were in perfect condition so we could cut them out and set them free again. There is not much that could compare to that feeling.

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

Of course so many other things happen around the vessels, such as local outreach education, but our job as activists is it to keep the oceans safe and save the Vaquita, in fact after the most recent survey Sea Shepherd found out that there are just a few individuals left. Sea Shepherd is the reason why the Vaquita is not extinct, that’s why we won’t stop fighting for its survival.

Besides being an activist and trying to fight for a better world on a Sea Shepherd vessel, I also experienced a really different and great life with the people onboard, who I became really close with over time. Since it is a small space and we are around 20 people, that share 2 cabins, we get to know each other very well in very short time. It quickly became a little family-like community where everybody has their role and their personality. It is definitely an experience where I found friends for life with the same passion and purpose that I have. However, day to day on a boat can be described as … very diverse. It is hard at times but really rewarding as well in so many ways. Normally when we go to guard the Vaquita Refuge, we wake up early (depending on tides). Mostly around 4 or 5am to leave the dock. Even though it is hard sometimes to get out of bed, especially when you had a night watch, it is so beautiful on deck in the early morning - every single time. You see stars you have never seen before so clear in the sky and when we are done handling lines, fenders, etc. the sun is rising on the horizon and paints the sea and the mountains in beautiful colours.

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

Being at sea and searching for nets also means that you get to disconnect a bit from digital life and start focussing on different things that you might have neglected a bit over the years… for instance we play cards or chess, I started reading and drawing again or I’m just watching the waves and the sea and value every single part of nature even more. This might sound like ‚leisure time‘ but in reality those moments are the calm before the storm…the time we have between pulling nets and rescuing animals.

On a boat of 33,5m with many people it might sometimes seem hard to get private space, but actually it is not…sitting on the bow or fly-bridge is very peaceful and quiet, which helps me to find ‚me-time’ and to recharge my batteries. But of course living on a boat means having people around most of the time, which I find amazing. Especially since we all have the same dedication and purpose in life - Defend, Conserve, Protect

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

I have to say I have never learned so many practical things before. We as deckhands take care of the ship besides pulling nets - we clean, we repair, we check, we grease, we scrub, we wash, we paint, we organise, we look after everything that belongs to the deck. I have learned how to de-rust and grind, to chase seagulls off a router while hanging in a harness, operating a crane and a RHIB, to undock and handle lines, to anchor, paint and clean the anchor chain, launch the RHIB and many more things. I’m coming from a background in marketing, so I haven’t done a lot of ‚hands-on work‘ like this. It is such a good feeling to realise that you are capable of tasks you haven’t done before. Also, I learned so many things about ships and navigation and how to read a radar, sonar etc. Learning about all these things and jobs I haven’t been much in touch with before really widened my horizon.

Photo by Elven Villecourt/ Sea Shepherd

As cheesy as it might sound - while I was writing this article we sighted humpback whales that were just hanging and breaching around the boat for almost an hour. Later that day, shortly before anchoring, we had common beaked dolphins playing around the boat in bioluminescence. These sightings are so beautiful every single time and make it very clear what we are fighting for.

I have been on the Sea Shepherd conservation vessel for more than 2 months now and I am actually already worried how it will be to go back to ‚reality‘ in a few weeks, since all I want to do is be on a Sea Shepherd Campaign fighting for the oceans and I will be back as soon as possible for sure! But there are more ways we can contribute to that cause and we should all do our part - nobody can be a ‚perfect environmentalist‘ but we can all help on one end or the other by consuming less, recycling more, reusing, refusing or picking up waste, not eating meat or dairy or walking/taking public transport instead of using a car. I think we can all be proud of the part we already contribute to help healing our wonderful planet.

For the Oceans and the Vaquita.

If you actively want to help to fight for the Vaquita, please support Sea Shepherd with a donation at or purchase Sea Shepherd merchandise at

Our contributor Maike Baun is a SCUBA Instructor and conservationist who currently works in Marketing and Communications for

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