Risking all for whales

What happens when your passion is animal rights and an anti-whaling ship shows up in your local harbour? If your name is Amber Paarman you jump aboard and join the world’s most famous eco-pirates, doing battle with Japanese whalers in the Antarctic. And swinging, Errol Flynn-style, on to vessels to damage them and pelting them with stink bombs is part of the admission price.

Paarman had been a crusader for abused animals in Cape Town, taking in stray creatures all her life. She joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society when one of its ships docked in Cape Town fresh from challenging whalers in 2005.

Her life as a marine warrior has taken her all over the world, tackling shark fin poachers in the Galapagos and documenting seal hunters
in Canada.

“You’ll find me wherever marine mammals need me the most—on the Steve Irwin,” she says.
“I knew Sea Shepherd was the perfect opportunity for me to take my concern for animals to a global level. I signed on right away.”

The exploits of the society’s leader and captain of the Steve Irwin, Paul Watson, and his crew have kept Animal Planet viewers riveted to their seats.

The first season of Whale Wars included dramatic scenes of the crew throwing bottles of foul-smelling butyric acid at the “most evil whaling ship in the world”, the Nisshin Maru.

The Japanese retaliated with flashbangs, and Watson claimed that the whalers shot at him (he was wearing a bulletproof jacket).

Animal Planet has run a disclaimer, distancing itself from the content of Whale Wars. But the first season of the series was one of the channel’s most watched, whereas the second, which premiered in South Africa in September, is the second best performing in the network’s history in Canada and the United States.

The Steve Irwin‘s crew has had numerous run-ins with whalers, but it was its last Antarctic mission that really shook Paarman.

“We’ve been to the Antarctic five times, but this was the first year that they killed a whale in our presence,” she says. “Usually they’re too busy running away from us. They decided to test our resolve.”

As one of the harpoon boats tried to transfer the dead animal on to the factory ship, the Steve Irwin moved between them and the Japanese ship collided with it. “Our ship listed hard over to port and I thought momentarily we might capsize,” she says. Falling into the Antarctic seas can bring death from hypothermia in minutes. “But nothing that I could experience can compare to the 25 minutes of agony experienced by the whale that they killed. And that puts it into perspective for me.”

On its last Antarctic whale defence campaign, Sea Shepherd stopped the Japanese whaling fleet from killing 305 whales, Paarman says. She claimed the whaling companies had lost almost $70-million in profits because of the adverse publicity.

The work is dangerous, but no more hazardous than living in South Africa, she insists. “Living in South Africa, I could be raped and murdered on the way home from work in broad daylight.”

Paarman is the Steve Irwin‘s quartermaster, standing watch on the bridge, looking out for whalers and assisting with navigation. Icebergs are a regular hazard.

But she admits that her true ­passion is the galley, where she cooks vegan meals for the crew of about 40.

“We don’t serve any animal products on the ship—no meat, milk or dairy. It would be hypocritical if we sailed to the bottom of the world to save animals while having them in our freezer,” she says.

The campaign can be emotionally draining, as whales are among the world’s most intelligent and sociable creatures.

“Like all animals, their ability to feel pain mirrors our own. I can’t understand how somebody can look at a whale and just see an opportunity to make money,” she says.

“On our last campaign to Antarctica, we filmed a whale that took 25 minutes to die. She was harpooned twice and shot seven times by rifle before drowning in her own blood. Seeing that 40% of the whales killed are pregnant, there was a high likelihood that she was as well.”

Japanese whale hunts are illegal, she says. “Japan kills whales in a designated whale sanctuary in contravention of a global moratorium on commercial whaling.”

Despite the ban, Japan, Norway and Iceland have killed a total of more than 23 000 whales since 1986.

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