Elissa Sursara on Risking it All for Whales in Antarctica
Conservationist, activist and actress Elissa Sursara took some time to talk to Ecorazzi about her newest conservation campaign Environmend, still in the works, and what it was like to spend months at sea defending whales with Sea Shepherd. Thank you, Elissa!
Ecorazzi: Why did you get involved with conservation and how did you start out? What have been some of your favorite places, and work closest to your heart?
Elissa Sursara: I became involved in conservation as a student of environmental science and communications. I started in field research, and progressed as a wildlife correspondent. Often tough, my job has incredible perks, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some of nature’s most impressive gifts – like a young minke whale visiting with myself and other crew deep in the Antarctic, and participating in the rescue of trapped wild orangutans in the midst of forest fire lit by palm oil plantation workers. To me, the safeguarding of our natural resources, wildlife and habitats is overlooked, and it fails to take priority in a fast-paced modern society. My involvement in conservation began as an attempt to fill that hole, and as a declaration to make a difference and bring conservation to the mainstream.
Ecorazzi: What is the importance of veganism to you, and your work for the planet and animals?
Elissa Sursara: More and more, our food choices are becoming an environmental statement. What we eat and wear reflects the state of our oceans, our habitats and even our priority species. A demand for farmed fur is linked to the demand of wildlife pelts, like that of tigers and leopards. Our mass market for milled dogs, cats and other pets bares a striking resemblance to the often-fatal demand in exotic animals. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of meat, and the water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer could float a destroyer warship. In contrast, it only takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat. The impact speaks for itself.
Employing a vegan lifestyle is a great way of reducing the pressure we place on our resources and our environment; and in practice, it’s a direct way of reducing the all too common abuses inflicted on more than 58 billion farm animals raised for food worldwide.
Ecorazzi: Tell us about your new project, Environmend. Who’s behind the campaign, and what are your goals?
Elissa Sursara: Environmend is an awareness and advocacy campaign founded on the principals of harnessing the power of people. Through creative media, information and public service announcements, Environmend encourages citizens to become activists by highlighting vital conservation issues in an engaging manner.
Our intent at Environmend is to raise social awareness and, subsequently, apply political pressure to create change. By way of film, fundraising campaigns and easily accessible information on the Environmend platform, the campaign addresses serious fragments like overfishing, black market wildlife trade, whaling, climate change and deforestation. We exist with the support of notable athletes, surfers, musicians, actors and personalities. Environmend is made up of a team of filmmakers, researchers, digital artists and conservationists already working within the environmental field. Together, we have more than sixty years experience in issues affecting wildlife and priority habitats.
Ecorazzi: How can people get involved with and/or support Environmend?
Elissa Sursara: The benefit of Environmend is that it’s a campaign for every person; it appeals to our basic interests with collaborations in film, sport, music, science, art and fashion. To support Environmend, all you must do is subscribe. Joining with Environmend means you become active as a voice for the planet, and it’s the best way of supporting our creative concepts and helping priority species and habitats. For every person who stands with an Environmend campaign, the potential to safeguard an entire population of endangered or vulnerable species increases.
Ecorazzi: How did you get started with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society? What drew you to their work for the oceans and ocean wildlife?
Elissa Sursara: I met the founder of Sea Shepherd, Captain Paul Watson, several years ago at a meeting in my hometown on the Gold Coast. After learning about his exceptional achievements for marine life as a direct-action conservationist, and after realizing how Sea Shepherd mirrored my own goals for marine wildlife, I integrated myself within the organization; some years after, I became a crew member and member on the Board of Advisors.
What I find polarizing about the mistreatment of wildlife, is how enraged we are in our reaction to it, but how little we do to directly prevent it. Petitions and protests have an effect, but intervention brings results. With Sea Shepherd, I work alongside an incredible group of conservationists willing to risk our lives to protect animals and bring to life Captain Watson’s vision: that we can and should make a difference.
Ecorazzi: You recently went to Antarctica with Sea Shepherd. What was it like being on the Southern Ocean campaign, Operation Zero Tolerance?
Elissa Sursara: Operation Zero Tolerance was my first Antarctic campaign with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. With Sea Shepherd, I spent five months at sea to defend target whales in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, and along with more than 120 crew members aboard our four vessels, we saved 932 whales from slaughter at the hands of the Japanese whaling fleet.
Although victorious in our campaign, we were embedded against our will by the Japanese whaling fleet in potentially deadly altercations as we prevented their illegal fueling operations in Antarctica. On February 20, the Nisshin Maru factory ship purposely rammed the Sam Simon, the Bob Barker, South Korean fuel tanker Sun Laurel, and my vessel, the Steve Irwin. Our crews were mostly unharmed but our vessels suffered considerable damage under the weight of the Nisshin Maru. The experience reaffirmed to me that preventing whaling in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary is a priority conservation campaign. Not only are whales hunted commercially under the guise of scientific research, but they are slaughtered using inhumane protocol with little, if any, respect for the species, the habitat or the ecosystem.
Ecorazzi: Everyone who has gone says you can’t describe the beauty of Antarctica, but I’m going to ask you to try anyway! What was it like?
Elissa Sursara: Antarctica is breathless, icy and beautiful; so stunning and expansive that you feel small and insignificant in its presence. It’s then, as you watch an iceberg crack and begin to capsize beneath the sea, as the majestic albatross glide the surfaces, watching as seals, orca, whales and rare Antarctic dolphin ride in the wake of your vessel, that you realize how desperately the lonely continent needs our protection.
My hope for Antarctica is that we come together to prevent the exploitation of its resources and continue to protect and preserve its variety of incredible species.
Ecorazzi: Do you plan to return to sea with Sea Shepherd?
Elissa Sursara: Sea Shepherd is embedded within me, and the organization’s direct-action campaigns sing the mantra of my own philosophy as an environmentalist and conservationist; and as long as the whaling fleet targets whales in the animals’ Southern Ocean whale sanctuary, I will continue to participate with Sea Shepherd in this war for the whales. Sea Shepherd’s next coming campaign is Relentless, our tenth whale defense campaign.
Check out our recent article on Operation Relentless for more information on the campaign, a video, and how you can support. More pictures of Elissa’s Antarctic campaign are below – all courtesy: Sea Shepherd Australia.