Phil Ball risked his life and a 15-year prison sentence in Russia for piracy and hooliganism to protest against deep-sea oil drilling in the Arctic. He was one of the Arctic 30 Greenpeace crew arrested on September 19 last year and held for 67 days after their vessel was highjacked by Russian commandos. Now he is in Amsterdam to welcome home the last captive, the ship – Arctic Sunrise – finally released after more than 300 days in Russian custody.
What was his reaction on seeing the ship again and what turns a shy, rural Oxfordshire lad into an international protester?
The boat came in to Amsterdam last Saturday. Phil with others in the Arctic 30 team set off to welcome it on the high seas in five small inflatable boats during a force five gale that produced four-metre high waves.
The Greenpeace International ship, Arctic Sunrise
He said: “It was good practice for the boat teams. When we rose over the crest of one wave we saw a small speck in the distance, the Arctic Sunrise, that slowly got bigger and bigger until we were alongside her.
“We all knew it was just a ship – metal, wood, engines – but there was so much energy attached to that ship that it had a character and life of its own.
“When I went back on board in Amsterdam 11 months after I left the ship, I sensed the same smells, vibration from the deck and sounds of the engine throbbing.
“These details, almost forgotten, brought the ship to life for me and conjured up memories. It was very moving. Not sad or emotional, but a very big thing.
“I went to the helideck and stared at the big “H” painted on the pad and stood in the same place I was when the Russian invaders swooped.
“I had looked at this same “H” during the invasion, but it was too surreal to take in.
“I was the cameraman recording everything, so I viewed the events through the screen of a camera. The feelings I should have felt at the time came flooding back.
“I felt outrage that a Russian helicopter could hover above us with soldiers sliding down a rope. Our privacy was invaded by men in balaclavas with machine guns, tackling the crew and kicking some in the ribs.
“We all had our hands over our heads as a sign of non-resistance.
“Since I had the job of filming the attack, I bolted myself into a room where I could take the video and hide it in my boot before they broke in and dragged me out.”
This footage of the moment the Russians raided the Arctic Sunrise was smuggled to the West and released six weeks later, causing a storm of outrage around the world.
How did Phil Ball come to be part of the Arctic 30 capturing the historic and ruthless moment on video? This small, slim, unassuming man came from a strange place. He was once an air cadet in Kidlington but he lived “out in the sticks. I didn’t hang out at skateboard parks. I didn’t even have a pair of skates. I didn’t hang out on street corners. There weren’t any where I lived.
“I went to a Great Tew primary school. The headteacher had a passion for everything he did. It all started with pond-dipping and he inspired us with an early love of nature.
“Later I went to university at Derby and studied photography, video and graphics and combined that with earth sciences and zoology and biology. As a hobby I did rock climbing.
“After university I worked with Tim Shepherd in Chipping Norton, a nature cameraman. Then I went to the BBC and travelled the globe to pristine, wild environments that were delicate and fascinating.
“I started to worry about the damage we were doing to the planet when we had a serious problem in Thailand.
“We needed to film hoverflies pollinating the slipper orchid but there was so much deforestation the insects were not to be found. Clearly we would not be telling the whole story unless we looked at these fundamental problems.
“I was experiencing these problems with my own eyes. I’ve been there, done it and the experience makes you take the problems personally. Many people worry about climate change, but they feel helpless. It’s very difficult to change it.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position to do something. I’ve got camera skills and climbing experience, so the question is: what can I do to make a difference?”
The question also is: what price did Phil Ball pay to bring the Arctic oil drilling to international attention? He was detained for 67 days from the time the Russian helicopter landed on the Arctic Sunrise to when President Putin gave all the Arctic 30 an amnesty and released them.
Phil spent most of this time in a former mental asylum in Murmansk. He gave a flavour of the experience by describing the food. “Mostly we had fish soup. It sticks in the mind even now and stuck in the throat then…utterly hideous and disgusting. If you saw someone feed it to an animal you would call the RSPCA.
“Every mouthful of every meal made me gag. The soup was made by cutting off the head and tail of the fish and leaving the guts inside and dousing it in water. There was a grey grease film on top. If it had any flavour it was vile.
“Alternatively we had meatballs which were probably made of mechanically-recovered meat swept off the floor of an abattoir.
“I got gastroenteritis and turned in a shadow of my former self.”
A little girl holds a poster picturing him during a demonstration at the Russian Embassy in London last year calling for the release of the Arctic 30 protesters then being held in prison.
The Arctic Sunrise, is also a shadow of her former self and needs at least two months’ work in the Amsterdam docks.
“The ship was an electronic hub for video, news and radio reports and had satellite links. All that electronic equipment has been ripped out by the Russians and the ship is in very bad condition and needs a complete refit and repair,” he said.
But how about the Arctic 30 and Phil Ball in particular; does he need a new refit and repair?
“No. I’m ready to go again right now.”