Whale Wars: Direct Action vs. Diplomacy in the Southern Ocean

By Emily D. Irvine: 1-18-13

I have always been drawn to topics of controversy. Not because I enjoy the controversial, nor because I feel a compelling need to incite social rebellion or verbal battles. Simply put, subjects that are “controversial” are merely subjects that have the potential to spark the most valuable conversation. Controversy arises because there are two sides of humanity with compelling arguments for and against a cause.

In the realm of environmentally motivated controversy, perhaps one of the organizations gaining rapid word wide attention is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Founded by Captain Paul Watson, who is also a co-founder of Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd’s aim is the vigilante style enforcement of conservation laws involving the world’s oceans. They are best know to cable subscribers for Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, scheduled to air its fifth season this summer. As I type this, the film footage for season five is underway. Watson and his volunteer Sea Shepherds have reached the Southern Ocean on four separate vessels. Each episode of their show opens with the same montage and narration:

“A war rages in the far reaches of planet earth. Antarctica’s pristine waters run red with blood. The Sea Shepherds are the soldiers who wage this war. They’re led into battle by Captain Paul Watson. Their enemy is a group of Japanese fishermen whose chosen catch is whales. The Sea Shepherds say the whalers are violating an international ban on commercial whaling. The whalers say they are legally killing whales for scientific research. Both claim to have the law on their side. These are their battles. This is their war.”


The Sea Shepherd vessel the Steve Irwin engages the Japanese harpoon ship the Yusshin Maru No. 2

Such a compelling and straight forward opening, driven home by the disturbing images captured by helicopter pilot Chris Altman in season two of a minke whale meeting a gruesome death at the end of Japanese harpoon, has become a hit with viewers. However, because of their direct action tactics, controversy has followed Sea Shepherd wherever they go. Whaling is a multi million dollar endeavor, and any interference with commerce is the fastest way to make powerful enemies. That said, those who make powerful enemies often do so in pursuit of a greater good and at great personal risk. In this annual war that rages in the Southern Ocean, we must ask ourselves which is more criminal: direct action, which is merely a soft term for harassment and vandalism, or the inhumane slaughter of endangered species in the name of research, the validity of which is up for debate?

(Warning: The following video is the graphic raw footage captured from a Sea Shepherd helicopter. It depicts the slow death of a minke whale at the end of a harpoon ship. This video, quite honestly, puts me in tears. It depicts one of the most inhumane ways an animal can be killed. As disturbing as it is, I feel it is important to understand the cruelty that occurs in the corners of the globe most of us will never see.) 

Humans have been whaling for centuries. The Inuits of Alaska and Siberia harvested bowhead and grey whales, and continue to do so, for the great nourishment and resources to be gleaned from such a massive animal in so hostile an environment. Two or three whales could quite easily feed an Eskimo village for a winter and bones were made into useful tools, intestines made into raincoats, and blubber used to grease hunting knifes and light fires. In the 17th Century, European civilizations developed boats and harpoons with the capability to transform whaling from small scale rural hunts into a commercial endeavor. Into the 20th Century, whales were hunted for the oil found in their brains and bodies to grease heavy machinery and light lamps, for their bones to make corsets, and for their meat. The sperm whale, one of the most valuable species due to its massive oil filled head, earned a reputation as a fierce opponent for whaling vessels, with large males violently defending their pods from the ships that slaughtered them. Herman Melville immortalized the sperm whale in his most famous novel as a fearsome metaphor for all that vexes humanity, a symbolic force man cannot contain despite his most valiant efforts. Unfortunately, the fierceness of the likes of Moby Dick have been no match for man. Across species, commercial whaling has left our oceans with only 5-10% of original great whale populations.


A pod of sperm whales

In 1982, we as species began to realize our own ignorance and vicious impact on our oceans and the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on commercial whaling, though under the IWC, whaling is still allowed for purposes of scientific research and all whale’s killed for research must not be wasted. As the IWC is itself a voluntary organization whose power lies only in universally agreed upon diplomacy and cooperation, enforcing this moratorium is all but impossible. Furthermore, worded into it is a loophole, a loophole that has been seized by the nation of Japan.

The Institute of Cetacean Research is a Japanese organization that has been whaling in the whale sanctuary of the Southern Ocean for over three decades. A quick browse through their website reveals their intentions to study population, diet, and migration of whales with an explicit ultimate goal of bringing commercial whaling back on a sustainable level. The goal sounds reasonable on paper, but the results and consequences must be analyzed and considered. The ICR’s research on population and migration has accomplished nothing but proving that there are minke, fin, and humpback whales in the seas around Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months, something easily learned without fatal studies, but proved by the meat that ends up in Japanese fish markets after the hunt. Their studies on diet have proven that these animals eat krill, something long discovered. They have discovered the top speed of fleeing minke whales. They’re fast, but not fast enough to outrun a harpoon ship. Useful information for commerce, but not for conservation.

It is true that we know little about whales when compared to other mammals, but what we do know is their populations are dangerously low and some species, such a the sperm and blue whale (the largest animal to ever inhabit our planet) could very well be beyond saving. What we do know is that whales form complex social structures that rival our own. We know they communicate, and we know they grieve when one of their own is lost. We know that killing them is cruel and inhumane and though the ICR claims it is accomplished in under two minutes – as if this is acceptable – there are numerous instances of whales taking up to and hour to die with a harpoon piercing into their vital organs. As a mammal, a whale’s neurological system is as advanced as our own. What they feel at the end of a harpoon is precisely what you and I would. And we know that they are intelligent.

Sea Shepherd provides a very short, concise explanation of their views of whale intelligence on their website. The Japanese claim whales are not intelligent animals because their brains to body ratio is significantly lower than ours. Such a claim 1) relies on the erroneous assumption that brain to body ratio is the only measure of intelligence, and 2) places the intelligence of whales on a human scale, which makes no sense as they are not human. Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson states that his personal measure of the intelligence of a living being is its ability to live in harmony with the natural world. Though not a scientific means of measuring intelligence, Watson’s criteria is on to something. Sea Shepherd states:

 “Captain Watson was not only saying that intelligence is relative, but that intelligence cannot be placed into categories defined by humans. Whales are highly social beings and they have a complex form of communication with each other which can only be defined as language. We simply do not understand what those large brains have evolved for, but indeed large brains they have, and large brains suggest that there is a reason and a use for this development.”

What is apparent is that humans are much more comfortable killing an animal that they can deem unintelligent, as if intelligence signifies value and as if an unintelligent animal is less capable of feeling pain and suffering. Whales are intelligent, but more significantly, they are important, important to the oceans we have already nearly exhausted, important players in a healthy marine ecosystem, and most importantly, whales are not a sustainable resource should we desire our oceans to thrive.


Captain Paul Watson at the helm of the Steve Irwin

 Captain Paul Watson believes that humans are the least important players in a healthy planet, famously stating that worms are more important than us, for he very rightly states that we, as a species cannot survive without worms, though they can quite easily survive without us. Watson has dedicated his life to protecting our oceans by any means necessary, stating

 “If the life in our oceans is diminished, humanity is diminished and if the oceans die, humanity will die; for we cannot survive on this planet with a dead ocean.”

Watson’s fight against the destruction of our oceans involves direct action. The Sea Shepherd’s fight against Japanese whaling the Antarctic involves throwing bottles of butyric acid, a foul smelling substance that the Sea Shepherds claim is “about as toxic as orange juice,” and nothing more than a “rotten butter bomb.” They hurl the bottles onto the decks of the whalers harpoon vessels to make them unlivable due to the rancid odor. They also aim for the deck of the whalers’ factory vessel to taint any whale meat on deck. Other Sea Shepherd tactics involve shooting bottles of red paint through a spud gun aimed at the “RESEARCH” sign of the whaling vessels with the obvious slaughter symbology as Sea Shepherd believes the research done to be a front for the commercial benefits of whale meat. The Sea Shepherds also deploy prop fouling ropes under the Japanese ships to disable them in the water, often without success but with the intention of intimidating the Japanese fleet and distracting them from whaling. Though these tactics could certainly be called vandalism, Sea Shepherd never seeks to do harm to people in their engagements and claim they never have, something the Japanese dispute but have never provided any evidence to the contrary. The main goal of the Sea Shepherds is always to make it impossible for the Japanese to whale or make it impossible for them to benefit from whaling. Watson’s primary tactic is to position one of his ships directly behind the factory vessel of the whaling fleet, a truly non-violent tactic that makes it impossible for the harpoon ships to transfer a whale for processing.

Whale Wars makes for compelling television. The high seas harassment of a menacing whaling fleet by a group of vigilantes flying the Jolly Roger is hard to ignore. The danger involved is plenty real, the Southern Ocean is inhospitable and remote, the Sea Shepherd crew inexperienced volunteers and as such Whale Wars quite comfortably sits in the realm of true reality television, very much like Discovery Channel’s own Deadliest Catch but where the catch is condemned and far more majestic than the humble Alaskan king crab. This was Watson’s very pitch to Animal Planet. A communications major, Captain Watson is a master at media manipulation. He uses every incident to his advantage and understands the complexity of 21st Century media culture, stating, “if it’s not on television, it’s not happening.” It is clear that the story the world gets is exactly the story Watson wants us to get. Though Watson is also quite transparent in his intentions to manipulate the media and use it as a tool to his advantage. He feels he has nothing to hide. He has never claimed his crew’s actions are peaceful, only that they are non-violent, a fine line they proudly straddle. Watson does not believe in protesting but in action. There is plenty of film evidence to the Sea Shepherd’s tactics, bottles thrown and props fouled. There is also plenty of film evidence of one of the Japanese ships deliberately ramming a carbon fiber Sea Shepherd stealth vessel with six aboard. The sinking of the Ady Gil was the highlight of the 2010 Sea Shepherd campaign in the Southern Ocean, causing an international incident. But if governments won’t do anything to enforce the stipulations of the IWC and Antarctic Treaty in the Southern Ocean, they will do nothing to support the vigilantes who do. The sinking of the Ady Gil was deemed the fault of both parties, a claim that could easily be argued as true, but is also a convenient way for the governments of the world to wash their hands of the issue.


The destruction of the Ady Gil

 On the Japanese side of things, one can find small sympathy. A government organization, the Institute of Cetacean Research funds the Japanese whaling and regardless of its intentions, it brings in big money. The whalers’ livelihood is at stake and their defense of that and exasperation at Sea Shepherd is completely understandable on a human level. But the livelihood of poachers of all sorts is at stake when anyone, law enforcement or vigilante, intervenes. We feel no sympathy or compassion toward ivory poachers or the merchants of tiger pelts. Why then is Japan allowed so much legal wiggle room in their equally damaging exploitation of an equally endangered species?


A pod of minke whales freely swimming in the Southern Ocean

 The bottom line is our political boundaries have made our oceans extremely vulnerable. Though nations have made invisible lines of control in the waters off their shores, international waters, despite assumedly international regulations, are truly the metaphoric Wild West. The Southern Ocean, though for now still the most untouched place on the planet, has no governing authority. No humans have ever inhabited the Antarctic continent. Some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have made claims and invisible boundaries to stretches of Antarctic waters, but the international recognition of these claims exists on a “Oh yeah? Who says?” basis. Military presence is banned in the Southern Ocean aside from research and search and rescue purposes. Therefore, laws exists to protect it that cannot legally be defended by any nation.


Sea Shepherd’s latest stealth vessel the Gojira (recently renamed the Brigitte Bardot) engages the Japanese Yusshin Maru harpoon ship.

 The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has branches in many countries. Its ships have different port authorities and its crews are international volunteers. They represent the only way conservation efforts can be upheld in the Southern Ocean, people of passion whose passion does not stop at the borders designated by their passports. Their actions may be direct, though non-violent, mildly destructive, but not deadly, controversial, but not careless. The world may watch and have trouble forming a fully positive opinion on their actions, but the fact remains that the Sea Shepherds are the ones in the Southern Ocean preventing the slaughter of whales. The rest of us our sitting on our couches watching Animal Planet.

The bottom line in this matter is whaling of any sort, be it for research of commerce, has no business in the 21st Century. The cruelty necessary to kill a whale is reason enough to move on as a species and instead work to repair the damage we have done to an extraordinary planet. Whale populations have been devastated by centuries of irresponsibility. I rarely visit the coast without boarding a whale watching ship and to see whales in their element, to see how trusting they are of human presence, how gently they move and how closely they stay to their own is to see how easy it is to kill them. A whale hunt from a 21st Century vessel fitted with an explosive harpoon is no hunt at all but a cowardly act against an animal defenseless against modern technology, a technology that remains as cruel now as it was at the highlight of European commercial whaling. It is this generation’s responsibility to ensure that the damage is reversed, that whales are not lost forever due to our species’ carelessness. The potential loss of some species is a dark reality this century may see. It is for this reason that I support Sea Shepherd’s efforts. They may be vigilantes and vandals, but they are the only ones successfully inhibiting whaling in the Southern Ocean. Diplomacy does not work in international waters. But whales belong to no nation. They do not know our boundaries. Their protection falls into the hands of the passionate, those who see that we must save our oceans to ensure our own survival.


A blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on planet earth, and a species we are likely to lose without more aggressive conservation efforts.