September 14, 2007
Journalist Peter Heller frequently reports from the rough edges of the world, and his new book, The Whale Warriors (based on a May 2006 article in Adventure), takes him to the environmental equivalent of a war zone. Off the shores of Antarctica during the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2005-06, Paul Watson, founder of the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, goes to great lengths to stop Japanese hunters from illegally killing whales—ramming their ships, fouling their propellers, even breaking bottles of butyric acid (which smells like rancid butter) on their decks. His antiwhaling tactics are extreme, but it's a bit like tilting at windmills. The Japanese ships are bigger and faster than Watson's Farley Mowat, and his chances of catching them, much less stopping them, are whisker thin.
Heller ably captures Watson's Ahab-like intensity, as well as the commitment and diversity of his volunteer crew, many of whom have never been on a ship before. They brave storms, extreme cold, and the harpoons of the Japanese whalers, who try to puncture their Zodiacs. The book is a swift kick to any remaining complacency about the plight of our oceans, which most experts believe are on the brink of collapse. "In 50 years," Heller writes, "half of the world's coral reefs have disappeared or are in a state of serious decline, 90 percent of the large predatory fish have been taken—tunas, swordfish, sharks, grouper, snapper, halibut, cod, and many others." But even as whalers stalk the seas more aggressively each year, the Sea Shepherds are stalking them.
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Q+A with author Peter Heller
How did you first meet Paul Watson, founder of the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society?
Peter Heller: I was at the Mountainfilm in Telluride festival, and someone pointed him out to me. When I met him, the first thing Watson told me was, "I sunk half the Norwegian whaling fleet, half the Spanish whaling fleet." If he wanted to get press on the hook, he did.
Isn't what he's doing basically illegal?
Various nations around the world, including Japan, Russia, Norway, even the U.S. fisheries have leveled charges of piracy against Watson. To the extent that he assaults ships on the high seas, they have a point. He is extremely aggressive; he says that his mission is to physically intervene to uphold international law. He is very proud of the fact that he has never injured anybody on his crew or anybody else's crew.
Do you think Watson cares whether or not he is within the bounds of the law?
His point of view is that he destroys property used in illegal activity. Later that day, in Telluride, he gave a talk and near the end he said, "I don't give a damn what you think of me, my clients are the seals and the whales and the turtles." I heard that speech and saw how the crowed was absolutely silent and thought—I've got to do a story on this guy.
But this is a dangerous way to think, abiding by a "higher calling" ....
Everything he does, he does to ships that are in some way or another breaking international or environmental law. The Japanese are exploiting a loophole called "scientific whaling" to take commercial amounts of whales. They're in clear violation of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, so they are in clear violation of laws. Now, whether attacking these ships on the high seas is piracy or not is definitely an open question.
Then is what Watson doing a necessary illegality? Do you think he's a pirate?
I think at least 50,000 species a year are being dispatched into the dark by habitat loss, global warming, pollution, overpopulation, and bad planning. The oceans are, right now, by all accounts, on the verge of total ecosystem collapse. Given the fact that there are 6.5 billion people on Earth, and the oceans cover something like 75 percent of the planet's surface, it is kind of startling to me that there's only one ship that's roving over the seas willing to uphold international and environmental law at the risk of their lives. So I find it startling, amazing, and admirable in some ways; I'm glad they're there. When they start hurting and killing people, ask me again.
Is there a reason that Watson and crew have honed in on whales, when so many of the ocean's species are suffering?
People really connect with whales; they're a charismatic species. And the whaling industry brings in over a billion dollars a year. Watson's point is that if we can't save whales—whose populations are, by all accounts, one to three percent of what they were before commercial whaling—how are we going to save anything else?
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