A school of dolphins swimming in front of the Sam Simon, a boat of the Sea Shepherd organization, during Operation Dolphin ByCatch off the Atlantic coast of France. (Diana Bagnoli)

Patricia, one of the quartermasters of the Sea Shepherd, looks out at the ocean from the bridge. She's been with Sea Shepherd for two years. It was her childhood dream to be a crew member on the Sam Simon.(Diana Bagnoli)

Every year, dolphins and marine mammals are endangered by industrial fishing trawlers and vessels off the Atlantic coast of France. According to Sea Shepherd, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the oceans, an average of 6,000 dolphins are killed each year off the west coast of France.

Dolphins commonly live alongside sea bass and hake, very desirable, low-cost fish. Unfortunately, the dolphins are often swept up in the nets that are used to catch those fish, with often deadly consequences.

The Pelagis Observatory, a marine mammal research organization in La Rochelle, France, conducted autopsies on dolphins that washed ashore dead in the first four months of last year, and it found that the dolphins’ deaths were mostly caused by drowning or by wounds inflicted by fishermen.

Fishing vessels are required to use sound to scare dolphins away from the nets, but some ships do not always follow the law. In addition, they are required to report dolphin captures but rarely do, and they often get away with it because authorities do not deem enforcement of the law a priority.

Sea Shepherd conducts a yearly campaign called Operation Dolphin ByCatch on a ship called the Sam Simon. Sea Shepherd’s aim is to bring awareness about dolphin deaths caused by industrial fishing. Photographer Diana Bagnoli was inspired by the Sea Shepherd’s mission and by the dedication of the Sam Simon’s crew to accompany them on one of their three-month missions.

The crew of the Sam Simon is made up of men and women from around the world. They are a diverse group that includes teachers, journalists, environmentalists and photographers. But all are passionate about preserving the oceans of the world.

While on the ship, Bagnoli documented the crew as they looked for fishing trawlers, potential hazards for dolphins. She was there when they awoke several times a night between 1 and 5 a.m. to check the radar for fishing vessels.

Once a ship was spotted, the crew would don heavy gear and climb into small boats that had been lowered over the side by a crane. In the darkness and subzero temperatures, they rode out to the ships to document the catch. Bagnoli was there every step of the way.

Bagnoli told In Sight a little bit more about her experience working on this project:

“Their purpose is not to stop the legal fishing operation. They are not even allowed to speak with the fishermen. They just want to report and raise awareness about what happens to the dolphins when the cheap fish people buy at the market are caught by fisherman. It is common practice for fishermen to kill the dolphins on the boat and throw them over the side. Many end up washing up on France’s coastline. Waiting for the nets can take hours, and not every mission yields a dolphin sighting. When it does, they film the dolphins that are caught or floating dead around the ship.”

“Shooting this story, I’ve discovered a radical and an unusual choice of life. On the boat, I’ve found a floating community of people that dedicate their lives to the defense of the ocean. This could sound idealistic, but they live the life they want, fighting for environmental issues, with the dream of making the world a better place. The crew is their family, the boat is their house and although sometimes they miss a physical place to call home, they love the ocean and their mission. To them it’s a fair trade.”


Cara, 32, from South Africa helps to hoist a small boat back to the the deck of the San Simon. At home, she is a kindergarten teacher, but at sea, she's a deckhand who cleans and helps to maintain the crane. (Diana Bagnoli/Diana Bagnoli)

Crew members recover a small boat onto the Sam Simon after a night watch off France's Atlantic coast. (Diana Bagnoli)

Crew members remove their gear after a mission that ended at 4 a.m. They will take a nap before their next mission. (Diana Bagnoli)

An Atlantic sunset is seen from the Sam Simon's galley. (Diana Bagnoli)

Crew members on the San Simon exercise during their free time. (Diana Bagnoli)

Crew members talk after dinner. (Diana Bagnoli)

A crew member has breakfast after a night mission. (Diana Bagnoli)

Otta, 42 and a quartermaster on the Sam Simon, watches the sunset from the ship. After seeing the engine room of the Sam Simon on her first mission a couple of years ago, she was inspired to become a marine engineer. (Diana Bagnoli/Diana Bagnoli)

Members of the Sea Shepherd observe industrial trawlers and other fishing vessels. They report whether dolphins are being trapped or killed in nets. (Diana Bagnoli)

A large industrial vessel fishes during the night, pulling in tons of fish, and sometimes dolphins, with a trawl net. (Diana Bagnoli)

Justin and Michelle during a night mission. (Diana Bagnoli)

Crew members begin another night mission from the Sam Simon. (Diana Bagnoli)

A scientist at the Pelagis Observatory, a marine mammal research organization in La Rochelle, France, conducts autopsies on dolphins that were found dead. (Diana Bagnoli)

A vessel fishes the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France. (Diana Bagnoli)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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