Winning the Whale Wars

Rebecca Burns

Captain Paul Watson attends a "Whale Wars" private party in October 2009.

If you’re like my roommate and me, at some point the Animal Planet show Whale Wars” stopped being passive entertainment, and started to cut a little too deep.

The show follows the Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation group dedicated to harassing a Japanese whaling fleet as it traps and kills whales in the Antarctic high seas each winter. The Sea Shepherd says the fleet is exploiting a legal loophole in an international ban on commercial whaling, and insists that the law is on the activists’ side as they try to prevent whale-hunting through a wide range of confrontational tactics. As the group wages its just war atop a ship named the Steve Irwin, Whale Wars” quickly becomes a deeply embarrassing (but all-too-familiar) account of Don Quixote-like struggles against the powers that be.

First, we have the ship’s embittered old captain, Paul Watson, who reigns godlike over a cadre of loyal officers (Who happen to be almost exclusively men). For Watson, the annual voyage into the Antarctic doubles as a personal crusade against the environmental group Greenpeace, which expelled him years ago for being too radical.” The crew believes they are signing up to save whales, but are soon drawn into a chimerical mission to discredit Greenpeace, in whom Watson invests all the evil qualities of the non-profit industrial complex. (In his enthusiasm for saving real whales, Watson has perhaps never gotten around to reading Moby Dick).

Watson is revered by a constantly-changing line-up of well-meaning but generally incompetent young recruits. In the show’s very first episode, a new crew member with no sailing experience is trusted nevertheless with a crucial reconaissance mission, and ends up capsizing the boat he’s on and nearly freezing several of his comrades to death before they even spot the whaling ship they’re setting off to battle. The revolving cast of nubile young Sea Shepherds, one would hope, could at least find love and diversion while confined to their tiny cabins (this is Reality TV after all), but the show tends to eschew petty human drama, instead focusing on the characters’ deep connections to the whales they long to save.

At the end of the first season, we learn that the Australian Federal Police seized the documentary crew’s footage as evidence against the Sea Shepherds as soon as they returned to shore, and the mind boggles at how the group never considered this possibility. By about halfway through the third season, the show feels a bit too much like a metaphor for the state of the Left: We’re in the same water, trudging through the same ice flows, year after year after year. We may get excited about the new stinkbombs we’ve developed to better annoy our enemies, but then some over-exuberant twentysomething accidentally releases them on our own ship, and the whole thing goes to hell.

Eventually, I got too depressed and stopped watching. That’s why I was heartened a bit when the Guardian, continuing its puzzlingly persistent coverage of all things Sea Shepherd, reported today that the group may actually be succeeding.

Apparently, the whaling industry in Japan has become dependent on public subsidies as consumption of whale meat has declined dramatically. A report to be released tomorrow by the International Fund for Animal Welfare draws on Japanese government data to argue that the country’s whaling industry is no longer viable, and the resources would be better spent on developing whale-watching and tourism. 

Of the Sea Shepherd’s role in this state of affairs, the Guardian says the following:

The cost of sending the fleet to the Antarctic and clashes with the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group have forced the [Japanese whaling] fleet to return with a fraction of its quota of about 950 whales in recent years. Late last year, the whalers left port several weeks late and are expected to take only about 300 whales …

Is there a lesson to be had here? Perhaps it’s that if you define your enemy clearly and keep hitting their bottom line, direct action gets the goods” — even if you make yourself ridiculous in the process, and exhibit little-to-no interest in struggles for environmental justice not involving fetishized sea mammals. Just maybe don’t cast your enemy as a national group writ large (“the Japanese”), which is a particularly troubling aspect of the show and, actually, can’t be helping the broader anti-whaling movement much.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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