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Whale Warriors: Whaling in the Antarctic Seas

Would you give your life for a whale? For a determined crew on a tiny ship at the bottom of the world, the answer is easy.  By Peter Heller   Photo by Paul Taggart
Photo: Japanese whaling ship in Antarctica

: Joel Capolongo (far right) and other members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society prepare to confront the 8,000-ton Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru.

Update: February 16, 2007

The Nisshin Maru, an 8,000-ton Japanese whaling ship, is currently adrift in the Ross Sea after a fire on its lower decks forced 100 crew members to evacuate. While the captain and 46 others remain, one crew member is still missing (read more about this story).

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an antiwhaling group that often goes to extreme measures to stop the Japanese whaling fleet, was immediately suspected of causing the fire. Later, however, it was learned that the Farley Mowat was 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) away from the Nisshin Maru at the time of the conflagration.

"We are down here because of our concern for the welfare and fate of defenseless whales," wrote Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd founder and president, on the group's Web site. "These highly intelligent, socially complex sentient beings are now safe for the rest of this season from the merciless harpoons of Japanese outlaw whalers, and that is a very good thing."

In our May 2006 issue, Contributing Editor Peter Heller spent a month aboard the Farley Mowat to report "The Whale Warriors." Heller spoke to Sea Shepherd representatives yesterday and is currently working on a book about the controversial group.

"The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is concerned like everyone else for this missing crew member," Heller said. "As they noted in a recent press release, 'We do not condone arson or any other action that threatens life on the high seas.' Clearly, that's up for debateramming into ships with 'can openers' … who knows?" Heller details this and other tactics employed by the group in his Adventure article.

For an in-depth look at both sides of the issue, read Heller's "The Whale Warriors" (below). —Ryan Bradley

The Whale Warriors
Would you give your life for a whale? For a determined crew on a tiny ship at the bottom of the world, the answer is easy.

Text by Peter Heller

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Adventure

What woke me at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning was the bow of the ship
plunging off a steep wave and smashing into the trough. The hull shuddered like a living animal, and when the next roller lifted the stern, I could hear the prop pitching out of the water, beating the air with a juddering moan that shivered the ribs of the 180-foot (55-meter) converted North Sea trawler. We were 200 miles
(322 kilometers) off the Adélie Coast, Antarctica, in a force 8 gale. The storm
had been building since the previous morning. I lay in the dark and breathed. Something was different. I listened to the deep throb of the diesel engine two decks below and the turbulent sloshing against my bolted porthole, and felt a quickening in the ship.

Fifteen days before, we had left Melbourne, Australia, and headed due south on the Farley Mowat, the flagship of the radical environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The mission of her captain, Paul Watson, and his 43-member, all-volunteer crew was to hunt down and stop the Japanese whaling fleet from engaging in what they considered illegal commercial whaling. Watson had said before the trip, "We will nonviolently intervene." But judging by the preparations conducted over the past week, it seemed he was readying for a full-scale attack.

I dressed quickly, grabbed a dry suit and a life jacket, and ran up three lurching flights of narrow stairs to the bridge. Dawn. Or what passed for it in the never night of Antarctic summer. A murky gloom of wind-tortured fog mingled with blowing snow and spray. White eruptions tore off the tops of the waves and streamed their shoulders in long streaks of foam. The sea was chaos. When I had gone to sleep four hours earlier, the swells were 20 feet (6 meters) high and building. Now monsters over 30 feet (9 meters) rolled under the stern and pitched the bow wildly into a featureless sky. The timberwork of the bridge groaned and creaked. The wind battered the thick windows and ripped past the superstructure with a buffeted keening.

Watson, 55, with thick, nearly white hair and beard, wide cheekbones, and packing some extra weight underneath his exposure suit, sat in the high captain's chair, on the starboard side of the bridge, looking alternately at a radar screen over his head and at the sea. He has a gentle, watchful demeanor. Like a polar bear. Alex Cornelissen, 38, his Dutch first officer, was in the center at the helm, trying to run with the waves. Cornelissen looks too thin to go anyplace cold, and his hair is buzzed to a near stubble.

"Good timing," Cornelissen said to me with the tightening of his mouth that is his smile. "Two ships on the radar. The closest is under two miles (three kilometers) off. If they're icebergs, they're doing six knots."

"Probably the Nisshin Maru and the Esperanza," Watson said. "They're just riding out the storm." He was talking about the 8,000-ton factory ship on which the Japanese butcher and pack the harpooned whales, and Greenpeace's flagship, which had sailed with its companion boat the Arctic Sunrise from Cape Town more than a month before and had been shadowing and harassing the whalers for weeks. Where the five other boats of the Japanese whaling fleet had scattered in the storm, no one could say.

I stared at the green blips on the main radar screen. Was it possible? Had Watson found, in hundreds of thousands of square miles of Southern Ocean, his prey? It seemed against all odds, even with the recon helicopter he'd picked up in Hobart, Tasmania, on his way south. Even with the Antarctic storm that was now veiling his approach from the unwary whalers. Even with the informer onboard the Esperanza who had secretly relayed the fleet's general position to Watson just two nights before. Because in those two days the fleet could have sailed 500 miles (805 kilometers) away. I looked at Watson in his red exposure suit and began to pull on my own. Watson turned to Cornelissen. "Wake all hands," he said. 

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

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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