Monday, December 31, 2007

Sea Shepherd: The Whale Warriors

I’ve just finished reading the book The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller, an account of his time as a journalist onboard Sea Shepherd’s ship two years ago as they tried to stop Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic. I’ve updated my links list so that clicking Sea Shepherd will now bring you directly to their onship blog covering the whaling occurring right now. The old blog covering the events of the book can be found here.

Before getting into my own thoughts on the book and whaling, I’m going to quote at length the most eloquent page of the book:

Imagine 1.5 million humpbacks patrolling the ancient seas, calling across oceans where only the songs of cetaceans echoed in the deep pelagic blue. There were no engine sounds then, and the water was as clear as krill and plankton would allow. The whales called over great uninterrupted distances in complex syntax while human ancestors were still jumping around in trees. This was the magic of whales, that they had expressed loyalty, grief, gratitude—all well-documented among present day humpbacks and other cetaceans—and had called each other by name, long before we were even a seed of an apple in God’s eye. And they had done it all for millions of years and had swum the oceans in peace. They had left the sea unpolluted, mostly quiet, the reefs teeming; the shores, the mangroves rich, protective; the fish in their schooling numbers as prolific as the stars that wheeled above. They had loved the ocean, if love is a deep attention in which one does no harm. They had perceived it, attended the greens of the reefs and the blues of the deep and all its creatures and passed on, generation to generation. They had not turned on each other with wholesale vengeance and bloodlust, or massacred another species off the face of the waters because they could.

The ocean they swam in now had changed. Old drift nets called ghost nets, thousands of miles of them, abandoned, drifted in every sea; the whales, all the species, could not detect them until it was too late, and then became tangled and thrashed and died by the thousands. Other fishing gear did the same—lines of lobster traps, longlines, abandoned seines. Ships, the sound of engines and props, turned the great currents into a cacophony through which the old distant whale songs were mangled and lost. Low-frequency active sonar now being used by the U.S. Navy, one of the loudest sound systems devised by man, emitted sonic booms that ruptured delicate hearing mechanisms, caused internal hemorrhage, and destroyed cetacean navigation systems so that whole pods washed up disoriented on beaches in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, bleeding from their ears.

Heller, though opposed to whaling, is not the enthusiastic supporter of Sea Shepherd that I am. He questions many of their actions throughout the book, but I think always sees the whalers as the greater evil. After watching a video of a whale being killed, he writes that he felt like vomiting. This description from elsewhere in the book will likely make you feel the same:

The killing of a whale by the most modern methods is cruel beyond description. An exploding harpoon meant to kill quickly rarely does more than rupture the whale’s organs. It thrashes, and gushes blood and begins to drown in its own hemorrhage. It is winched to the side of the kill ship and a probe is jabbed into it and thousands of volts of electricity are run through in an attempt to kill it faster. The whale screams and cries and thrashes. Often, if it is a mother, her calf swims wildly around her, doomed to its own slow death later on. Again, the electricity fails to kill the whale, and it normally takes fifteen to twenty minutes of this torture for the whale to drown and die. Whatever one thinks of whales’ high intelligence, the advanced social structures, the obvious emotions and the still mysterious ability to communicate over long distances, this method of slaughter would not be allowed as standard practice in any slaughterhouse in the world.

The book is a very good read as an adventure tale as Sea Shepherd’s Farley Mowat searches for the Japanese whaling fleet in the vast ocean area. Greenpeace is there also and finds the fleet first but will not cooperate with Sea Shepherd. This conflict between the two anti-whaling groups is one of the themes of the book. Paul Watson, who essentially is Sea Shepherd, was one of the founders of Greenpeace. Among his crew of 43 volunteers (Greenpeace’s crew is paid) is Emily Hunter, daughter of Robert Hunter, who was another Greenpeace founder. She is there to spread his ashes.

Although Greenpeace as an organization will not cooperate with Sea Shepherd, some of its crew is happy to and Watson receives emails and phone calls updating him on the whalers’ location. When his ship arrives, they receive a rousing welcome from Greenpeacers frustrated at their organization’s banner waving and unwillingness to actually act to stop the killing. Meanwhile, the Shepherds dream of what they could accomplish with Greenpeace’s ships and money. The whaling ships which have ignored Greenpeace proceed to flee from Sea Shepherd.

So is Sea Shepherd an ecoterrorist organization, or the only group willing to take action to stop illegal whaling? The International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling two decades ago; Japan has been buying other countries’ IWC votes in an attempt to have it overturned. Japan gets around the moratorium by claiming it is killing whales for scientific research through its Institute of Cetacean Research and the meat is just a byproduct. (Amusingly, if you plug ICR into Google the first result will be the equally wacky Institute for Creation Research.) This whaling happens within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the Australian Antarctic Territory, but no government will take action to stop the whaling. So the job falls to volunteers.

Japan does this whaling despite a small minority of its own population supporting whaling, the need of a government subsidy to keep the industry afloat, and, because few Japanese eat whale meat regularly, a surplus of whale meat which has caused it to be used in pet food.

Sylvia Earle is quoted:

As supposedly intelligent creatures, doesn’t it seem odd that humans might think that the best way to engage whales is to eat them? When our numbers were small and whales were numerous, killing a few whales for sustenance for people who had few choices about what to eat was a matter of survival. Today, it is a matter of choice. Can commercial killing of whales ever be justified? Biologically, ecologically, economically, logically, morally, ethically, realistically it cannot—not now, not in fifty years, not ever.

The book had two minor flaws. A page listing the crew would have come in handy many times. A few people become familiar during the story, but often a name would appear and I’d wish I remembered what that person’s history and function on the ship were. Secondly, the author, a hunter, at times seems to have an obsession with the word vegan (the Farley Mowat is a vegan ship) and makes several moronic statements. Will it really come as news to anyone that “even vegans” miss their families (well, apparently at least at Christmas)?

The book includes the story of a humpback whale found off San Francisco two years ago hopelessly entangled in hundreds of yards of rope slicing into her flesh with hundreds of pounds of attached crab traps. A team of divers worked for about an hour to free her. When free she swam in circles around them and then returned to each diver individually and nudged them. The author also writes of his own experience of play involving underwater acrobatics and touching with two young sea lions.

The final sentence of the book tells us that the Japanese planned to kill fifty endangered humpbacks this season. Officially, under widespread pressure including that from Australia which says they’ll be observing the fleet this year to gather evidence for a legal case, the Japanese backed off this plan two weeks ago; unofficially, it’s still up to a few compassionate courageous people called ecoterrorists to stop them from killing any whale they choose.


Lisa J. said...

Will it really come as news to anyone that “even vegans” miss their families (well, apparently at least at Christmas)?


I think the term "ecoterrorist" is wrongly attached to the people trying to protect the planet. I don't condone burning buildings or killing other people, but deep compassion for our planet shouldn't be likened to "terrorism."

greentangle said...

Heh, did you know there's a binary translating website? I plugged yours in just figuring I'd get a jumble of letters. But it spelled out VEGAN.

No, just kidding. Actually, it said: Error. Malformed binary. Your binary code must be divisible by 8.

So remember that next time you do your robot impression.

Lisa J. said...

So remember that next time you do your robot impression.
LOL!!! I'm wiping the tears from my eyes right now!

Stephanie said...

You've left me so much reading to catch up on in the last couple weeks. This breaks my heart.

greentangle said...

I'll assume it's the whales' plight, not how much I've written, which is breaking your heart.

Big news happening down there now as 2 Sea Shepherd crew members are being held on one of the whaling ships.

Deb said...

Great review! I vaguely remember hearing about this book, but now I'm definitely going to have to put it on my to-read list!

I think it is great that it was written by a skeptical source as well. Somehow I think it is more powerful when that happens...

Though the thing about even vegans missing their families at christmas? lol.

greentangle said...

Thanks. Enjoy the book.