'Their actions were intended to hurt us'
The Maltese diver injured in the clash over tuna catches on the high seas three days ago is convinced the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was on a mission to harm him.
Recovering at his home in Żurrieq, Reuben Silvio recounted how he was balancing on the tuna cage in the middle of the sea when he decided to stand firm to protect the catch as the Steve Irwin, the society's 59-metre ship, advanced head-on.
"The people on the ship's prow saw me and shouted 'get out of the way', but I decided to challenge them, thinking they would stop if I remained there. But the two-storey vessel kept advancing and when it was 10 metres away from me I knew there was no stopping it," he recalled.
Mr Silvio, 29, jumped into the tuna pen and clung to the plastic pipes encircling the cage, bracing himself for the impact as the Steve Irwin rammed right into the cage, located 35 nautical miles north of Tripoli.
Pulling out a photo taken by the Sea Shepherd that captures the ship slamming into the cages owned by the local company Fish and Fish, he points to the spot where he was hanging on for dear life.
The incident, described as an act of piracy by fishermen, happened on Thursday when the marine conservation organisation rammed the pen in a bid to free the bluefin tuna it believed was caught illegally. On its website, the organisation prides itself on using "direct-action tactics... to expose and confront illegal activities".
The Rural Affairs Ministry has defended the fishing operation, insisting all the paperwork was in order, and condemned the attack.
Fish and Fish director Joe Caruana estimates the activists managed to free 600 bluefin tuna weighing some 35 tons and costing €400,000. Another 200 fish, weighing 30 tons, had been transferred to another cage before the attack.
Mr Caruana calculates the cost of the loss of fish coupled with the damage caused during Thursday's incident will surpass €1 million.
The attack has forced Mr Silvio to reconsider going out to sea on such operations.
"When the ship rammed the cage, it submerged the pipes, dragging me under. I thought that was it. I struggled to hang on, knowing if I let go I would get entangled in the nets. As the pipes bobbed up and down I managed to gasp for air, before being dragged down again," he said.
"This is no way to rescue the tuna. Their actions were intended to hurt, why else would you ram a cage with people on it? There was no other aim but to injure me. This was an act of madness."
This claim was strongly denied by the ship's captain who insisted that it was the Sea Shepherd crew which repelled a "violent assault".
Once the ship stopped, Mr Caruana finally surfaced. As he struggled to catch his breath he heard a splashing sound and saw ropes being thrown down. Believing the activists were trying to rescue him he clung on, only to realise belatedly that attached to the end of the ropes were hooks intended to cut through the net and free the tuna.
When the ship started reversing, the rope tightened and the hook tore the skin off his right hand before he let go.
"I started swimming back to safety when I realised my strength was waning. That's when I realised I was hurt. My skin was ripped and my palm was covered in blood. Seeing the blood, I froze and called to my friends for help," he said, showing where he had 12 stitches.
The nerve on one of his fingers has been badly damaged and he cannot work for a few weeks until the part of the missing flesh on his fingers grows back.
At the time he had instinctively tore his T-shirt and wrapped it round his fist to stem the blood, but it still felt as if "someone was hammering my hand to the beat of my heart".
"We were all alone out there and if we had received protection all this would have been avoided."