As the sun set on Bellingham Bay Thursday, May 21, the silhouettes of 10 kayaks, two rubber dinghies and a small sailboat headed out from Glass Beach at the south end of Cornwall Street. Many flew yellow jolly rogers with a Shell Oil Company logo in place of a skull, while others had Cascadia flags. The crafts headed for the Arctic Challenger, a 310-foot barge moored next to the Horizon Fairbanks on a Port of Bellingham dock.
The flotilla was organized by Bellingham’s chapter of the sHell No Action Council to protest Shell Oil’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Challenger is a support ship for Shell Oil’s massive drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, moored in Seattle. Seattle’s sHell No group organized an on-the-water protest aimed at that rig last weekend.
The Bellingham group had planned a weekend of protests including a rally and march on Friday, May 22, and a flotilla on the bay on Sunday, May 24. However, when organizers received word on Thursday, May 21, that the Arctic Challenger may leave port that night, they mobilized a rapid-response team immediately.
“In all our planning leading up to this we wanted to have a big regatta, and then have a rapid response team that would respond when it was about to leave,” activist and organizer Herb Goodwin said. “And we got word that was going to be tonight.”
Western student and sHell No activist Chiara D’Angelo said she woke up to a Facebook post saying the Arctic Challenger was leaving.
“That was a huge shock, and we mobilized right away,” D’Angelo said.
The group had originally planned to have a kayak training session Thursday night with rented kayaks from a local shop, but the plan fell through when the shop retracted its offer to provide kayaks to the protesters after receiving anonymous complaints, D’Angelo said.
After the flotilla took to the water around 7:30 p.m., activists still on land moved to the other side of the Whatcom Creek Waterway to watch the protest unfold. The kayaks, dinghies and sailboat moved within 100 yards of the Arctic Challenger.
“We came up alongside the Challenger and raised banners, shouted ‘Shell no,’ protester Bob Dillman said.
The workers visible on the Challenger seemed disinterested, activist Rob Lewis said.
“They didn’t even really [do anything]. We drifted pretty close to the boat too,” he said. “They realized that we aren’t particularly threatening because, you know, we’re in kayaks.”
The protesters broke the stand-off around 8:30 p.m. as the sun began to set and lightning was visible in the north.
Safety was the priority on the bay, said veteran Sierra Club activist Terese VanAssche.
“We’ve got some more experienced people and some less experienced [people],” VanAssche said. “We had one capsize. We got them back in the boat. It was not a big incident.”
The air was abuzz on Glass Beach as the kayakers returned and reunited with their land-based supporters.
“For a very short protest we had a great turnout,” D’Angelo said. “We stayed super positive and enthusiastic. I think we got our message through.”
A small sailboat in the flotilla belonged to Western senior Ty Campbell. He and the boat were also in Seattle for last weekend’s protest.
“I think [the] hope in these actions in general is to, one, build awareness around climate change in ways that people can actually get involved to try to effect change on a local and national level, and, two, to then use that awareness to create enough resistance to shut things down,” Campbell said.
Campbell and D’Angelo both cited a 2012 Shell Oil exploratory drilling expedition led by the drill rig Kulluk and support ship Noble Discoverer as their reasons for opposing Shell Oil. During that expedition, both craft had run aground in the Alaskan arctic and the coast guard had found multiple code violations on the Discoverer that would eventually lead to its owners paying $12.2 million in fines, according to a 2012 New York Times article.
While neither grounding resulted in a spill, Campbell said what happened in 2012 is evidence that Shell Oil shouldn’t be allowed to drill in the arctic.