The War on Sharks
Credit: Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

Every morning before sunrise, Mike Dicks and his crew fire up the Bruce and motor out to the drum lines for another day of jousting with the Hamelin. The way these guys see it, what choice do they have? Everything else the anti-drum-line movement has tried has failed. A judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a conservation group and later joined by Sharon Burden, Kyle's mother and the movement's most compelling advocate. Officials ignored two giant protest rallies at Cottesloe Beach, the first drawing 4,000 people, the second 6,000, unheard-of numbers for Perth. Then there was the guy who smashed the front windows of Barnett's office with a hammer, terrifying his staff. The premier responded by increasing security and insisting he wouldn't be cowed by "extreme elements."

At this point, the Bruce crew and other high-seas observers can only continue what they've done from the start: document the Hamelin killings, post the grisly images on social media, and hope that the public – 67 percent of whom oppose drum lines, according to a recent poll – chases Barnett from office.

Pulling out of the marina, we receive a call from another observer boat. There's a shark on the line at Port Beach. Roger that. Dicks throws the hammer down, and we're flying. Our black Sea Shepherd flag, white skull over crossed trident and shepherd's crook, ripples in the wind.

We arrive at the drum line and find its three orange buoys bunched together, a sign that a shark likely hangs below. The Hamelin arrives, and its crew begins pulling the shark up. We move in close, cameras firing. "Fifty meters!" one of them yells. That's the game. When the buoys are in the water, there's a legal 50-meter "exclusion zone" around drum lines. We violate that at the risk of being fined.

The shark they finally haul up is well under three meters. They lasso the tail, drop the ramp and hoist it onto the deck. Since they'll be releasing this shark, they employ several trauma-alleviating techniques. One man covers the shark with a black tarp. Another hoses water through its mouth to aerate the gills. A third man works near the head, no doubt fiddling with the hook.

On our boat, Rohan Sibon readies her mask and fins. Her job, when they release the shark, will be to dive in and video it underwater. If it swims off, great. But if it sinks, that's prime footage. Someone notices that the Hamelin is slowly turning its bow west. In an instant, it shoots out to sea, with the shark still on its deck. Dicks guns the Bruce, and we try like hell to keep up. After a minute of this, Sibon explodes. "Release it already!" she screams. When the Hamelin finally stops, there's some distance between us. We see them release the shark, but Sibon is in no position to dive. Almost in admiration, Eller concedes: "Their tactics are improving."

We chase the Hamelin around for hours. Its crew does not look happy. It's understandable. They kill sharks all day and receive unrelenting shit for it. (My request to do a ride-along with them, to get their perspective, had been denied by Fisheries.) Out on the water, I meet another observer, Shayne Thomson, a former Fisheries staffer who knows the Hamelin's crew. The cull, Thomson says, has split the department. "I know one skipper really well," he says. "He knows sharks and has an affinity for the ocean. He's hurting."

The anti-culling movement is not particularly harmonious, either. The most polarizing figure is an activist named Simon Peterffy. One guy refers to Peterffy's group, the Marine Response Unit, as the "Marine Retard Unit," explaining that "everything he does is negative. It doesn't help the campaign." Take what happened on February 1, when a woman on Peterffy's team "thumb-locked" herself to the docked Hamelin. The stunt wound up delaying the boat's departure while officials worked to cut her free. It was later speculated that a shark found dead on a line might have survived had the Hamelin arrived earlier to release it. "People were mad," says Eller. "Simon can jump in with all his passion without thinking."

When I meet Peterffy, he's on edge. "Something's going to happen, any day now," he says. "We have someone inside Fisheries. He says they're about to move on us. They need a big arrest."

Peterffy comes with all the accoutrements you'd expect – patchy beard, dirty bare feet, Earth First tattoo, girlfriend named Panda. His approach is to be as outrageous as possible, grab headlines, and keep the cull in the news. A couple of weeks ago, for example, during an international art exhibition called "Sculpture by the Sea" on Cottesloe Beach, Peterffy's team painted themselves blue, donned mermaid costumes, and towed a drum line onto the beach in broad daylight. Flanked by a banner reading healthy oceans need sharks, the mermaids posed amid the hooks, chains, and buoys.

Peterffy and I arrive at his headquarters, an encampment called the Lorax, which is best described as Occupy meets Burning Man. The structures here – a bar, a kitchen, a living room – have been fashioned from an eclectic mix of tin, corrugated plastic, plywood, and adobe. A shipping container serves as a storage closet. An ancient Toyota van overgrown with weeds acts as Peterffy's command post.

Peterffy honed his protest chops in the forests of Western Australia, often locking himself on to heavy equipment in a drive to prevent logging. The anti-cull movement, his first maritime campaign, took some getting used to. "Initially, we employed methods that work great in forest settings, but not so much in a marine setting," he says, by way of explaining the Hamelin-lock-on-shark-death fiasco. Still, he insists, these glitches shouldn't detract from the real target – Barnett and his political cronies. "Their attitude is revenge: 'The sharks killed one of ours, so we're going to kill the shark,' " he says. "There's no science. It's all politics."