Vicki Getz: world in peril
A rambling by Tom Knapp

This story was compiled from a series of interviews with Greenpeace activist Vicki Getz in 1989-91. Tom Knapp spoke with Vicki by telephone when she was in New Zealand, by satellite hookup when she was on her ship in Antarctica, and in person when she was home visiting family in Ephrata, Pa.

Endangered species, beware. If you want to survive, you'd better be cute, majestic, or inspiring.

Vicki Getz, a veteran Greenpeace activist from Ephrata, Pa., has participated in -- and sometimes led -- several thrilling campaigns around the world, including a few tours through icy Antarctica. She told me about blocking the nets of a Soviet trawler that was fishing an over-depleted area and interfering with the activities of a stubborn Japanese whaling fleet.

But it can be hard to whip up widespread public support for their actions unless the beneficiaries of those actions are photogenic, Getz said. Greenpeace is best known for actions to protect humpback whales, dolphins, harp seals and other animals that are typically found in the average mall poster shop.

"People can relate to them because they're beautiful animals," Getz explained. "But how can you get people to care about the mackerel icefish? It is not a pretty animal."

A vegeterian friend of mine agrees with Getz's remarks, but said Greenpeace may not go far enough. Environmentalists, he said, often protest the use of processed tuna because dolphins are frequently killed in tuna nets. Why, he asked, isn't anyone concerned about the tuna?

That is certainly food for thought.

Getz, meanwhile, has been doing her part to raise public consciousness on the issues. She spent Christmas 1990 playing tag with Japanese whalers in Antarctica's Southern Ocean.

Getz was the expedition coordinator for a crew of more than 30 environmental activists onboard the Greenpeace vessel Gondwana. When I spoke to her via a shipboard telephone-satellite hookup, she and her ship were "crashing and banging through the ice" en route to the Greenpeace World Park Base in Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica.

The journey followed a successful anti-whaling effort, she said. The crew delayed Christmas for the confrontation, which was added to the ship's agenda after they realized they could intercept the fleet on their way to the base.

The Japanese fleet is the last whaling fleet operating in Antarctica, Getz said. Japan issues whaling permits to itself for scientific purposes despite an international whaling ban, she said, noting that that Japan sold more than $13 million of whale meat on the commercial market in 1990.

Gondwana tailed the fleet for more than 1,000 miles before breaking off because of a medical emergency. During that leg of the trip, Greenpeace members formed human blockades in the icy water to slow the progress of a 23,000-ton factory vessel, one of four ships in the fleet.

After a four-day detour, Gondwana caught up with the fleet again in Antarctic waters, where it halted the hunt by deploying volunteers in inflatable crafts between whales and the Japanese harpoon guns.

"The killing of hundreds of whales will not be tolerated by us any longer," Getz said in a statement released earlier through Greenpeace International. "The Japanese whaling fleet must be recalled to Japan at once."

Although Greenpeace affected a successful delay, Getz admitted the incident will not stop -- or even slow -- whale hunting on the international scene. But direct action, combined with political lobbying around the world and grassroots support from the public, will end it eventually, she predicted.

"As long as we're in the region, the fleet will not take any whales," she said. "They think that, as long as they're out of sight, they're out of mind, and they don't want our cameras filming the killing that defies worldwide public outrage."

Back on route to the Antarctic base, Gondwana stopped in the middle of 300 miles of pack ice for a belated Christmas celebration, complete with a traditional Yule feast, gifts and a bedraggled Santa Claus. Later, Getz said, the crew planned to play soccer on a large ice floe.

"We held off Christmas," she said, "because no one wanted to celebrate during the hunt."

Getz's current mission is one in a growing list of Greenpeace campaigns. Some of the earlier highlights from her three years with the group include plugging industrial pipes in Australia, blocking the nets of a Soviet trawler near Antarctica and investigating the environmental effects of bases established in the frozen southern continent.

This was Getz's "fifth trip to the ice," she said -- the first three as a logistics officer for the U.S./National Science Foundation base at McMurdo Station, the fourth and fifth as a Greenpeace activist.

This was Greenpeace's sixth mission to Antarctica.

"When Greenpeace first began its voyages to the ice in 1985, it was thought to be a group of lunatic dreamers," Getz said. "Now, World Park and a permanent ban on mining activities is closer to becoming reality, and the lunatics are those who still want the option to destroy the wilderness and the scientific value of Antarctica."

Contrary to popular opinion, Eskimos and polar bears don't live at the south pole, she said with a laugh. But her goal is to make the ice-buried continent safer for the numerous species that do populate its 5,400,000 square miles.

Getz joined Greenpeace, an international environmental organization known for its direct and non-violent methods of protest, on a three-month tour of 25 bases in the Antarctic Peninsula, inspecting conditions and calling world attention to pollution problems and other environmental issues.

"This is a major expedition for Greenpeace," she said. "We're fighting destruction before it occurs, instead of protesting atrocities after they're over."

Antarctica's World Park is "the most pristine, unspoiled environment left on the planet," Getz explained.

"The ultimate goal is to have mining activities banned," she said. Also, she said, the group is addressing problems like waste disposal ""at levels that would be illegal in the U.S."

More than 100 base camps have been set up in the region by 22 nations, she said. "But the United States has the most obvious presence down there," she noted. "The U.S. is currently being very, very bad in this area."

Among the sights that greeted them on the tour: gigantic trash heaps, abandoned bases, ocean dumping and a wrecked ship leaking oil.

Greenpeace is encouraging nations to return the waste produced at polar bases for disposal in the home countries. Most of the bases, Getz said, are small enough that waste removal would not be a problem.

To prove their point, Getz and a troupe of activists blockaded a Soviet research ship that was planning to sail for home with an empty, 5,000-ton cargo hold. The activists collected heaps of abandoned garbage and refused to halt their barricade until the Soviets agreed _ reluctantly _ to take some of the trash.

Getz lost her job as a logistics officer for the U.S./National Science Foundation, she said, because she fraternized with Greenpeace campaigners at a base 17 miles away.

"The officials at McMurdo station did not approve," she explained. "To this day, they have a very hostile attitude towards Greenpeace."

But Getz's firing helped her to find her calling. "I hope to stay in Greenpeace for a long time," she added. "It's an environmental organization that does it all. We make a difference."

Campaigning can be dangerous, Getz admitted. Greenpeace activists have faced down Soviet harpoons and had barrels of toxic waste dumped on their heads. A photographer for the group was killed when French operatives sunk the group's flagship, Rainbow Warrior, back in 1985.

"I would describe myself as a pacifist through and through," she said. "We are completely non-violent. We don't damage property, but we can damage ourselves in the process of stopping atrocities. ... We strive to put no lives in danger other than our own."

Other organizations, like the Greenpeace splinter group Sea Shepherds, are more direct in their actions. So far, that group has scuttled eight whaling vessels.

Getz said she's glad she belongs to Greenpeace, but said confrontational groups like the Shepherds have their place. "Those are eight ships that won't be whaling," she said.

Although she was not an environmental activist as a youth, Getz said she always had the protester's most vital quality.

"I have never failed to open my mouth when it's necessary," she said, laughing. "It's nice to be getting paid for it instead of getting penalized for it."

Support for their cause on the homefront is at least as important as the campaign itself, she hastened to add.

"The only thing that really works is when the public gets involved, putting pressure on public officials," she said. "Otherwise, we'd just be flailing our arms like windmills. ... The backbone of Greenpeace is that it gets public attention. It puts pressure on government to become more effective. It puts pressure on industry to make changes. And it empowers people to push for change."

No matter how effective its campaigns, Getz said, Greenpeace would be useless in the long run if the public didn't sit up and take notice.

"We can take action until our faces turn blue. And we can lobby," she said. "But we're powerless until people get involved. We take the action, the people get empowered and changed are made," she added. "Once that marriage between people and Greenpeace takes places, change starts to happen."

[ by Tom Knapp ]