Pete Bethune’s dinghy is bombing through the waves of the Pacific Ocean five nautical miles off the Philippine island of Palawan, a black missile rattling along to the roar of its outboard engine. Bethune, nose held up to the wind and his eyes screwed up tight, hangs on for dear life to the mooring ropes in the bow. Four men are squatting down behind him. They wear camouflage suits and combat helmets. Their eyes are focused on the blue blur of a fishing vessel on the horizon. A bamboo mast on the foredeck flaps to the rhythm of the waves. Bethune’s Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) moves in on the fishing vessel from the starboard side. Once they are alongside it, he gives the sign for them to go aboard.
Now time is of the essence. One after the other, the four men heave themselves over the fishing vessel’s rail. One secures the stern while two go to the foredeck. Bethune storms the cabin. “Hands up!” he barks. The captain, wearing flip-flops, takes his hands off the wheel. They stare at each other for a moment and then high-five. “Good enemy,” says Bethune.
The captain grins. On this hot afternoon in late March, Bethune and his team are in the middle of a training session about how to board suspect ships. For four hours they have been raiding the fishing vessel over and over again, climbing on board, arresting the supposed crew – played by five coastguard volunteers – and then getting back in the dinghy and starting from scratch. This raid was their eighth. Bethune’s men take off their helmets. “A 20-minute break,” says Bethune. “Then we’ll practise handcuffing the crew.”
Pete Bethune is an environmentalist, but not the ordinary kind. The New Zealander hunts environmental criminals. His tools are the former commandos in his dinghy. Matt Griffin, 34, and Tim, 25, were both US Marines; Phil, 27, was a lieutenant with the Navy Seals; Stéphane Rousseau, 48, was a paratrooper. Before he was seizing fishing vessels for Bethune, he worked as a bodyguard for reporters in Syria. (Tim and Phil requested their last names be left out of this article.) Bethune has stationed his unit on Palawan for four months to apprehend illegal fishermen, poachers and animal smugglers.
A documentary team is filming their work for a TV show called The Operatives. It’s named after Bethune’s unarmed environmental commando unit which has real enemies and is funded by donations. “We support environmental bodies in developing countries,” says Bethune. “We offer them crews and surveillance technology and carry out arrests alongside the authorities.”
Bethune is sitting on the tailboard on deck. He’s taken off his T-shirt and wrapped it around his head. He’s 50 years old with a chiselled face and a kickboxer’s build. He does push-ups on the beach at the crack of dawn and spends several hours a week working out on an ergometer. Bethune set up The Operatives in 2011 to put governments under media pressure. His men have filmed a seal hunt on the coast of Namibia (if you’re not squeamish, look up Bethune Seal Hunt on YouTube), used drones to chase down fishermen operating illegally and hunted gold prospectors in nature reserves in Costa Rica. Despite putting themselves in grave danger – Bethune’s cameramen have been shot at with AK-47 assault rifles – The Operatives have arrested 14 people.
The second training session gets under way on the fishing vessel. Bethune’s soldiers are showing the coastguards how to search and handcuff suspects. Bethune waves his experts into action. Matt Griffin, the US Marine, likes Norwegian death metal and tattoos. His torso is etched with a rendering of a knuckleduster and a large image of a goat’s head. Phil, the Navy Seal, is brawny with a beard. He’s eloquent when he speaks. But for the most part he remains silent.
Matt locks Phil’s arms behind his head and roars, “Get down!” Phil doesn’t budge. Matt kicks him in the back of the knee. Phil falls to the ground. Matt kneels on Phil and applies pressure to his legs and the back of his neck. He puts cable ties on Phil’s wrists. “You have to be loud and self-assured,” says Matt.
Two South Korean colleagues of the coastguards based here were stabbed to death by Chinese fishermen in 2011 as they tried to arrest them. “Since then,” says Bethune, “we’ve played it safe.”
Bethune’s journey to the head of a commando unit reads like a crazy film script. He studied engineering in New Zealand and started work on an oil rig. He was earning good money, but he was bored, so he built a speedboat that ran on biodiesel. In 2008, he set a new record for the quickest round-the-world trip in a powerboat. He spent the next four years sailing around the world. “I saw how people were destroying our seas,” says Bethune. “In Fiji, fishing boats were trawling unpunished through marine reserves. In the Philippines, fishermen were spraying cyanide in coral colonies for a quicker kill.”
Bethune worked as a captain with Sea Shepherd, the radical marine conservation organisation. He blocked whaling ships in the Antarctic and fired butyric acid at fishermen. In January 2010, a 490-tonne ship escorting the Japanese fleet rammed his boat. Pictures of the incident went viral. Bethune only just survived. But instead of letting that put him off, he decided to board the Japanese ship. He approached the side of the ship at night on a jet-ski, clambered on board and took the captain to task. Bethune was arrested, taken to Tokyo and spent four months in a high-security prison waiting for his trial on charges of vandalism and illegally boarding a ship. He slept on a thin, plastic mat, in a cell measuring 3m by 1.5m. Night after night he’d march around the edge of the room to stay in shape, doing thousands of laps. The idea for The Operatives came to him during one of those cramped training sessions. “I thought a lot about effectiveness during my time in prison,” explains Bethune. “I wanted to set up my own unit; not of protesters, but of professionals, men who monitor ships professionally and can go aboard quickly.”
In July 2010, Bethune was released on probation. An army friend put him in touch with former soldiers and Bethune offered each of them a salary of US$200 a day. He creates a new team for each of his missions. There’s no shortage of applicants. In late 2014, about 100 former military men applied for his missions in Asia. Bethune chose four and flew to Palawan with them. Now, on the blue fishing vessel off Puerto Princesa, Bethune’s men have put their helmets on once again. Bethune wants to board the boat one more time. “This is all going to come in handy soon,” he says. That evening, back in the harbour at Puerto Princesa, Bethune leaves the boat, gets into a Jeep and heads north through the island’s capital, a backpackers’ paradise with a cacophony of taxis’ horns.
The journey from the harbour through the city, along a country road and down a dirt track to get to The Operatives’ hideout takes about 30 minutes. It’s situated on an unkempt beach in the east of the island. The camp can’t be seen from the sea; it is hidden from view by mangrove trees. The men sleep in simple bamboo huts among the palm trees. Bethune trudges barefoot through the sand. His hut, built on wooden stilts, is the control centre for all operations.
Bethune explains that the city of Puerto Princesa is a centre of Asia’s illegal trade in animals. “Sea turtles and pangolins are shipped from here to China,” he says. “Both species are protected.” The meat of the pangolin, a badger-sized insectivore with a pointy nose, is a delicacy in China. No other mammal is more frequently illegally traded.
Just two years ago, the Philippine coastguard discovered 3,000 dead pangolins on board a Chinese freighter. “Nobody is talking about these animals at the moment,” says Bethune. Bethune’s men have been shadowing a trader on Puerto Princesa for the past two weeks. They are investigating the coastguard’s suspicion that he is shipping the protected species in containers. “By day we film the warehouse using a drone,” says Bethune. “At night, two marines lie in wait around the premises.” Bethune is grinning broadly. “We’ve also hidden a GPS tracker on his ship.”
How does he get aboard a suspected smuggler ship without anyone noticing? “That was Phil, our Navy Seal,” says Bethune. “He swam out at night, climbed aboard, shinned up the mast and attached the transmitter while the crew slept on deck. It was over in 20 minutes.”
Back at the camp, Bethune opens his laptop and starts a piece of marine software. A sea chart appears on the screen, with a red line heading north from Puerto Princesa and out into the Pacific Ocean. “We can follow the ship in real time. We’ve noticed that once a week it makes a sudden detour to the west, way out to sea. The boat is registered as an inshore fishing vessel, so it shouldn’t be out that far. We think it meets another ship out on the ocean.”
on the hunt: bethune’s rules for eco missions
KNOW YOUR TEAM
Before Bethune plans missions abroad, he orders military consulting agencies to check the integrity of local authorities.
USE TECH IN A NEW WAY
Bethune mounts infrared cameras on top of military drones to monitor fishermen and spot poachers’ campfires in the jungle.
Bethune and his team use Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs), not metal-hull boats, because they are more agile and easier to hide.
LEARN FROM THE PROS
Bethune selects his soldiers based on their individual skills to improve the whole team’s performance.
If the island’s governor issues a search warrant, The Operatives will have the power to storm the trader’s warehouse or arrest the crew at sea. Bethune wants to send the coastguards on ahead with Matt, the tattooed death metal marine. He calls him “our man for opening doors”.
In 2013, Bethune nearly drowned during a reconnaissance dive off the coast of Costa Rica. He has been shot at during missions in four different countries. After a jungle patrol on Palawan, he was hospitalised with suspected dengue fever.Why does a 50-year-old man put himself through that? Because of pangolins? “I’ve always wondered if the world will be a little better because I live in it,” he says, sitting in his bamboo hut at the end of a long day. “I believe it gets a little bit better if I hunt down fishermen who operate illegally and pangolin smugglers.”
As a private citizen Bethune is almost broke. He signed his house over to his ex-wife. All his clothes fit into four plastic bags. He travels the world with three army camouflage suits, two pairs of army boots and one white shirt. He wears the camo when he’s working and the shirt for court appearances. Bethune says that happiness is finding something that’s worth fighting for.