Captain Steward stands on the weather deck with Chief Officer Cousteau reviewing the secret passenger manifest.
There are no names, titles, or identification documents, in this little black book. There is simply a list of different pencil strokes representing counts for the various species of sharks they are transporting. No other crew member has any knowledge of the life swimming circles inside the ballast, not even the Second Officer. It is best for the safety of the crew, the passengers, and the success of the mission itself, just in case.
The pair have been working together even before the documentary Sharkwater brought global awareness to the abhorrent shark fining practices plaguing the oceans and threatening to render extinct the top predator fish of the marine ecosystem. Their cover is ingenious.
The Sweet Shepherd transports flour and meals of oil seeds from the U.S. and returns with molasses from Fiji as her “official” cargo. When she docks in Fiji, the crew is so busy unloading the cargo that the routine action of flushing the ballast draws no attention.
However, the journey for Captain Steward is anything but routine. Although she and Chief Officer Cousteau keep a strict vow of silence on the real nature of their exports and communicate only via the encoded scribbles in the little black book, she also has hidden cameras and motion sensors directly connected to device she carries in case any of the crew members decide to explore the hidden deck of the ship.
Second Officer Reynolds radios the Captain to the navigation bridge and Chief Officer Cousteau takes over the watch.
“Weather’s not looking good, Captain. We’ll need to stick closer to the coast until the storm dissipates. If not, then we angle down around Florida into the Gulf of Mexico then into the Caribbean. The direct line to the Dominican and straight to Panama is too risky.”
Captain Steward presses for details. The detour will take longer and more importantly will place the Sweet Shepherd into waters she would rather avoid. “What kind of storm are we talking about here?”
Reynolds pulls up the satellite feed and circles the forming hurricane with his fingers. The captain swears under her breath. “OK. Change course and radio Fiji.” She returns to the weather deck and updates Chief Officer Cousteau, who immediately disappears to the cargo hold to check the containers .
For the next 12 days, the satellite feed consistently shows storm fronts moving into the western Atlantic. The Sweet Shepherd takes the detour and enters the Gulf of Mexico.
A few days later, the Sweet Shepherd is in the Caribbean Sea on her new course to the Panama Canal when something approaches in the distance.
Captain Steward is sitting on the weather deck sipping a coffee and welcomes Chief Officer Cousteau…at first. The bearer of the bad news gets the brunt of her self-criticism.
“Crap, Jacqueline! Why didn’t you speak up?” But the captain catches herself and realizes that SHE was the one who let down the guard. “I apologize. I should have double-checked the satellite feed.” She takes a moment to regroup. “Make the call.”
Jacqueline nods and disappears below deck. The captain calmly adjusts her uniform as she nonchalantly joins Second Officer Reynolds in the navigation bridge to interrogate him, muttering “What are they doing out so far?”
Movement in the ballast is erratic.
Katie nuzzles up to Mr. Bramble and asks: “Daddy, why are we stopping?” There are rumbles through the walls inconsistent with the engine cycles.
“Shhh. I think captain Steward is being boarded,” Pierre White replies.
Mr. Bramble turns to his wife Charlene and whispers: “We must be nearing Panama by now…that means…” Skip and Charlene stop swimming for what feels like an eternity and coral their pups between them.
“That means what Mommy?” Katie pipes in.
Joey rubs his mangled fin and escapes to a corner of the tank, whimpering. Skip swims over and tries to comfort him while Charlene nuzzles up to Katie: “It just means that we have to be extra quiet.” She slides her nose over to Katie’s and adds: “Can you do that for Mommy, Katie?” Katie nods very very quietly. “Good girl. Let’s listen.”
“Buenos días Inspector.” Captain Steward greets the Costa Rican coast guard.
“Papeles por favor, señora.” He gives the Captain’s manifest a cursory glance then orders: “¡Pedro!”
A heavily armed official approaches and frisks Captain Steward vigorously while the commanding officer smirks.
“¿Hay problema?” Captain Steward attempts to buy some time.
The commanding officer brings the manifest over and points to the word “flour” and mocks: “¿Harina?“ He walks up to the captain’s face and claims smugly: “Tenemos informaciones de que Ud está cargando no harina sino cocaína.”
Captain Steward is not quite sure she understood all that he said, but she certainly understood that he is accusing her of smuggling cocaine.
Something feels wrong here. She manages a peak at their deck and sees a bloody shark fin sticking out from under a tarp. She retorts: “And your ‘papeles’ Inspector.”
Pedro shoves her to the ground and shouts in broken English: “Shut up woman! We don’t need no papers. We have guns.”
Second Officer Reynolds joins the aggressors.
Just then, a welcome English voice booms from a megaphone.
“You are out of your jurisdiction. Leave the ship immediately or we pump up the water cannons.”
Captain Steward shouts. “They’re poachers!”
“¡Silencio! ¡Te mato!” The false coast guard inspector points a semiautomatic rifle at Captain Steward’s head. Reynolds draws his attention to the name on the charging vessel.
It’s the Dundee!
The invaders led by Reynolds redirect their focus to the oncoming boat. Her captain, Paulina Watson, is worth more to their client than any amount of shark fins they could harvest from the Sweet Shepherd. But the canons are primed and the criminals are thrown back into their ship and chased into Panamanian water where they are promptly arrested by the real coast guard.
The Dundee does an abrupt turn back into international waters, free to come to the rescue another day.
Meanwhile, tension in the ballast dissolves and the Sweet Shepherd weaves her way through the Panama Canal.
Many days later, the next stop brings a questioning Katie back to her parents who reply: “Yes! We’re there Katie.”
A section of the secret ballast chamber opens up exposing it as a thick glass portal into a larger room.
Captain Steward stands eye to eye with Skip, a 6 inch glass barrier between them. She looks over at Joey playing with his sister Katie and smiles. Fully aware that the Brambles do not understand human language (muahahaha little does she know) but believing in the mute energy transfer of intention between life forms, she holds up a picture of their new Fiji paradise against the glass.
Charlene awakes from her cautious scrutiny in the background and swims towards the captain. She stares at her for a few moments then offers up her fin. Captain Steward places her hand against the glass and the two share a moment only the soul can understand.
“Welcome to your new home, Charlene.”
The bottom of the tank opens up and the Brambles swim to freedom. They are not waiting for the others to lead the way.