The Whale Warriors

The Whale WarriorsIt’s easy to say that whaling is wrong, and I’d be lying if the recent locked talks at the farce of an International Whaling Commission conference in Morocco didn’t make me want to shake someone. But what’s harder but more effective is being able to explain articulately and persuasively why it is.

Which is why I’ve decided it’s time to re-read Peter Heller’s The Whale Warriors. It’s a book that documents the time the award-winning National Geographic writer (not to be mistaken for Peter Hellier, the comedian) spent with Captain Paul Watson and the crew of the Sea Shepherd as he investigated both the complex, emotionally charged issues around whaling and the people who are willing to risk their lives to put a stop to it.

The Sea Shepherd organisation actively courts the attention of being the no-holds-barred activists who won’t, like the ‘Avon ladies’ of Greenpeace, merely stand by and take photos of the slaughter. They will instead maneuver their ship between the whaling ship and the whale under the instruction of Watson, who declared that: ‘We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don’t wave banners. We intervene.’ But despite the Sea Shepherd’s apparently tough stance, the Japanese and media’s denigration of them as ‘pirates’ is simplistic and simply untrue.

Heller boarded the ship to find out who exactly Watson and his crew were, what motivated them, and whether they really were (or still are) pirates. What he found was that although Watson is an undeniably uncompromising man you’re either with or against, he’s also largely misunderstood or mis-portrayed, if you like, in the media.

The Farley Mowat is a ship that proudly flies the Jolly Roger, sports a big metal steel blade with which to slice the bows of ships, comprises of a motley crew of volunteer activists there for a variety of passionate reasons, and offers up a monotonous diet of vegan fare. Beyond that is an incisively intelligent and dedicated captain looking out for the whales, his crew, and even, at times, the Japanese.

Like him or loathe him, Watson is a smart man. He knows maritime laws intimately and, in spite of how it might be reported, operates within the law—it’s worth noting that despite his eco-terrorist tag, Watson has never injured anyone and has never been convicted of any felony in any country. Perhaps it takes an uncompromising personality to dedicate yourself to an unending battle to end a practice we all know is wrong but lack the courage and conviction to do much about. As the saying goes, and one I’m inclined to agree with: ‘Any day saving a whale is a good day to die.’

Fact: The Japanese are telling furphies—there’s no scientific basis for the whaling whatsoever. The research they’re claiming needs to be done can be completed just as effectively through non-invasive (that is, non-harpooning, non-terminal) procedures.

Fact: Eating whale meat isn’t part of Japanese culture. Just four per cent of Japanese people regularly eat whale meat and a mere 11 per cent support whaling.

Fact: They Japanese are conducting whaling in an internationally recognised whale sanctuary. Under Sections 21 and 24 of the United Nations World Charter for Nature, Watson is well within his right to try to prevent the Japanese from slaughtering whales in Antarctic waters.

Fact: As the country closest to the sanctuary, Australia has been tasked with policing and protecting it, something which we’re epically failing to do. Part of the reason for this is, I’m ashamed to admit, is because Japan is a major trading partner and we value our exports more than whales’ lives.

Set in 2005, this book predates some of the more recent controversies such as the crew members boarding the Japanese whaling ship or the collision that sank the Ady Gill. But it’s certainly not outdated. If anything, it simply shows that all talk and no action by anyone other than the Sea Shepherd activists (particularly at the current International Whaling Commission conference being conducted in Morocco), means that we’re no closer to resolving the issues five years down the track.

Surprisingly, given that it’s a book about one of the most contentious moral, ethical, and environmental issues of our time, The Whale Warriors is actually really funny. Some of my favourite parts include how the slower, less financially-equipped Sea Shepherd have double agents aboard the faster, more cashed-up Greenpeace vessel who then feed them information about whaling ship locations, and how the crew throws rotten, foul smelling, but environmentally and ethically sound food at the Japanese ship.

At the same time, The Whale Warriors is incredibly emotionally flooring. Without giving too much away, the most profound moment of the book was for me when the Farley Mowat emerged from a thick fog to surprise and give chase to the Japanese whaling ship. As they passed the Greenpeace vessel, which was staying back and merely observing, many of the frustrated, hands-tied Greenpeace activists screamed, clapped, and cheered in encouragement. It’s a fist-pumper of a moment and one that still chokes me up.

As the IWC conference continues and the whaling season approaches again, I’m wondering both what’s next in the fight against whaling and whether this year will be the year that something different occurs. In the interim, I’ll be brushing up on my facts and figures courtesy of Heller’s book, as shaking someone in frustration probably isn’t going to advance the anti-whaling cause.