Pirates saving the whales

May 17, 2008

The Whale Warriors: On Board a Pirate Ship in the Battle to Save the World's Largest Mammals

By Peter Heller

HarperCollins, 2007

303pages, $28 (pb)

"With James Bond, the President and Batman on my side, how can I lose?", said Captain Paul Watson about Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen and Christian Bale, three of the prominent supporters of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS).

Celebrities were not the only supporters of the the Farley Mowat, a converted North Sea trawler, docked in Melbourne in December 2005 en route to disrupt the 2006 Japanese whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary — "the union guys" from the Electrical Trades Union and other Victorian unions provided solid rubber, welding rods, steel plates and other materials to kit out the rusting, 50-year-old ship.

The National Geographic's Peter Heller was one of the journalists among the Farley's diverse crew of Buddhist bikers, ex-Marines, nurses, truckers, marine biologists, union shop stewards, punk rockers, semi-professional gamblers and others itching for direct action to stop the Japanese whaling fleet from breaking the international moratorium on open-sea commercial whaling by exploiting the International Whaling Commission's "scientific research" loophole. Heller's book, The Whale Warriors, is his record of hunting the whale hunters.

The Farley's captain, Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace in 1972 who split to form the SSCS in 1977, saw it as his duty to do what the then Australian government refused to do — send in a navy frigate to stop Japan's illegal whale hunt in Australia's antarctic territory. Watson deplored the Australian government's "lack of political will to face down a powerful trading partner" while sending in the Australian Navy to pursue and impound Patagonian toothfish poachers from South America in the same waters.

Heller logs the Farley's needle-in-a-haystack pursuit of the whalers in 1.4 million square miles of wild and dangerous ocean. Aided by a mole on Greenpeace's more technologically sophisticated protest ship, the Esperanza, the Farley tracks down the Nisshin Maru factory ship and then a Japanese cargo ship to which it had been off-loading its whale meat.

The former hightails it to the opposite end of its "research" zone, the latter cuts short its cargo upload and flees all the way back to Japan. When the whalers are running, they are not killing whales, says a gratified Watson.

What caused their flight was the steel will of Watson, whose "fearlessness and willingness to sacrifice everything" as the two ships headed on a collision course caused the Nisshin Maru to blink in a deadly game of "Antarctic chicken" while the prospect of propellor-foulers threatened to disable the whaling ship and bring the hunt to an end.

The SSCS's armoury of weapons has also included smoke- and stink-bombs, cannons firing water and custard pie filling to discourage boarders, and a "can-opener" (a seven-foot steel blade welded onto the bow to damage the whaling ships).

Unlike Greenpeace, the SSCS, as Watson sees it, is not a protest organisation but rather its members are "eco-vigilantes" willing to use violence against property to enforce international conservation law under the provisions of the UN World Charter for Nature. Watson has sunk eight whaling ships in ports and rammed many illegal vessels on the high seas — never, however, endangering whalers' lives.

The aim of these tactics is to focus international attention on illegal whaling through dramatic action. As Heller points out, Watson has never been convicted of a crime, despite his willingness to offer himself up for arrest, because a courtroom trial by countries engaged in illegal whaling would be bad publicity for the whalers.

Not only would whaling be put on trial but also in the dock would be the environmental crimes of dolphin-slaughter and seal-hunts, and the decline of the world's fish stocks and marine life through destructive over-fishing, including the catastrophic crash of 90% of the world's large predatory fish (tuna, marlin, swordfish, shark) since 1950.

The motive for these ecological crimes would also be exposed — as a Japanese IWC delegate once told Watson, the government-subsidised whale companies in Japan aim to "realise maximum profit from [the whales] before they go extinct".

Although only 4% of Japan's population regularly eat whale meat, and only 11% support whaling, the niche market is still highly profitable. One fin whale can fetch $200,000 on the wholesale market and $1 million in the retail fish markets and restaurants. The 2004 Japanese whaling fleet brought in $78 million.

In the context of government-supported environmental criminals killing the oceans for profit, Heller concludes that the SSCS cannot be called "eco-terrorists" (the FBI's label) nor Watson a "rogue pirate and lunatic" (Ian Campbell, environment minister in the former Australian government). Even the crew on the Greenpeace ship, ideologically frosty towards the SSCS over the issue of non-violence, waved wildly and pumped their fists when the Farley showed up to confront and put to flight the Nisshin Maru.

Heller, nevertheless, has moral reservations about the SSCS's tactics, particularly the risk that Watson's "freewheeling and inexperienced crew" may put people's lives, including their own, at risk from their reckless idealism and from a more disturbing undercurrent of misanthropy among the animal liberationist faction of the crew that sees the human race as "a cancer" on the rest of the natural world.

Heller's book is a fast-paced adventure narrative which makes a highly readable case against whaling and allows the SSCS to argue their case. They come across as caped avengers and dramatic practitioners of the "propaganda of the deed".

They play a positive role in the anti-whaling and environmental movement, albeit a limited and flawed role — it is when Heller notes that the Maritime Union of New Zealand put bans on servicing Japanese ships that had anything to do with whaling that we glimpse a politically more effective strategy for stopping what Heller rightly calls the "heinous crime" of whale-killing.

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