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The Whale Warriors: Whaling in the Antarctic Seas
Would you give your life for a whale? For a determined crew aboard a tiny ship at the bottom of the world, the answer is easy.   Text by Peter Heller

In 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group of 66 nations that makes regulations and recommendations on whaling around the world, enacted a moratorium on open-sea commercial whaling in response to the fast declining numbers of the Earth's largest mammals. The Japanese, who have been aggressive whalers since the food shortages following World War II, immediately exploited a loophole that
allows signatories to kill a certain number of whales annually for scientific research.

In 2005, Japan, the only nation other than Norway and Iceland with an active whaling fleet, decided to double their "research" kill from the previous year and allot themselves a quota of 935 minke whales and ten endangered fin whales. In 2007 they plan to kill 50 fins and 50 endangered humpbacks. Their weapon is a relatively new and superefficient fleet comprising the 130-meter (427-foot) factory ship Nisshin Maru, two spotter vessels, and three fast killer, or harpoon, boats, similar in size to the Farley Mowat.

Lethal research, they say, is the only way to accurately measure whale population, health, and response to global warming and is essential for the sustainable management of the world's cetacean stocks. The director general of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), Hiroshi Hatanaka, writes, "The legal basis [for whaling] is very clear; the environmental basis is even clearer: The marine resources in the Southern Ocean must be utilized in a sustainable manner in order to protect and conserve them for future generations." Though the ICR is a registered nonprofit and claims no commercial benefit from its whaling, critics scoff, pointing out that the meat resulting from this heavily subsidized research ends up in Tokyo's famed Tsukiji Fish Market and on the tables of fancy restaurants. By some estimates, one fin whale can bring in 1.5 million dollars. 

Each year the IWC's scientific committee votes on whaling proposals, and at its annual meeting last June, it narrowly passed a resolution that "strongly urged" Japanese whalers to obtain their scientific data "using nonlethal means." The whalers' response was silence, then business as usual. 

While this resolution is not legally binding, much of the public was outraged that the whalers would patently disregard it. The World Wildlife Fund contended that all the research could be conducted more efficiently with new techniques that do not kill whales. New Zealand's minister of conservation, Chris Carter, among others, called the Japanese research blatant commercial whaling. Even dissenters within Japan protested: Greenpeace Japan's Mizuki Takana pointed to a 2002 report by the influential Asahi newspaper in which only 4 percent of the Japanese surveyed said they regularly eat whale meat; 53 percent of the population had not consumed it since childhood. "It is simply not true that whaling is important to the Japanese public," Takana said in a statement. "The whaling fleet should not leave for the Antarctic whale sanctuary." 

To Watson there is no debate: The Japanese whalers are acting commercially under the auspices of "bogus research" and therefore are in violation of the 1986 moratorium. Even more contentious, the whaling occurs in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an internationally ordained preserve that covers the waters surrounding Antarctica as far north as 40º S and protects 11 of the planet's 13 species of great whales. While research is permitted in the sanctuary, commercial whaling is explicitly forbidden. The whalers are also in clear conflict with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). And though the killing area lies entirely within the Australian Antarctic Territory, the Australians, while protesting, seem to lack the political will to face down a powerful trading partner. It irks Watson that Australian frigates will eagerly pursue Patagonian toothfish poachers from South America in these same waters, but will turn a blind eye to the Japanese whalers. "It sends a message that if you're rich and powerful, you can break the law. If the Australian Navy were doing its job," he says, "we wouldn't be down here."

Watson has no such diplomatic compunctions. He says: "Our intention is to stop the criminal whaling. We are not a protest organization. We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don't wave banners. We intervene."

Whaling fleets around the world know he means business. Watson has sunk eight whaling ships. To the bottom of the sea. By 1980 he'd single-handedly shut down pirate whaling in the North Atlantic by sinking the notorious pirate whaler Sierra in Portugal and two of the four ships in the Spanish whaling fleet, the Isba I and Isba II. He sank two of Iceland's whalers in Reykjavík harbor and three of Norway's whaling fleet at dockside. To his critics he says: "I don't give a damn what you think. My clients are the whales and the seals. If you can find me one whale that disagrees with what we're doing, we might reconsider."

Watson's ship radiates both nobility and menace. The ship is black, stem to stern, and it flies under a Jolly Roger. The only color is a nod to public relations—the yellow letters on the side of the ship that spell Forward of the bridge, the Farley is low-slung, and the main deck holds three fast Zodiacs, or inflatable outboard motorboats, and two Jet Skis in their cradles. In the old fish hold beneath the deck, under a steel door, is a flying inflatable boat, or FIB, a kind of Zodiac with ultralight wings and a motor, which Watson hoped to use for reconnaissance. From the main deck, the bow sweeps up to a gracefully rounded bludgeon of black steel. The hull is ice reinforced, meaning strong enough to push through moderately thick ice, and ideal for ramming. Water cannons bristle off the bow and the aft helicopter deck. They are there to prevent unwanted boarding.

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  Photo: May 2006 Cover

Pick up  the May 2006 issue for 38 amazing family escapes, wild beaches, and cool festivals, Sebastian Junger's lessons from the road, and the best bikes for summer.

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