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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

At 3:50 a.m. on Sunday, December 25, 220 miles (354 kilometers) north-
northeast of Antarctica's Adélie Coast, the Farley labored up the back of a 35-foot
(11-meter) wave and plunged down the other side. Green water poured over the bow and flew up in a white explosion that battered the windows. We were running with the gale. It howled out of the south-southeast. The ship creaked like frozen trees in a blow. I was wedged against a small chart table and a bulkhead on the port side of the bridge, straining to see into the fog and thinking that my family on the other side of the dateline was just now gathering for Christmas Eve lunch. In the midst of the storm's fury, an intense and eerie quiet had come over the bridge. After many months of preparation and planning, Watson was sneaking up on two vessels in a vast, empty sea in a near hurricane. The radio was silent. No one spoke. Hunter had become hunted and the bridge held the taut expectation of ambush.

Ahead I saw a dark shape in the murk. It was Greenpeace's Esperanza, a former Russian fire-fighting ship, moving slowly with the waves, under seven knots, riding out the storm. As we closed and passed, I could see the bright blue of her hull and her festive rainbow paint job. She looked like the Life Aquatic ship on steroids. We left her behind and she was swallowed in the fog.

A few minutes later we saw it. Through the mist the huge bulk of the factory ship. First just a dark shape, then the spillway ramp cut into her stern where they winched up the dead whales, the tall white superstructure of her cranes, and the words Nisshin Maru, Tokyo. Running down the length of her hull, visible when she corkscrewed on a swell, was research, in large block letters.

She was a sitting duck. Almost idling at 6.8 knots, riding it out. They had to have seen us moving up on the radar, but they must've figured we were the Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace's other boat, a matter of no concern. Nobody had even bothered to look. I couldn't believe it. We were pulling alongside her stern.

Cornelissen, at the helm, looked level at his captain. "Do we want to ram them? Punch a few holes in their ship?"

"No, we'd sustain a lot of damage. I think the best tactic here, Alex, is the prop foulers." Watson said he didn't think the Nisshin could go too much faster in these seas. He wanted to cut across her bow and deploy the prop foulers—long strands of rope, steel cables, and buoys that would slip under her hull and catch and tangle her propeller.

"We could ram her up the spillway if you want. What do you say, Paul?"

"No, we're gonna do this."

He turned to VanDerGulik. "Tell them to get the prop foulers ready on the stern. Tell them to stay down, stay hidden. Don't deploy them until I blow the horn."

I looked at Watson. He seemed to be protecting his crew. No sane person wanted a collision in these seas. 

Just then the whalers woke up. I can only imagine how the Farley must have looked materializing out of the fog and mountainous seas: an all-black ship running under a gale-stiffened Jolly Roger. It was as if the Nisshin Maru jumped in surprise. Someone put the hammer down and she began to pull away off our port side. 

"OK," Watson said to Cornelissen. "Do it if you can. Up the spillway."

It was too late. VanDerGulik, the first engineer, had the engines tweaked, and the Farley was straining with all she had, 11, 11.6, 12 knots. But the Nisshin was too powerful. She came up to speed and began to flee at 14 knots.

And then her skipper seemed to snap. Captain D. Toyama had been whaling in the Antarctic for decades. He had been harassed for weeks by Greenpeace. Its Zodiacs swarmed his killer boats. His harpooners had shot whales right over their heads. And here, out of the fog, was a ship with a terrifying reputation. He'd had enough. A quarter-mile (half-kilometer) away, I watched in amazement as the Nisshin turned to starboard, angled across our bow, and slowed down. Toyama seemed to be saying, "OK, you wanna mess with me? Bring it on."

Cornelissen matched the turn, about 30 degrees of it, so as not to fall behind the Nisshin's stern, and set a collision course. I watched him. He was completely calm. So was Watson, who stood with a hand on the lever that controlled our speed looking relaxed. This wasn't his first rodeo. He had been shot at and depth charged by the Norwegian Navy. And he'd faced down a Soviet frigate off Siberia, refusing to halt with the Soviets just yards away and about to let loose with machine guns; the sudden, miraculous appearance of a gray whale surfacing between the two vessels defused the standoff. 

Now we caught the crossing seas on our starboard side, and the Farley slammed over to port in a 40-degree roll that sent a videographer crashing across the bridge. The Farley righted and slammed to the other side. Cornelissen looked at the radar. He turned to the boatswain, Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, a fey 22-year-old from Montreal who happened to be his girlfriend, and said, "Tell the crew, collision in two minutes."

Most of the crew was gathered in the mess in their exposure suits, aft of mid-ship, below the deck, and a long hallway away from the main hatch exit.

The Nisshin Maru was on our port side, and the two ships approached each other at an acute angle. In a typical collision situation, the law of the sea dictated that we had the right-of-way, as we were on her starboard. I watched with awe as the Nisshin's bow, as tall as a three-story building, lunged off a 35-foot (11-meter) wave, airborne, and crashed down like a giant ax. The hole it tore out of the sea vaporized, the spray driven downwind. The gap closed. Three hundred yards (274meters), 200 yards (183 meters). Now we could hear the blare of the Nisshin's horn through the tearing gale. Repeated blasts, short and long, enraged.

"Collision, one minute."

I remember reaching down and tugging on the waterproof zipper of my dry suit and having one very clear simple thought: You're going to be wet and cold in about 20 seconds. The hammering bow loomed, 200 feet (60 meters) away, aimed midships, at our belly. 

It was the most impressive sight I've ever seen. Cornelissen glanced at the radar, then at the juggernaut, and held his course. He was focused, intent. A deadly game of Antarctic chicken. One hundred fifty feet (46 meters) away. He blew the horn, which was the order to unleash the prop foulers. A squad on the stern stood, braced themselves, and whipped several hundred feet (couple hundred meters) of mooring line off a big spool, enough to tangle any propeller.

And then the Nisshin blinked. Whoever was at their helm threw it hard to port. For an agonizing second the two ships ran parallel, and then the Japanese were pulling away, fleeing back into the fog. As they ran, Watson pulled down the mic on maritime channel 16, and barked, "Nisshin Maru, Nisshin Maru, this is the Farley Mowat. You are in violation of an international whale sanctuary. We advise you to get out. Time to go now, you murdering scumbags. Now move it! And run like the cowards you are." 

I looked at my watch: 5:42 a.m.

Everybody breathed. Later I pulled Cornelissen aside.

"If we had collided," I asked, "Would we have been badly damaged?"

Cornelissen is always in motion, but when he stops, he gives you all his attention. "A ship that's ten times as heavy as your own ship," he said, "that hits you midships with its bow—it's gonna basically slice your ship in half. It will completely destroy your ship in a matter of seconds. Everybody inside would have had a very hard time getting out."

I nodded. "There was a point there where it was up to him whether we were T-boned or not."

"Yes, he definitely had that choice and he didn't take it. If he would've ended it there, that would've probably ended commercial whaling. But I still believe that not sacrificing people for that, in that way, is probably a better choice."

"But personally for you as an activist, you're willing to make that choice every day? You're willing to make that trade-off: your own life for, say, stopping whaling?"

"Absolutely. But I'm not going to engage in a suicide mission. It's gotta be a calculated risk."

I turned to the captain. He said, "We've won every game of chicken we've ever played."

Peeling off my dry suit, I let the adrenaline wash through me. I thought, Watson is the anti-Ahab. More bearish, more charming, but just as terrifying in his fearlessness and in his willingness to put everything on the line, including our lives, to save the whales.

By 6:05 a.m. the ever media-savvy Watson already had a press release posted on his Web site that began: "No whale will be killed on Christmas Day."

A certain somberness took over the ship. The storm raged. Watson showed me the weather fax. "Looks like a freight train," he chuckled. "Never really seen one like it." A line of five l's for "low"—tightly packed storm systems—marched one after another west to east along the 62nd parallel. We turned south again, both to shake the storms and because Watson knew that the Japanese would eventually return to the edge of the ice cap, where the whales were most numerous. The skies lifted a little, and we sailed into a landscape that reminded me of Monument Valley, except that the flat-topped monoliths scattered across the horizon were great blue-shadowed icebergs.

That night in my bunk, I lay in the dark and thought about the exchange the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had just invited the whalers to make: all hands lost for the end of Japanese whaling. I knew that to much of the world, Watson would be deemed insane. Maybe he was. Certainly, from the bridge of the Nisshin Maru, watching the much smaller ship hold its course to the brink of destruction must have sent a chill of cold horror through her officers. Honor was one thing, murder and suicide on the high seas another. But I also thought about the whales, swimming tonight in their pods through the islands of ice, families and groups of families, in numbers that for many species are just a tiny fraction of what they were just a hundred years ago. I thought about a whale Watson had tried to save from a harpoon off Siberia, that in a struggle for life had crashed down beside his Zodiac. Just before death, the animal pulled itself deliberately away so as not to crush the little boat, protecting Watson as if it understood that he was there to help. I did not think Watson was exactly insane.

Countries around the world pledged to protect the whales and codified that promise in treaties and regulations, and yet the protections were all on paper. In reality the whales of the Southern Ocean, of all the oceans, were as vulnerable as if there had been no treaties at all. The Japanese whalers allotted themselves whatever number they wished to kill, endangered and nonendangered species alike, and they came down and took them. They shot them right over Greenpeace's head. The whales could not advocate for themselves. They had no ally on the entire planet that was willing to intervene at all costs, even death, except Watson and Sea Shepherd. Human beings are willing to lay down their lives for territory, resources, national honor, religion. Why not for another species?

Whatever one said about Watson's methods, they were relatively effective. His campaigns against the English, Irish, and Scottish seal hunts in the early eighties helped shut them down for good. His battle against the Canadian seal hunt, which brought Brigitte Bardot to the ice for her famous picture, helped end the slaughter of baby harp seals in 1987. Still, Newfoundland sealers killed more than 300,000 adults last year, 98 percent of those under three months old. Watson is philosophical and dogged in his fight for threatened species. He says, "The victories are always temporary but the defeats [extinctions] are permanent."

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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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