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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

Four days out of Melbourne, the Farley's two welders got busy and began to build something that looked to me like a giant blade. It was. It was called the "can opener," and it was constructed with steel I beams and welded to the starboard bow; a seven-foot (2-meter), razor-sharp cutter designed to gut the hull of an enemy ship. 

I think it was then that I realized my assignment was not a game. Watson
takes great pride in having never injured anyone, neither his crew members nor anyone else. The ships he has sunk have all been in port. He insists, "We are nonviolent. We disable property used in criminal activities." But his critics include prominent members of the mega-environmental organization Greenpeace, which Watson co-founded in 1972 and whose board he left five years later because, he says, "they wanted to 'bear witness' and protest. I didn't want to protest anymore. There were international laws, regulations, and treaties I wanted to enforce." Watson's dark eyes flash. "I once called them the 'Avon ladies of the environmental movement' and they never forgot it. It was a reference to their armies of door-to-door fund-raisers." 

Watson didn't want to lead a large bureaucracy that spent much of its energy raising money and waving banners. He wanted to get in a ship and physically intervene. He said of the Antarctic campaign, "Greenpeace has a fast ship that could stop the whalers cold. I can't see watching whales being tortured and dying in abject agony while I 'bear witness.'" 

In 1977 Watson started the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and for the past 25 years has been running almost continuous campaigns at sea to stop illegal whaling, drift netting, long-lining, dolphin slaughters, and sealing. The Washington State-based organization spends no money on fund-raising but gets donations through media attention and word of mouth. Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, and Christian Bale are generous supporters, as are John Paul DeJoria, CEO of the Paul Mitchell hair products company; Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia; and Steve Wynn, Las Vegas hotel and casino operator. Watson quipped, "With James Bond, the President, and Batman on my side, how can I lose?"

We sailed out of Melbourne on the morning of December 10, and it didn't take long for me to realize that the campaign was quixotic, even anachronistic. The 50-year-old Farley was ready for retirement and could average only a paltry ten knots. She crawled and rolled into the roaring forties. The ship's first engineer, Canadian Trevor VanDerGulik, ran a test of the water cannons and one dribbled, while the standpipe of another burst, gushing water over the bridge. I looked more closely at the crew. Three of the deckhands, Justin, Jeff, and Joel—"We're the J Crew," they'd told me—would be among the frontline soldiers in any battle. Though they were brave and dedicated animal rights activists, they'd never been to sea and were prostrate with motion sickness on the two-day run to Tasmania. 

Not to say that some of the crew weren't skilled and experienced. Chris Aultman, the helicopter pilot from Orange County, California, was a tried and excellent pilot when taking off from solid ground—he'd just never flown off a moving deck. VanDerGulik, Watson's nephew, was a master ship's engineer used to supervising large dry-dock repairs with 500 mechanics under him. Marc Oosterwal, another Dutchman, was a top-notch welder. And Dave DeGraaff was a master electrician from Melbourne and a shop steward for his union, responsible for dozens of electricians. He and other workers had seen the Farley docked from a high-rise construction site nearby and got curious. DeGraaff took a tour of the ship and promptly signed on. Soon more construction unions in Melbourne were lining up behind Sea Shepherd, and thousands of dollars' worth of steel, welding rods, and expensive rubber for the heli-deck was showing up daily.

As for other crew members, the razor edge of their commitment scared me a little. Allison Lance Watson, the captain's wife, a lean 48-year-old blonde from Orange County who had once been married to an outlaw biker, had recently gone before a grand jury in connection with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a radical animal rights group that is in the sights of the FBI's domestic antiterrorism units. She refused to talk but was charged with perjury. Two years ago, she and first mate Cornelissen were arrested for leaping with knives into a frigid, net-caged bay in Taiji, Japan, where locals corral and slaughter an estimated 23,000 dolphins every year. They freed some dolphins and were promptly carted off by police. Both claim they would sacrifice their own lives for the life of a whale without hesitation. Julie Farris (whose alias, or "forest name," as she calls it, is Inde) was a 26-year-old deckhand who, in her other life, spends weeks at a time dangling 150 feet (46 meters) up in Douglas-fir trees as part of Earth First actions against logging. Many of the crew had been arrested while protesting in support of their beliefs. It was a committed bunch. Oh, and the food, three meals a day, was strictly vegan. No meat, no cheese, no eggs. One cold morning I loaned the gentle 22-year-old cook, Laura Dakin, a pair of shoes. A former Australian equestrian endurance rider, she had come to the Antarctic with only flip-flops, a flowing print skirt, and a lip ring. Before taking them, she asked, "Are they vegan?"

The Sea Shepherd's courage and rashness began to dawn on me. Watson was taking this rusting hulk into the most dangerous, remote seas on Earth to wage a kind of war. A place where a man overboard had minutes to live. Half of his troops had no training at all. Before leaving, his only plan for finding the Japanese whaling fleet in the vast Southern Ocean was to run helicopter reconnaissance flights and hope crews supplying the various Antarctic research stations would give him intel. Contact with Greenpeace's two pursuit ships was the best hope, but the organization responded to Watson's repeated pleas for cooperation by keeping its ships' coordinates off its Web site. Watson believed it was a deliberate attempt to foil him and his radical methods.

What Greenpeace wasn't counting on was that some of the rank and file onboard their ships were also frustrated and disgusted by what they were witnessing every day. The killing of a whale by the most modern methods is cruel beyond description. An exploding harpoon, meant to kill quickly, rarely does more than rupture the whale's organs. The animal thrashes and gushes blood and begins to drown in its own hemorrhage. It is winched to the side of the harpoon ship, a probe is jabbed into it, and thousands of volts of electricity are run through the animal in an attempt to kill it faster. The whale screams and cries and thrashes. If it is a mother, its calf swims wildly beside her, doomed to its own motherless death later on. Often the electricity fails to dispatch the whale, so it takes 15 to 20 minutes of this torture before it drowns and dies. No matter what one thinks of whales' high intelligence, the advanced social structures, the obvious emotions, and the still mysterious ability to communicate over long distances, this method of slaughter would not be allowed as standard practice in any slaughterhouse in the world. This is what the Greenpeace crew had been watching day after day and were constrained from stopping. One of the crew had had enough and began to e-mail Watson with sporadic updates of the fleet's position.

This is how Watson knew, within a few thousand square miles, where the fleet might be on Christmas morning.

Continue reading on page 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  Next >>

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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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