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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

January 2, midnight. The constant harassment was getting to the whalers. They had been running for eight days, ever since the encounter on Christmas. The informer on the Esperanza said the Nisshin Maru was moving erratically,v generally west, and that they were not whaling. There was no sign of the killer ships. He said they seemed afraid.

The black Farley was lumbering steadily westward along Antarctica's frozen edge in a world of fog and ice where squads of Adélie penguins swam with great speed. When the skies cleared, Chris Aultman took me on a three-hour chopper reconnaissance along the ice edge. The world below was black-and-white. Pure and lonely. That's what it is about Antarctica: You are either hot-blooded and hungry or you are a cold element. You are water or ice. There is no middle ground here, no compromise. It seemed apt. In Watson's war on the whalers, there were no conditions for truce.

A week before, Hatanaka of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research sent an open letter to the head of Greenpeace Japan: "The Sea Shepherd boat, the Farley Mowat, has already foolhardily tried to approach the Nisshin Maru and deployed a mooring line with the intent of entwining her propeller. These are extremely dangerous actions. It is widely known that Sea Shepherd has engaged in criminal and violent activity in the past, such as setting fire to and sinking whaling vessels in Iceland and Norway and fishing vessels in Spain and other countries. Sea Shepherd is a terrorist organization. . . ." The Japanese government was rumored to be sending down a warship.

Ian Campbell, Australia's environment minister, said Watson's threats to attack the Japanese fleet reflected poorly on legitimate antiwhaling groups and "risk setting back the cause of whale conservation many years."

Greenpeace disavowed any link with Sea Shepherd. In a press release, Watson countered that "the enemy of my enemy is my ally" and that it was the whalers who were the criminals, violating, by his count, at least six international laws. Claiming authority under the UN World Charter for Nature, he ordered the whaling fleet to return to Japan. Articles by the Associated Press, and in the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Australian, and the New Zealand Herald, among others, trumpeted all sides of the developing whale war.

Watson was in his element. With every media and government attack he seemed to get friskier, firing off press releases that said, "The [Australian] government says that the Japanese do not recognize the Australian claim to the Antarctic Treaty. In 1942 they did not recognize Australia's claim to Australia." Talk about hot buttons. If he wanted to stir the pot, he was.

On the chugging Farley, the pace slowed. Laura Dakin, in the kitchen, cooked up vegan sausages and chocolate cake while the crew assembled in the lounge to watch Miss Congeniality and Forces of Nature in surround sound. (The ship's artist, Geert Vons, had a crush on Sandra Bullock.) The deckhands sorted smoke bombs and manufactured prop foulers. The J Crew, who, it turns out, were all semiprofessional gamblers from Syracuse, New York, played endless rounds of Texas Hold 'em. We even had a haiku contest to pass the time. The winner, by Kristian Olsen, described the overloading of a Zodiac in Hobart on a run to get cases of beer: "Hobart. Beer falls in. / Splash. That's rum. Lost one boat too. / Saving whales is hard."

During these quiet moments, Watson enjoyed torturing the young officers of his watch by blaring Celtic and Canadian folk music from the bridge. He sat in his captain's chair, feet up on the sill, and read from his own writings. Raised on the rocky coast of New Brunswick, Canada, Watson is an autodidact who ran away to join a Norwegian merchant ship when he was 17. He has published five books and is in the process of writing four more. One of his works in progress is a scholarly history of the papacy, another a treatise on organized religion, called God's Monkey House.

On January 5, Watson got a message from his insider on the Esperanza placing the fleet at 63º 45' S, 72º 20' E, along with the simple message, "They're killing whales today."

There were several astonishing things about this news. One was that the whaling fleet was so far to the west. They had run to the very western edge of their "research area," which was at 70º E, north of Cape Darnley. Watson said, "They can't go much farther. They've run for 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers). I can only think they're running from us." The second startling inference was that the Japanese had not whaled since at least Christmas Day. For 11 days no whales had been killed. Third, they were more than 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) from our current position, and we were running low enough on fuel to keep VanDerGulik sounding the tanks and repeatedly calculating the distance to Cape Town—about 20 days. The safest thing would be to return immediately to Perth, about 18 days away. But Watson rarely did the safe thing. "Two and a half days and we'll get 'em," he said, then ordered Cornelissen to keep moving west.

On January 6, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence detailed the Farley Mowat's run-in with the Nisshin Maru on its piracy watch. Online I found the ONI report: There was Sea Shepherd on the Civil Maritime Analysis Department's communiqué titled "Worldwide Threat to Shipping Mariner Warning Information."

At the same time, Watson's mole on the Esperanza reported 13 minke whales and one endangered fin whale killed that day. In New Zealand, the whaling controversy was the top story on television news, and the minister of conservation, Chris Carter, said, "the program the Japanese are undertaking in the Southern Ocean is not about science, it's about hunting and killing whales to supply meat markets." He added that New Zealand would be upping the pressure on Japan to stop whaling and that the New Zealand Air Force would be sending Orion surveillance aircraft to monitor their activities.

I went out onto the main deck to clear my head. The engine throbbed. The fog had lifted and the seas were as calm as they'd been the entire trip, a gentle roll out of the southwest. Then I saw it: a plume of mist just off the starboard bow, and another, smaller. A long, mottled lateral fin gestured out of the water, and I saw the two glossy dark backs, mother and calf, dive under the boat, the mother's articulated, graceful fluke disappearing last. Farther off starboard were three more blows, the hot mist trailing gently downwind. Behind them were more and more. Spouts of steam rising and drifting. I stared, almost stricken. All the way to the horizon, where two flat-topped icebergs marked the edge of the world, were humpback whales swimming slowly east. Pairs and small groups rolled around each other, showing fins, flukes, eyes, and then moved on. They swam past the boat on both sides. Hundreds of whales. Could they know? Could they be swimming away from their hunters to the west? They were not concerned with us at all.

January 8 was a good day to die. For the crew of the vegan pirate ship the Farley Mowat, that was the consensus. The morning brightened over a sea of silk and glass. On the port and starboard Zodiacs, the tarps were off, the prop foulers coiled and stowed; the crew had been manufacturing them night and day. The Jolly Roger was raised and flapped lazily over the bow.

At 10:15 a.m. the main radar was lit up with ships. At 10:59 the factory ship Nisshin Maru was visible, long and dark, lying across the mirrorlike water. It wasn't moving. The Esperanza was there to the south of it, hanging some distance away. We came out of the east at 9.5 knots, heading straight for the target. At 11:47, with the gap narrowed to under four miles (6 kilometers), an irate Scandinavian-accented voice exploded onto channel 16: "You idiot! Read the rules! Read the rules! Get out of the [expletive] way!" It was the usually courteous Arne Sorensen, captain of Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise. Then we saw a curious thing. From behind the huge factory ship appeared another ship, also black-hulled and just as big. It moved away to the south, to our left. Two harpoon vessels, on their way in when the Farley showed up, slipped out of radar range.
What we found out later was that the big freighter was the cargo ship Oriental Bluebird. It had been tied up to the Nisshin, and they were in the middle of transferring whale meat from the factory ship for transport back to Japan. Since the whalers had doubled their quota from the year before, they did not have enough room on the vast Nisshin to store the tons of meat they were harvesting. It was a startling illustration of the scale of the hunt.

Greenpeace was bearing witness to the transfer and protesting by maneuvering the Arctic Sunrise near the Bluebird and sending in Zodiacs to paint her side with long-handled brushes: whale meat from sanctuary, in big white letters. The Japanese ignored them and continued loading—until Sea Shepherd came into visual range. Then they panicked. They dropped the lines, and in the ensuing rush to disengage and run, they rammed Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise. An e-mail from the informer on the Esperanza to Watson said, "Very frustrating indeed. All of this right under our noses, because they know we will not ram or endanger them. At least when you show up, they run like cowards!"

They did. They ran. From the bridge, Watson watched the Nisshin gather speed and charge north, the Oriental Bluebird fled east. From a window he yelled, "OK! Get moving!" He slowed the Farley long enough to lower the port and starboard Zodiacs into the sea, then throttled ahead as soon as the 18-foot (5-meter) rubber boats unhooked and sped away. He liked to blast Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" from the big outside speakers in times like these, but the gale had shorted the speakers. Two minutes later the helicopter lifted off the heli-deck, tilted hard forward and accelerated toward the fray. Up ahead we could see Greenpeace's two orange Zodiacs in the water and its orange Hughes 500 chopper circling overhead. It was a melee. At 9.5 knots all the Farley could do now was follow and watch as the fastest Zodiac ate up the distance. The Nisshin was clearly expecting a fight—its water cannons were blasting steadily over the stern and sides.

"Our Zodiac is going 30 knots," Cornelissen said from the main radar screen.
The second, slower Zodiac, came behind it. We watched as the first caught up to the Nisshin, skirting the veil of blasting water from the cannons. The second reached the side of the ship. Its crew threw two prop foulers against the hull, and then the temperamental old outboard began to balk.

For a ship the size of the Nisshin, there is no way to replace a fouled prop; the parts are too massive. In the event one was disabled, the ship and her crew would have to be towed to the nearest port. The process could take weeks, and the rest of the fleet, devoid of a cargo ship, would have to return home. That was Watson's hope. Wessel-Louis Jacobsz, 24, a South African master scuba diver and captain of the first Zodiac, was going to do whatever he could to make that happen. Through binoculars I watched as he ran the Zodiac up under the bow of the ship. Even on the smooth water there was a low swell, and the outboard hit those waves and skipped airborne. The prow of the Nisshin towered over the little boat, pushing up a bow wave that the Zodiac rode. The whalers tried to stab the inflatable with flensing knives on long poles (for processing whale meat), but couldn't; Jacobsz and crew were under the overhang of the bow and too far away. At times the Zodiac was no more than a man's length from the Nisshin's nose.

J Crew Joel Capolongo, 29, and former 101st Airborne soldier Steve Sikes, 31, deployed the prop foulers. When they'd released them all, they tied a piece of scrap steel to a buoy with a long cable and threw that over as well. Then Jacobsz slid the Zodiac away in a swooping arc and circled to the stern where they picked up the buoy and sped forward to deploy it again. A false move and they'd be flattened under the Nisshin Maru like so much roadkill.

Two hours later, lagging farther and farther behind, Watson called the Zodiacs back to the Farley. None of the prop foulers had engaged. By 3:30 p.m. the Nisshin was 16 miles (26 kilometers) away and fleeing at 14 knots. The Japanese fleet had vanished in all directions. The sun began its slide to the horizon and reefs of clouds lowered in from the north and east. The seas doubled in height every hour.

That night, steep swells churned in from the east. Whole wheat chapatis and poker chips slid off the tables. Snow blew horizontally across the decks. Sleepers were thrown from their bunks. Watson came on watch at 8 a.m. and the Farley moved gingerly into a sea of scattered icebergs and fog. At 9:05 the captain was lecturing the bridge on the fall of Jerusalem during the Crusades. "The Templars and the Knights of St. John couldn't take it. The guy who finally took Jerusalem was an excommunicant from the church . . . ." When the quartermaster reported the new blip on the screen Watson swiveled in his chair.

"Sixteen miles [26 kilometers], sir."


"Ten knots."

The fog was so dense, it wasn't until we were 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) away that we could see the black shape extending from behind the island of ice. I scanned with binoculars and made out the white letters that I knew said whale meat from sanctuary along the starboard side. The Oriental Bluebird.

They never moved. I'll never know why. Cornelissen was woken up and took the helm. He turned to his girlfriend, the boatswain: "Tell everyone we're gonna hit. Seven minutes." The crew was ordered to the higher decks and armed with smoke bombs and bottles of butyric acid, which are mega stink bombs. I thought how Sea Shepherd actions always seemed like a strange mix of a Jack Aubrey attack and Animal House.

A few hundred yards from the freighter Watson took over the helm. He aimed midships and charged full speed. We were bow to bow, starboard to starboard. Just before contact he threw the wheel over to port so the can opener—the seven-foot steel blade on the starboard bow—raked the Bluebird's side. The Farley lurched with impact. There was an agonizing claw-scrape of steel and then another shove as the stern swung in and hit. The can opener crumpled, leaving a long scratch in the Bluebird's thick hull like a keyed car. Watson picked up the mic: "Oriental Bluebird, or should I say, the S.S. Whale Meat, please remove yourself from these waters. You're in violation of international conservation regulations. You are in a whale sanctuary, and you are assisting an illegal activity. Remove yourself from these waters immediately."

At the same time he swung to port in a tight arc and came back across the freighter's bow. The prop-fouling squad was ready to run out mooring line off the stern and lay a tangler across the ship's path. By now the Bluebird was fleeing. Again I watched in awe as Watson drove the Farley within 60 feet (18 meters) of its high, hammering bow. It was like running a red light in front of a moving semi. Had the Bluebird kept up her speed, she would have T-boned and sunk us. It was as if that's what Watson was tempting her to do. But their skipper, in all prudence, jammed his engines into reverse and groaned past our stern. The deckhands released the fouling line, but it did not get sucked up. By the time Watson could get around again, the Bluebird was running due north at 15 knots. He turned to the officers on the bridge. "We need to come back with a faster ship," he said.

The international reaction was immediate. The Japan Whaling Association's president, Keiichi Nakajima, accused Sea Shepherd of being "circus performers" and "dangerous vegans." The Age newspaper out of Melbourne reported that Japan was considering scrambling police aircraft to the Antarctic to defend its whaling fleet and might ask Australia for protection. The Maritime Union of New Zealand announced that it would not service any Japanese ships having anything to do with whaling. On a live round table broadcast shown across Australia with Watson (participating via satellite phone), Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell, and others, Watson was aggressively unrepentant.

"It is a criminal operation, it's illegal, it has no business being there," he railed.

"There's no difference between them and ivory poachers or drug traffickers."

Campbell fired back that Watson was a "lunatic" and a "rogue pirate on the seas." Watson dispatched a press release that he would stop his attacks if the governments of New Zealand and Australia would initiate legal action to stop the whaling. Campbell scoffed. Watson issued a press release saying, "Let's get serious; this guy is lame."

But the truth was, Watson had no more attacks to launch. His old ship was nearly out of fuel. VanDerGulik came onto the bridge in his blue coveralls, decibel-reducing earmuffs propped on his head, and said, "We might make it to Cape Town on fumes if we don't encounter too much bad weather."

On January 10 the Farley Mowat turned away from the whales and limped northward into another gale. There was nothing more she could do. The Japanese could hunt again without intervention. I spent days by the stern chains watching the acrobatics of the petrels and albatross. The rougher the weather got, the more fun the birds seemed to have. I thought they were like Watson. One image from the trip kept coming back to me. It was when Chris Aultman took me up in the chopper, and we ran along the desolate false coast of the ice edge. Returning to the ship, we climbed to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) and ran across open water into a sheen of low sun. Then I saw the ship, a jaunty, compact, black shadow on the taut blue sea that curved to the horizon. It looked so completely self-sufficient and alone. 

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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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