OBITUARY: Tom Barber, the activist who helped end whaling in Australia, then built the world's first commercial wind farm

Tom Barber in 1977. Image: Copyright Jonny Lewis

Tom Barber, a key figure in the 1970s anti-whaling movement in Australia who later created the world’s first commercial wind farm in the US, died in Sydney at the weekend after a long illness. He was 71.

Two Harpoon Tom, as he was sometimes called because he had an explosive head harpoon fired over him twice in the one anti-whaling direct action campaign, was born in Mildura and studied architecture at the University of NSW in Sydney.

He died four months short of the 40th anniversary (November 21, 1978) of the closure of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, Australia’s last whaling station in Western Australia, which he risked his own life to help bring about.

“He tried to make the planet a better place,” says Aline Charney Barber, his wife and fellow 1970s activist. “He was brave, always willing to push the envelope for something he believed in.”

Tom was colour blind and a terrible driver.

“Our deal was: I drive, he navigates,” says Aline. “And that is a perfect metaphor for our life together. He figured out what to do and how to do it and I made sure to help make it happen. We were a team.”

In 1977 Tom Barber and a band of friends launched from a beach at Albany, Western Australia, in tiny Zodiac inflatable boats with outboard motors to chase harpoon ships across the wild Southern Ocean.

To give the campaign additional weight, and international attention, they brought to Australia Canadian journalist and writer Bob Hunter, the first president of Greenpeace, and Bobbi Hunter, his wife and the first treasurer of Greenpeace.

Hunter arrived, fresh from successfully using human shield tactics to block Soviet whalers.

“We’re peace crazed,” he said.

The international environment group now celebrates August 28, 1977, the day Tom Barber and his friends launched in Albany, as the anniversary of its establishment in Australia. It was also Greenpeace’s first action outside North America.

In the lead up to the direct action, Tom also met Aline, an American, who then became part of the group setting up in Albany to stop the harpooning of sperm whales.

Jean-Paul Fortom-Gouin and Tom Barber outside the Albany police Station in 1977. Image: Copyright Jon Lewis

Other key figures included Frenchman Jean-Paul Fortum-Gouin, sometimes known as The Phantom, who conceived and financed the direct action, and Jonny Lewis, a photographer who became the Australian spokesman.

Jean-Paul Fortom-Gouin’s enduring memory is of a Tom, his face set with a determined stare, at the back of the Zodiac operating the outboard.

“Tom was a creative genius who could just as easily repair a wreck in the middle of the Nullarbor desert as pilot a Zodiac in the swells of the Roaring Forties or invent some mind-blowing way to produce clean energy,” Jean-Paul said on hearing of Tom Barber’s death.

“A gentle soul, extremely smart.”

Tom and Jean-Paul were both in a Zodiac, over the horizon out of sight of land, in 1977 when they zigzagged in front of a harpoon ship, keeping themselves between it and the sperm whale it was pursuing.

They both heard a loud crack, the sound of the harpoon being fired.

An extract from the book, The Last Whale (Fremantle Press, 2008):

Tom saw the forerunner — the rope from the harpoon — smack the water a few metres from the Zodiac.

There was nothing he could do to stop the momentum of the inflatable. It ran over the rope and tangled in the outboard propeller.

He felt the Zodiac jerk sideways.

The whale was dragging them down.

This is it, Tom thought. We’re going to die.

Jean-Paul shouted, “Get the motor up! Get it up.”

Tom reached over the side and pulled the pivot pin on the outboard.

The harpoon, and its explosive head, hit the whale behind the left flipper, killing it instantly.

He and Jean-Paul then complained to local police about the incident. It was part of the plan to gain media attention to the issue.

Paddy Hart, the skipper and harpoon gunner of the Cheynes IV whale chaser, told police: “I would not have fired had there been any possibility of danger to those men.”

(Decades later Paddy Hart would travel to Japan to protest against whaling by that country.)

Tom Barber in 1977. Image: Copyright Jonny lewis

Tom said: “The protest was about love and peace. Whales had a beauty and it was about preserving that beauty.”

Tom and Aline later lived in the US, settling in Reno, Nevada.

Tom pioneered the world’s first commercial wind farm in 1980 and then designed furniture he called Fermatspace, objects built of steel where no parts touch each other. He gained a US patent for the system.

Richard Jones, a former NSW independent state MP and a long-time anti-whaling activist, told the state Legislative Council on October 22, 1997:

Last Saturday I spent the afternoon with an Australian legend – Tom Barber. Very few people in this House would have heard of Tom Barber and his lovely wife, Aline. I met Tom and his wife in 1977 when they were preparing to go on their first Greenpeace expedition to Albany, Western Australia, to try to close down the whaling station. We were the first to establish a Greenpeace presence in Australia. Tom Barber, an architect by trade, tried at that time to create a wind farm in Australia but found that there was no demand and received no encouragement from anybody. So he went to California and in 1980 created the world’s first wind farm. That wind farm was owned by Zond Corporation, which in turn was taken over by Enron.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific released a statement saying “Two Harpoon” Tom Barber put his life on the line to protect whales and played a key role in the abolition of the whaling industry in Australia.

“He was a passionate and influential environmental defender whose nickname is a reference to the two times whaling vessels fired at him personally as he placed himself directly in front of the whales that had been their intended targets,” Greenpeace said.

“Tom leaves a proud legacy that includes establishing the first commercial wind farm in the United States, the abolition of whaling in Australia, and the creation of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

“Millions of people all over the world who enjoy the benefits of wind power have Tom to thank for his pivotal role in rolling out the clean renewable energy that the world needs to transition to now more than ever.

“Tom’s death will be mourned all over the world.”

Tom Barber is survived by his wife, Aline; two sons, Ulysses and Tatlin; daughter-in-law Christian; and three grandchildren, Julian, Olive, and Sadie.

Tom Barber in 2007 at the 30th anniversary of Greenpeace Australia. Image: Chris Pash

(NOTE: Chris Pash’s book, The Last Whale (Fremantle Press, 2008), chronicles the 1977 direct action campaign through both the eyes of the whalers and the activists.)

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