SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — A young woman who said at the age of 5 she wanted to be a marine biologist when she grew up knew her life would somehow always revolve around the ocean.
But Jillian Morris, 31, of Maine never knew the deep blue would consume her being, her career, and quite possibly, her life.
Morris said she and her husband, Duncan Brake, both reality TV documentarians, departed on a voyage with activists last November to shoot the current season of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars”. She said in that time, they often wereharassed and attacked by Japanese whalers when they came into contact with them on the docks, while resting their sea-bound vessels.
In seasons past, the activists, who swear to only eat vegan meals and risk their lives before that of a whale’s, throw canisters of butyric acid at the Japanese and oftentimes try to board their ships illegally. They relish in referring to themselves as modern-day “pirates” and sport logos that slightly resemble a skull and crossbones.
On season five of Whale Wars, Animal Planet’s celebrated reality television series, which documents the escapades of the whale activist organization the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Morris almost met her demise when the group’s crew encountered a violent storm on one of their three fleet ships in the waters near Antarctica.
The Sea Shepherds travel the world, boasting their unconventional tactics used to terrorize and harass Japanese whalers, all in the name of saving a majestic endangered species. Although their commitment and ideals make for fascinating television, the Marshwood High School 2000 graduate explained their missions often become dangerous.
The Japanese crew members often become enraged — they claim to have the law “on their side” and stress they harpoon and kill whales to collect samples for scientific purposes, according to the series’ dramatic narrator. Morris said in her experience, she suffered some of their anger.
“At the docks, [the whalers] grabbed the cameras. They were in our faces,” she said. “It was direct contact with these people, so that was particularly challenging, just because you were dealing with people right in your face who didn’t want to be filmed.”
She said however, the ultimate challenge came when a 30-foot-tall wave crashed on the crew’s boat and damaged the ship’s fiberglass frame. She said the thunderous sound of the collision woke her from her brief nap in the lower deck, and haunts her still today.
She said with just one other cameraman aboard — her husband — Morris feared for their lives, but knew she had to keep filming.
“It’s reality, so everything is filmed as it happens. Other reality shows reset and rescript, but this is completely different,” she said. “If you didn’t film it, it didn’t happen.”
She said although her goal is to act as “a fly on the wall,” so much so she wouldn’t even assist the crew if a devastating a mishap occurred, the bond she shares today with the crewmen who saved their lives remains.
“I will always have a connection with them for the rest of my life, just because [of] what we went through. After the waves, the boat was stabilized, but it took us eight days to get back to Australia,” she said. “At that point you were just trying to survive to get back to port.”
Today, while packing for the Bahamas amid her live-out-of-a-suitcase lifestyle as a freelancer, Morris said she continues to get calls from concerned friends and loved ones who watch the recent airing episodes, and are mostly shocked by the intense storm incident. She laughs saying when that episode first aired, her Facebook page “went crazy.”
Now, she just wants her hometown to know she is all right and she is home safe.
“It’s pretty amazing to be able to tell that story — It’s extremely powerful,” Morris said, noting both the professional and romantic relationship with her partner Brake allows her to share the conservation message she cares the most about. “We’re both active conservationists. It’s a chance to share video and images with people so they care about the ocean. We can actually have the ocean. When I bring my kids back to Maine to see York Beach, there’s going to be a beautiful beach still there.”
Brake said he proposed to Morris on York Beach after they met while working at a biological field station in the Bahamas.
“We were diving with tiger sharks and it was just nice to find your soul mate,” he said, adding Morris’ driven work ethic, considering an industry he says is stacked against female documentarians, is impressive.
“I’m absolutely amazed and impressed — for her to actually be a female and challenge this industry, but to also be married to her, is a huge bonus.”
Morris, who ventured south after her graduation from the University of New England with degrees in both marine biology and animal behavior, said she could not have gotten through the harrowing trip without the love of her life. She explained Brake had previously shot seasons for “Whale Wars,” but last year, they wanted to go with the Sea Shepherds together.
“I never want to go through that again,” she said, referencing the tumultuous storm event, “but I can’t even really describe how amazing it was to have him there. It’s something that has brought us closer. You go through something like that, and we’ll never forget that.”
(c)2012 the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)
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