Out in the open water, there is no one to intervene between the whalers and the activists. The crew members of Sea Shepherd are the little guys, seemingly the underdog, compared to their foes, the well-funded Japanese whaling industry. But this match-up has not just been created for television drama - the clash has been ongoing for over 30 years with Captain Paul Watson at the helm. Sea Shepherd started this particular campaign against the Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean in the Antarctic in 2002. In this extreme environment, the Sea Shepherd crew face ice that ripped a hole in one vessel in a previous season and “rogue waves” which in this season, severed a pontoon of the Brigitte Bardot, a vessel named after the actress and animal activist who accompanied the Sea Shepherd on a voyage in 1977.
The Sea Shepherd crew fights the whalers in order to help uphold the world-wide moratorium on commercial whale hunting. However, the Japanese state that their self-proclaimed “scientific whaling” is exempt from the ban. They produce data on whale size, DNA and contents of their digestive tracks but killing 500 whales of the same species in the same location to compile this data seems outrageous, especially when other countries like Australia conduct non-lethal research. The Japanese use their data to argue that since whales eat fish, they must be killed to reduce populations and keep the fishery business alive. This argument ignores the fact that the fishing industry has made itself non-sustainable thanks to huge kills of fish using drift nets that extend for miles (which also trap species such as dolphins). The whale products are sold commercially in Japanese markets.
Sea Shepherd’s goal is to cause enough interference so that the whalers cannot carry out whaling activities. The Japanese harpoon boats usually travel next to the main factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, which hauls in and cuts up whales that the harpoon ships kill. Sea Shepherd’s primary tactic is to follow the Nisshin Maru so it must try to get away instead of drop anchor and haul in the bodies. Further, the harpoon ships often divert from killing in order to aid the mother ship. In 2010, a harpoon ship rammed and sunk the Ady Gil, a boat donated to Sea Shepherd by the Hollywood entrepreneur with the same name. The collision broke three ribs of Animal Planet cameraman, Simeon Houtman.
The whalers also turn the tables by following the Sea Shepherd crew. By monitoring the location of Sea Shepherd vessels, the whalers know where not to go to pursue their hunt. The chase becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as Sea Shepherd crew must try to outwit the vessels that pursue them.
Sea Shepherd uses methods to slow and frustrate the Nisshin Maru’s crew, but do not harm any individual. For example, Sea Shepherd tries to clear the Nisshin Maru’s decks by tossing bottles of non-toxic, biodegradable but stinky butyric acid on board, sending the crew running to avoid the smell. If the crew is not on the deck, they can’t receive and cut up the whales, plus the whale meat becomes tainted. Sea Shepherd may also maneuver to strategically toss a rope in front of the Nisshin Maru or a harpoon boat, entangling the ship’s propeller so the whalers must stop and detangle it. To prevent the harpooners from shooting the whales, Sea Shepherd has sometimes invoked photonic disrupters - lasers designed not to cause damage, but to blind temporarily and disorient, like flashbulbs.
In the last year, the Japanese whaling industry received $30 million of misdirected tsunami relief funds to bolster their efforts and deflect the Sea Shepherd. This is on top of the annual $6 million subsidy from the Japanese government. With this money, the whaling industry invests in high-tech defenses, including water cannons and LRADs (high decibel long range acoustical devices) designed to incapacitate recipients. They have aimed the LRAD at Sea Shepherd’s crew, including their helicopter pilot in flight. This is a true David and Goliath match-up since Sea Shepherd relies solely on donations. But David is winning - in the last several whaling seasons, the Japanese have slaughtered much fewer minke and fin whales than their planned quota, causing profit losses of tens of millions of dollars.
Whale Wars is just one campaign of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They also address seal hunting in Canada and Namibia, dolphin hunting in Japan, pilot whale hunting in the Faroe Islands and the overfishing of blue fin tuna. Of course, like most television shows, the current season was previously recorded and ended in March (as temperatures decline in the Southern Hemisphere). At this very moment, Captain Paul Watson is detained in Germany for possible extradition to Costa Rica. The charge stems back to 2002, when the Sea Shepherd documented illegal shark-finning by a Costa Rican vessel in Guatemalan waters. At the time, Guatemala allowed the Sea Shepherd to intervene and stop the shark-finning. This Costa Rican vessel had been previously convicted of poaching in the Galapagos Island. The Costa Rican crew claimed that their lives were threatened by Sea Shepherd and as a result, the Costa Rican government issued a demand of extradition for Captain Watson. This demand has been dismissed by Interpol for being politically motivated but 10 years later, Germany has upheld it.
There is now a worldwide campaign, including celebrity support, to release Captain Watson so he can continue his brave work to save whales and other marine species. Over the years, Sea Shepherd has gained support from celebrities such as Bob Barker, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, John Paul DeJoria (of Paul Mitchell), Pamela Anderson, Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the late Steve Irwin, and even the Dali Lama.
While detained in Germany, Watson has recently met with Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons, who will be donating a new ship to the Sea Shepherd’s fleet. The ship, named after Simon, will be seen on the next season of Whale Wars.
Written by Valerie Chalcraft