Interview: Pete Bethune

Captain Pete Bethune has saved thousands of animals around the world from the hands of exploitation. A huge feat for a kiwi lad raised in little old New Zealand. He currently holds the world record for circumnavigating the globe in his powerboat Earthrace and he is the founder of Earthrace Conservation. His television show The Operatives documents his global missions to save the worlds wildlife. Bethune spent months in a Japanese prison after boarding a Japanese whaling vessel after it slammed into and destroyed his first powerboat. But this didn’t deter him. To this day, Bethune and his team are involved in anti poaching, wildlife smuggling prevention and fisheries enforcement. Massive Magazine’s Jamie-Lee Bracken had a chat with Bethune about his most memorable missions, what’s up next for him and his team and how you can get involved.

Has it always been an interest of yours to get involved in conservation?

No, I kinda evolved into it. I was a your typical kiwi lad raised in a small town. I spent a lot of my time eeling, fishing and going camping and stuff like that. So I got a lot of appreciation for the outdoors and wildlife but not a passion really and then when I worked overseas in the oil industry, I was posted in the North Sea and also North Africa, through my time there I grew uneasy about fossil fuels and my journey in the conservation industry started being, if you like, a rebellion against fossil fuels having worked in the industry. 2004 was when I started work on this project called Earthrace where we built this boat and set a record for a powerboat to go around the world and we fuelled it on by diesel fuels….  I was on that boat at Earthrace I started to see a lot of problems in marine conservation and it gradually got under my skin and then it wasn’t until 2009 that I got the chance to join a team to go to Antarctica and stop Japanese whaling. For me this was probably the key period wanting to do something in terms of marine conservation but not really knowing how to do it and then my time in Antarctica and I went back to Japan where I was a prisoner for five months. Over that period was a key time when I decided to dedicate my life to doing conservation when I got out of prison… I wouldn’t say there was any great epiphany or single moment where I became a conservationist its been a gradual evolution into it and one of the analogies I use is once you’re really starting to work on the things you believe in, it’s very hard to go back and work nine till five selling washing machines or computers. I’m very blessed that these days I get to work on what I really believe in and the sacrifices that are made as part of that. I have no house, no car and assets aside from tactical gear so there’s sacrifices that are made and I get to live the dream.

What was going through your head the moment your boat ‘Earthrace’ was slammed by another vessel?

Those types of things often they happen really really fast like I’ve been involved in quite a few episodes where I thought none of them might come up today, we’ve come under fire a few times and you end up being very worried about your crew. The day I dread is the day I bring back one of my crew in a body bag. When that boat turned into us I do remember thinking we are going to be lucky to all come out of this and in the end all we had was one guy with broken ribs which was a small miracle. It was a close call, if the boat boat had turned a couple seconds earlier we would have had people in body bags, there’s no question on that, so there’s an interesting that happens with your perception of time.

With all the dangerous missions you go on, are there any times that you have thought to yourself that it’s getting too dangerous?

Yeah I’ve had that a few times. Once I was in Venezuela, back in 2011 I think it was and we were in a small fishing village on the border with Colombia, it’s a very lawless area. There’s drug runners and people smugglers and weapons smugglers, it’s an area that virtually the military doesn’t go there and at the time I turned up with some local navy guys who took time off work and they got a couple of weeks annual leave and I managed to score one of these military zodiacs… we were based there, waiting for these illegal fishing boats form overseas to come in and start trawling. The local fisherman would come in and tell us if there were any foreign boats there and on this day we had already caught a couple. This boat came in and as we pulled up towards it, often when we board vessels we often try to do it at night, I can normally get my guys on the boat without the crew knowing at night but in this case it was quite choppy and there was a question mark whether we could keep following these guys till darkness. So we made the call to get on board and as we came in, next thing there was these two guys both standing on the sides with AK47s and one guy fired off maybe about 10 rounds and one of them ended up hitting the zodiac a couple of feet in front of me only six inches behind this other guy who’s sitting in front of me and for a second I thought what am I doing here but I think it was learning curve for me about sort of pushing things and when I look back on it there was a couple of things that we didn’t sort of have right and so I sort of made notes about not making that same mistake again and sometimes on the more dangerous missions afterwards we have a debrief seeing what works for you and trying to learn from it and how we would approach a little differently.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

I get to save animals I’ve saved quite literally thousands of animals. Some of the coolest ones have been the wildlife smuggling missions where there was a smuggling ring… we managed to close down this wildlife smuggling ring. I’ve got some pretty hardcore guys in my team and all of them without exception with tears coming down their cheeks that they got to relate this animal that they’d help save. The best thing I can do is save animals…and the money shot is when you get to go and put that animal back in the wild, it’s something pretty special.

What is one of your most memorable missions?

Probably the coolest places I’ve ever been is Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. We teamed up with the local rangers… and we closed down two illegal gold mining operations. Corcovado National park is one of the world’s iconic national parks. It has the tallest canopy of anywhere on Earth, it’s the most extraordinary jungle the wildlife in there is unbelievable. Because it’s so remote they [the people] shoot the wildlife and live off that. You can tell when you get into areas that has a goldmine because the wildlife are all gone. The areas that haven’t been mined they are amazing, snakes, jaguars, monkeys all sorts of wildlife.

How can students volunteer and get involved in conservation?

There’s three sorts of ways people can get involved in conservation… they need to have a skill set… there’s a whole range of skill sets but you need to be really good at something and often you’ve gotta get your foot in the door to start with by volunteering. So you want to pick an organisation that shares your values and that works with what you want to work on… go join WWF or Greenpeace. Find something that presses your buttons and volunteer. Show that you’ve got the skill set that another person wants and then volunteer. If you’re really good, the best places will take you on full time… If I get two CVs come across my desk, and one’s volunteered in a local animal shelter, at a beach clean-up, I’ll always take a person who has always already volunteered. If you can show hey I’ve already done this, it’s starting small and working your way up. I find the best volunteers I get are the one’s who already have experience.

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