Human Interaction

Fiona McCuaig Crew Interviews Whale Wars

posted: 05/15/12
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August 2011 Interview

Please note that the views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the views of Animal Planet or Discovery Communications, Inc.

Four summer interns from Animal Planet (Devin O'Brien - Colby College, Alexa Agugliaro - Penn State University, Alex Lieberman - Northwestern University, Jamie Zaslav - Blind Brook High School) got to have lunch and talk with WHALE WARS female standout Fiona McCuaig to discuss the show, her life and what's to come for the Sea Shepherds.

DEVIN: So you're a rouge, whale-saving, rescue-swimming, Economics major from Australia. You've volunteered in Africa and America, in wildlife rehab, founded your own organization to redevelop enclosures in developing countries, and are the head of a youth committee for national parks and wildlife in Wales - What don't we know about you?[

FIONA MCCUAIG: Probably the boys I kiss. Besides that, I don't really have any secrets. My family is really important to me. I love swimming in the sea, which I miss here in New York. I want to save the world and help all the animals - and though sometimes it looks like it's getting easier, most times it actually seems like it's getting harder as the population is going to double to 12 billion. The basic point of what's happening in the world is that we're eating everything in our path and needing places to live to build houses and it's just encroaching on all of the other creatures of the world. Sometimes I wonder, are we just delaying the inevitable? It's great to save whales but sometimes it's hard to keep positive.

ALEXA: What was that specific moment when you realized your passion was protecting animals?

FIONA MCCUAIG:  When I was 21, living in London. After I had a few drinks my friends would say, "We know when you've had a few drinks Fi when you go on about saving the elephants and the tigers." And I kept on talking about it so I thought, I've got my Economics degree and I want to save all these animals, but what is the first step? And so I went to the London Zoo and I saw how little space it had and so I thought OK, let me volunteer here once a week. Then, once I got inside the zoo I really discovered the issues. That was really my first step of actually volunteering. Sometimes taking that first step is the hardest and it's definitely the most important. Most people talk about what they want to do, but haven't done anything about it.

ALEXA: What made you become a Sea Shepherd as opposed to a more conservative organization?

FIONA MCCUAIG:  I kept working property for eight years after volunteering to be able to support myself financially, then I quit my job, and thought, now I've got money and I can go after my passion. I ended up in San Francisco and before I went back to Australia I wanted to find out where Sea Shepherd was based and so I wrote to them and then spoke to some people that worked there.

JAMIE: What was your most rewarding moment as a Sea Shepherd thus far?

FIONA MCCUAIG: The most rewarding moment was when we chased the whalers out. It was a fantastic feeling. It's not myself that is rewarded its Paul Watson and the organization he's put together and all the people that have been down there over the past seven years. I was just lucky to be on the last 2. Really, The best feeling is always when you find the factory ship, the last whaling factory ship in the world, because you know that once you find that ship, you can shut down the entire operation

DEVIN: When you were putting on that survival suit in "Sliced in Two" (season three of WHALE WARS), what was going through your mind?

FIONA MCCUAIG: This is the wrong suit to be putting on! The year after we were a bit more organized and I had a dry suit but that particular suit was extremely clumsy and I couldn't grab or tie anything because my hands were jammed into three big fingers - so that was bad. I also got really thirsty for some reason. I was thinking that I could be in the water for 3 or 4 hours and I wouldn't have drinking water out there. So I asked someone for some water. It was actually a really scary moment. You never really imagine that is going to happen. You always prepare yourself for an accident but those guys were so close to being killed. There are normally one or two guys sleeping down in the hull because they drive the ship 24 hours a day. So it was amazing they didn't get killed. It was pretty scary.

ALEXA: What is the hardest part about being a Sea Shepherd?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Not making any money is quite hard. Following my passion volunteering on the boat is great, but at the end of the day, living in a city like New York, without a source of income, is very hard. The other hard thing is the more you know the more problems you realize you need to solve. Everything is so interconnected, it can be very overwhelming. So you just have to pick your little battles, otherwise you become paralyzed.

ALEX: What was the scariest moment you had while at sea?

FIONA MCCUAIG: A close second to the Addy Gil crash, which I already mentioned, was when the small boat was away from the Bob Barker for 12 hours. That was really scary because the boat had broken down and the people on board were already getting hypothermia when we were still 4 hours away from them. All you need is one person to fall asleep in those conditions and that's it. They're not going to wake up again. If a storm had come up it would have been the end of them as well. That was just far too close for comfort.

JAMIE: Being out in the Arctic Ocean for so long, do you ever get seasick? Or homesick? What do you miss the most when you are on the ship?

FIONA MCCUAIG: I don't really get homesick because I know I'll be going home to my family and I'm doing my passion. You do definitely miss parts of home. Some people tend to cuddle their teddy bears a lot or whatever they need to do.  As for seasickness, I've never actually vomited but the first day on board is rough. You have to stay upright and just basically get through it.  For me it usually lasts one day and that's it. I'm really lucky. There was a Japanese woman on our ship that was basically in bed for the whole three months. Other people vomit for a few days and then they are okay, but everybody is different.

DEVIN: If you had to give a word of advice to a greenhorn about to step on to the Bob Barker for the first time, what would you say?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Get ready to really know yourself. That's what people struggle with because you don't have your family and you don't have all these luxuries and you really get to know yourself. And what's so nice is that there are not a lot of external influences to affect your moods, only things on the ship. It's a really amazing experience to be out there in the middle of nowhere. Just be open to sharing and being kind to everybody and being thoughtful. Believe it or not we become like that even though it's not natural. You just can't be that far away with that group of people for 3 months and not have that good energy. I'd say you have to be open to everything.

ALEXA: What's it like having your every move documented by a full camera crew?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Getting filmed was a bit weird in the beginning but over time I stopped worrying about it and the last thing I think about now is the cameras. That's what's so good about filming a reality show for 3 months. But, at the end of the end of the day those cameras are in your face through it all.  I have no desire to be famous, but being able to be a voice for the animals is amazing. That is the greatest thing I could ever imagine doing with my life. The crew on the ship goes and saves whales without expecting to be on TV - but the audience can now see how awesome Whale Wars has been. It really has gotten that message out. In order to really change things you need to get a mass amount of people on your side and TV is the best way to do that.

ALEX: What does the average viewer not see/understand about life on board the Bob Barker?

FIONA MCCUAIG: There are a few romances on the ship. You also don't see that down time when people might go to their room for three days - yes it's like the show depicts but it's three months condensed into 10 episodes - you don't see weeks of nothing happening when people retreat into their cabin and read and sleep a lot and you don't see those intimate experiences people have to cope with being away.

JAMIE: What do you do to pass the time on the boat?

FIONA MCCUAIG: I've been a complete nerd this time around. I've summarized about 3 books word for word and studied a lot of Sylvia Earle. Whaling is important to me but all the other creatures of the ocean are important to me as well. So I study a lot of different stuff like that. Then of course, I play games with people or watch movies, though I'm not really into movies that much. And I just chat with everyone; there are so many amazing minds on that ship. The Animal Planet guys are awesome. There are always great people to talk to on board.

DEVIN: Do the camera crew and the Sea Shepherds hang out together?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Yeah, we hang out with everybody. The camera crews are Sea Shepherds too. They're putting their life on the line sometimes even more than most people on the ships. They're absolutely our friends. I mean, the first week they kind of sit together at their little table and they have their own space where they can hang out. They don't have to eat vegan food and they can have a few drinks - there are different rules for them because that is their job.

ALEXA: What's it like being transformed from an Environmental Activist to a TV Star and seeing yourself on national TV?   Do you think the camera loves you?  Do you watch the show?[

FIONA MCCUAIG: I do watch the show but it's normally all at once. It's a bit cringey and not enjoyable to watch yourself sometimes. I like watching the show but I don't know if I like seeing myself. But it's definitely an accurate representation of what goes on.

ALEX:  How has your life changed since joining the Sea Shepherds?

FIONA MCCUAIG: What I eat because I used to eat everything. I definitely don't eat fish anymore. I'm a vegetarian and about open my mind about so many things that I didn't know before. Definitely where I want to go now has changed too. I used to love eating fish but not anymore.

JAMIE: What the first thing you do after you disembark when you get home? What's the first thing you do after you disembark from a mission to relax? What does a Sea Shepherd do for fun off the boat?

FIONA MCCUAIG: I make my own little space when I first get on the ship. Sometimes you need that for a little mental health. When I go back to Sydney I hang out with family and friends. The Sea Shepherds go out to party and celebrate since we haven't drank for 3 months. Some people live in their Sea Shepherd gear and spread the word while their off the ships.

DEVIN: What's the craziest thing you've ever done off the Bob Barker?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Bungee jumping in New Zealand was pretty scary. But in terms of similar to Sea Shepherd, I've been to Africa and San Francisco by myself to help animal groups. Travelling places by myself was really important and to find out to do things on your own. At the end of the day you're not going have your best holding your hand. You just have to carve your own path. Otherwise you'll miss out on so many opportunities. No one wants to wake up when they're 80 and say, "Man I wish I would have done that."

ALEXA: Other than boarding a Sea Shepherd vessel, what can we do at home to help stop the killing of whales?

FIONA MCCUAIG: Become carbon neutral and get rid of the excess carbon in our world. Carbon gets absorbed into the ocean and makes it acidic and if the ocean gets acidic enough, the plankton will die and the food chain will be destroyed. The heating of the planet and ocean is also going to wipe out the animal population. I'd say definitely become more vegetarian and vegan. Humans only need a bite or two of meat for protein and let's try not taking any more out of the ocean if we can. Also, I think writing a letter has a lot more push than an email. I think talking to a lot of other people and creating an environmental force is very important. The thing that's so frustrating about the whaling in the Southern Ocean is that sometimes it's easy to feel a bit powerless as an individual. The laws are there now, so why aren't people sticking to them? I think supporting Sea Shepherd and obviously raising money would help pay for another ship.

ALEX: Can you remind us why this show is so important and relevant right now?  And why you continue to dedicate yourself to saving Whales?

FIONA MCCUAIG: When the ocean dies, as Captain Paul Watson keeps on saying, humanity will be seriously jeopardized because the weather is all dependent on the ocean. We get 17% of our oxygen from the ocean and the ocean takes up 72% of this planet we live on. Unfortunately, looking into the future is really very scary and there's not that urgency because right now we have enough to eat and right now the weather is fine. There are other more immediate problems and that's why were not able to focus on the bigger picture.

JAMIE: Looking into the future, what can we expect to see from the Sea Shepherds?

FIONA MCCUAIG: It looks like we may have to go back down to the Southern Ocean if the whalers return. We are heading to the Faroe Islands and going to stop the pilot whales from being herded in. There are some other things we want to get involved in. In terms of overfishing we have to understand that first things first. We're doing great work in the Galapagos Islands to try and save the marine natural habitats. Hopefully lots of things are going to happen.

DEVIN: There has been a recent press release suggesting that the Japanese Coast Guard is going to accompany the Japanese whaling ships, how is that going to affect the Sea Shepherds' tactics?  Will you be able to throw butyric acid at the Coast Guard? 

FIONA MCCUAIG: They do say this every year and I'm sure they will be armed when they come down. But it's the same tactics as always. The last thing we want to do is hurt any of the Japanese whalers and we definitely don't want to hurt ourselves. It's all about prolife and protecting a sanctuary so yes we will do things that aren't breaking the law. We are just putting them off without hurting anyone. So yeah, tactics won't change much at all - maybe wear some bullet proof vests.

MORE: Sea Shepherd 

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