Whale Wars

Series: Whale Wars

Whale Wars
Whale Wars

Whale Wars is an Animal Planet series that follows Captain Paul Watson and the crew of the Steve Irwin, a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel, as they attempt to interfere with the activities of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd is described in the series as a “rival conservation agency” (kind of like a rival shark conservationist… bleugh!) to Greenpeace, of which Paul Watson was one of the founders (according to himself, but not according to Greenpeace – you be the judge). He was later expelled from Greenpeace after disagreements on tactics.

While Greenpeace are described by one of the Sea Shepherd crew as engaging in “ocean posturing” – getting themselves photographed, and taking pictures of whales and “raising awareness” – Sea Shepherd are aggressive and confrontational, using physical means (nonviolent, but the definition of violence is fluid) to prevent the Japanese whalers from continuing with their activities. They throw smelly and slippery chemicals at the whaling vessels, attempt to foul their propellers with ropes (Tony was desperate to see this succeed – four failed attempts later and he’s still hoping).

The seven episodes of Whale Wars season 1 follow two voyages of several months by the Steve Irwin. Her crew is largely made up of untrained (and pretty clueless, by the looks of things) volunteers – of the nearly 40 people on board, only five seemed to know anything about ships, strategy, planning and life at sea. They don’t really know each other, either, making teamwork tricky and outright dangerous. The hazard of this is immediately apparent. In one early episode, while launching a rubber duck off the side of the Steve Irwin using a crane, one of the supposedly very experienced crew allows the nose of the boat to drift out at an angle while it was in the water next to the main ship, instead of keeping it perpendicular to the direction of motion (and the swells). Almost immediately the rubber duck is swamped and overturned, dumping its four crew into the freezing water. Turning the ship and rescuing them is a mammoth task. During this fiasco another crew member gets over-enthusiastic and damages a rotor blade of the Sea Shepherd helicopter, which is used to track the whalers at a distance. Later in the series the rubber duck crew set off at dusk without any communication equipment, in the wrong direction. The man in charge (Captain Watson was asleep) vacillates and ums and aahs, refusing to initiate a search. He feels vindicated when the crew of the RIB returns safely, but it is a classic case of evaluating a probabilistic decision on its outcome rather than on the thought process behind it.

Captain Watson doesn’t issue many orders. It’s often repeated that the hierarchical structure on board the ship means that he can devote his energy to strategising rather than giving commands. That said, I did not like his leadership style at all. In one instance, he wants his crew to launch the RIB at night and go on a risky mission to harrass a Japanese spy ship that has been tailing the Steve Irwin. He refuses, however, to issue an order to that effect, saying the crew must decide. When they decide not to, he humiliates them and ultimately manipulates them into going. In the event that the mission had gone wrong (a broken crane stopped it in the early stages), he would have been able to abdicate responsibility for the poor outcome because he hadn’t ordered it directly.

While much of the series documents the crew injuring themselves and each other and damaging their equipment, it concludes with a very satisfying pursuit of the factory ship where dead whales are processed and packaged for shipment to Japan. This enormous vessel exudes menace and has daunting dimensions, meaning that instead of using the RIBs, the Steve Irwin must approach her directly in order to harrass her.

Captain Watson plays the media like a violin, calling them every time the Japanese do anything and making sure to put his own spin on every incident. In the final episode of the season he finds a bullet in the bullet proof vest he was wearing, but seemed to play this down after initially claiming he was shot at by someone on the Japanese ship. The absence of entry marks on the clothing he was wearing above the vest was a little suspicious, to my mind.

I was very worried that we’d see a lot of dead and dying whales in this show. Fortunately the only actual whaling one sees is part of a clip that is played in the opening credits illustrating what the Japanese whalers do and how they claim that their activities are for research. Their whaling boats have RESEARCH written on them in large letters (in English). When the Sea Shepherd crew are doing what they come to Antarctica to do, no whaling takes place.

It’s wildly entertaining television that also left us thinking afterwards. I found it hard to form firm opinions on what the Sea Shepherd activists were doing, because I wasn’t sure whether they were demonstrating admirably strong convictions, or whether they had moved into a realm of fanaticism, beyond logic. I couldn’t decide whether risking their lives (often simply as a result of poor planning, poor training and disorganisation) on behalf of whales was noble, or reckless stupidity. Not everyone on board the Steve Irwin was there for the same reason – some love whales and believe that every single cetacean life is sacred, while others simply want an adventure.

Here’s a critical perspective on the show. It’s fascinatingly polarising, even if you do love whales and don’t want to see them killed under the pretext of scientific research.

You can buy the DVD set here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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