Seattle activists raft up to protest Shell oil rigs

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The floating protest against Shell's presence at the Port of Seattle made headlines. Would activists have more impact if they stormed Olympia instead?

The fleet of kayaks moves deliberately through the waters on Seattle's Elliot Bay. Gliding past ferries, freighters and oversized seals camped out on buoys, the kayakers paddle with intention. They're headed to the terminal where the Port of Seattle has offered Shell's Arctic drilling rigs a homeport for berthing and maintenance.

While the kayak fleet practices for seaborne protests, one of the Shell oil rigs, the 400-foot Polar Pioneer, is headed across the Pacific to Seattle. Rough seas slowed the crossing from Singapore, causing six Greenpeace protesters who climbed aboard to disembark over the weekend.

The Polar Pioneer is expected to arrive in Port Angeles on Friday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. After that it may take days for the oil rig to be disengaged from a 712-foot heavy trawler, the Blue Marlin, which is hauling it across the Pacific. Then it may remain in Port Angeles for another week or more for maintenance before being chaperoned by a new tug into the Port of Seattle.

The delay is giving protestors on land and sea time to prepare. “Are we ready to deploy?” The shout-out is heard across the flotilla as kayaks come together to form a kind of raft. Paddles are positioned horizontally across bows. Hands grip adjacent kayaks and the fleet comes into direct line formation. Slowly, a 12-foot banner is handed from one kayak to another.

The fleet's organizer on this day, Eric Ross with The Backbone Campaign, one of several organizations behind mass direct action planned in the days and weeks to come. Others include and Rising Tide Seattle. Ross checks to see if the banner is ready to be unfurled, and the group gives him a thumbs up.

Rope is disengaged from a carabineer and the banner pulled upright, revealing a simple message. “” High fives are exchanged and the fleet breaks into song about protecting all of Cascadia, the coastal and inland region from Alaska to California.  Echoing an older tune, they sing new lyrics: “Rise, Cascadia, rise. Protect our waters and skies. Rise, Cascadia, rise. Salmon and orca, cedar and fir. Rise, Cascadia, rise. Crows and otters, sons and daughters. Rise, Cascadia, rise.”

If the medium is the message, then fleets of kayaks, civil disobedience and daily art-builds to make banners and props are a medium rising up against the world's second largest oil and gas company, Royal Dutch Shell. Not to mention, say protesters, against the Port of Seattle's decision to facilitate Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic in the early summer.

Shaking a paddle at Shell may seem inconsequential when leases are signed and drilling permits issued; in late March the Obama administration approved Arctic drilling permits for 2015 and beyond, reaffirming a 2008 government auction of Arctic drilling rights. But it's not inconsequential for those committed to “shining a spotlight on Arctic drilling and climate change, once and for all,” as the Backbone Campaign's Ross puts it.

“At the same time we're standing up for what we love,” he says. Or, in this case, rafting up.

“One of the things we're working against is the overarching sense of powerlessness people feel,” says Ross. “People see and in some cases experience the consequences of climate change – sea level rise, hurricanes, droughts, and warming, acidic oceans all over the world. With Shell's Arctic drilling rigs headed to Seattle, we have a unique opportunity to rise up and do something about it.”

One of the kayak fleets preparing to rise up against Shell has some history in the region. Nicknamed the  "mosquito fleet" for fleets used at various times in U.S. naval history, this one earlier helped defeat Glacier Northwest's gravel mining plans on Maury Island. “We were out there along with scores of others,” says Ross, “preventing the construction from taking place. We're going to do the same thing with Shell and put our bodies on the line to prevent the drastic consequences of drilling in the Arctic.”

As one fleet of kayaks returns to shore after training, another fleet gears up and prepares to head out to Terminal 5 to learn the moves. “You always need to be prepared in the Puget Sound,” cautions volunteer safety guide Amanda Lee, who works with a kayak tour company. “Waters are cold here. If you fall in, there's a potential for hypothermia after 15 to 20 minutes.” But no one in the group, ages ranging from 14 to 77, seems fazed. Instead they discuss plans to secure more kayaks and boats to bear witness for when Shell's Polar Pioneer arrives in Puget Sound waters.

Head north across town to the “Powerhouse” in Fremont, a neighborhood locals with hubris call the “center of the universe,” and you will find where the banners and props for the upcoming direct action are under construction. The cave-like structure, once the boiler room for B.F. Day Elementary, is strewn with streamers of fabric, masks and giant puppets. In the 1980s the Fremont Arts Council began leasing the space for art builds: floats for May Day and Summer Solstice parades. A few years ago, the “Powerhouse” became the place where props for protests against coal trains and oil trains were also conceived. .

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The Polar Pioneer in a Norwegian port (2011) Credit: a href=

Today, skeleton masks with the “ShellNo” logo are being cut by hand. An image of the oil rig on its way to Seattle shows oil rising from the top of the Space Needle. Lisa Marcus with, one of the lead art organizers, laughs at the juxtaposition. “Like what? This isn't right.” Then she adds, “That's what happens if we store those rigs here. We are actually taking part in this. We can no longer say that's somewhere else and we don't have to pay attention. We're involved now.”

The letters for other messages are being tied to deer fencing: “Act on climate today. It's our turn to lead." And, “Seattle loves the Arctic.” The letters were made from building wrap and painted white. Asked why she's on her knees on cold cement twisting letters onto fencing, a woman named Lisa cheerfully shoots back, “The Arctic is far more valuable than the oil underneath it. Personally, I'd take one polar bear and trade it for ten Shell executives.”

Marcus says the art build against Shell and the Port lease is first about saying no to Arctic drilling and fossil fuel extraction. But, she adds, the project is also about saying “yes, to what we love here”: Puget Sound saltwater, estuary-rich deltas, endangered resident orca pods and salmon. “We have to say no to things that are destructive in order to protect what we love.”

Earlier in the week, the Coast Guard held a briefing with several environmental groups in order to establish safety zones and designated areas for protests. Dana Warr, Coast Guard spokesperson, says “mutual agreement” was reached that a 500-yard distance would be maintained when vessels are in transit and 100 yards when the vessels are moored or anchored. “We respect everyone's First Amendment right to protest,” he says,  “but we also need to ensure safety on the water."  Exact longitudes and latitudes for protests will be posted in the federal registry by Wednesday afternoon, says Warr.

At least one of the protest leaders, however, says no agreement was reached, because most of the groups planning direct action didn't attend the Coast Guard briefing.

Organizers also plan three days of "creative, people-powered resistance to Shell and the climate crisis" May 16-18 (details on

Fleets of kayaks bird-dogging 400 foot drilling rigs aren't something the Puget Sound area sees everyday. But unusual scenes are about to unfold.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.