/ 28 October 2011

New ‘whale’ war set to kick off

As the conservation vessel the Steve Irwin approached the equator last week, word that Japan would be sending a strengthened whaling fleet to Antarctica next month reached the bridge of the old Scottish-built former customs vessel.

The crew of activists on board cheered, as their veteran leader, Captain Paul Watson, resigned himself to his eighth “whale war” among the icebergs and 160kmph winds of the Southern Ocean.

Watson, on what is nearly his 350th voyage in four decades defending whales and other marine wildlife at the helm of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is sending three ships to intercept, chase and harass the Japanese. He promises “aggressive non-violence”, while the Japanese, still smarting from last year’s humiliation when their fleet took only a fifth of its planned whale catch, say they will heighten security and take an armed government fisheries patrol vessel.

The two fleets expect to meet in the Antarctic whale sanctuary before Christmas and will shadow and confront each other for at least 12 weeks. Both have helicopters and water cannon. In addition, the Steve Irwin has iron spikes to prevent the Japanese from boarding, and Watson’s crew has a store of vile-smelling butyric acid stink bombs to fling aboard any vessel that comes close. Both fleets are expected to wage a media and diplomatic battle, as well as engage in a dangerous physical tussle on the high seas.

Few people realise, said Watson in London before setting off for the Antarctic, how dirty this old-fashioned sea war can get, with hand-to-hand combat, collisions, bombardments and sinkings. “There are a lot of ships at sea, seven or eight at a time, water cannons going … we get help finding them [the whaling vessels]. Tourist ships and fishing boats, research stations give us their co-ordinates.”

Although he is on Interpol’s wanted list and is classed as an ecoterrorist in Japan, Watson says he has been on the side of the law since he was first mate on the first Greenpeace voyages of the early 1970s. “We don’t protest, we intervene. We are not there to witness but to stop crimes being committed,” he says. “They call me a pirate but what is a pirate? Drake and Raleigh were pirates. John Paul Jones, who started the US and the Russian navies, was a pirate. Pirates challenge the status quo.”

Watson, for years little known in Europe, has recently become a star of Discovery Channel reality TV programme Whale Wars. Although the show has been criticised for being more show business than documentary, the TV exposure has tripled the group’s membership and income. But Watson has his critics. He was savagely satirised in the South Park animation Whale Whores for being media-hungry, and a long-standing row with Greenpeace has resulted in the two organisations not talking to each other.

Greenpeace’s international executive director, Kumi Naidoo, Watson claims, “should be running the Red Cross. He’s not an environmentalist. He’s an anti-apartheid organiser who has stated that the only way to save the planet is through alleviating world poverty. It can’t be done. There are just not enough resources.

“Too many humans, he says, is by far the greatest problem facing Earth. “Earth can probably only carry 1 billion humans. As long as human populations continue growing, the battle [to save the planet] will be lost.” —