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Polarized #1: Life and Death at the End of the World

This Magazine Staff

[Editor’s note: today we introduce “Polarized,” Emily Hunter‘s dispatches from Antarctica, where she is documenting Sea Shepherd‘s 2008-2009 anti-whaling campaign aboard the Steve Irwin. The campaign lasts until the spring, and Emily will periodically post her writing, photos, and video on BLOG THIS.]
Whaling ship and icebergs
Sitting in a grey room that feels as cold and stale as a morgue, I think of death. Little can be done about this room or feeling, it is five in the morning in the mostly vacant Toronto Pearson Airport. I am about to get on a flight. But this sense of doom is more than the winter pastime in Canada, more than this place and more than being up too early in the morning with not enough caffeine. Instead, this dark cloud that hangs over me is the end of the world &mdash Antarctica.
Antarctica is no stranger to death. The extreme cold averages -30° C and monstrous storms that have little sympathy for its inhabitants are not unusual in the ice-packed summer time in the southern oceans. What is unusual is that the largest mammal species, the migratory whales, are being killed by the thousands in their annual visit. Being chased by harpoon gun boats and electric shock treatment. Antarctica now faces the cold and its largest tourist faces extinction.


Not only are humpback and fin whales (both endangered mammals) targeted in a whaling campaign by Japan, but also over nine hundred minke whales. The hunt in the southern oceans is argued to be “scientific,” but many environmentalists and politicians alike claim that this is a facade for commercialism in order to make this campaign appear legal. Legal or not, few countries have been willing to pit themselves against a strong economic and political power on behalf of whales that do not pay taxes or vote. This has left many civilians angry and frustrated about environmental enforcement and our future perils. Some choosing to be labelled as “eco-terrorists” by joining groups like Sea Shepherd, than be passive observers of what they consider “planetary injustice.”
Sea Shepherd, a radical marine conservation group, is notorious for using questionable tactics in the seas to stop what they consider are illegal killings of the ocean’s marine life. Ramming vessels at sea and sinking in port are not unusal for the group. Fatalities — of people whom they oppose or of their crew — are unusual, however.
Some see groups like Sea Shepherd as a necessary response to the unchallenged destructive giants of our times: governments, corporations and the propaganda machines for both that keep us ill-educated and passive. Others see groups like Sea Shepherd as militant organizations that go too far. In the environmental circles, Sea Shepherd is more of an ugly step-brother. Groups like Greenpeace believe that Sea Shepherd is both ineffective, and a detractor to conservation initiatives.
Very much alone, Sea Shepherd’s single ship, the M/Y Steve Irwin, is heading to the high seas of Antarctica in December in its fifth campaign to oppose the whaling fleet. This year’s campaign has been called the most dangerous and challenging campign yet for the group. With $8 million used for defence this year by whaling vessels and Japan establishing a new law where arrests can be made at sea for interference, it will not be a walk in the park. It’s more like a game of Russian roulette.
Feeling cynical this morning as I am about to board an airplane, I ask myself a question: Do I get on this plane bound for a risky expedition, or go back home where it’s safe and where I know what faces me?
I board the plane. Not for death, but for life.
Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist. She is currently working on a book about young environmental activism, The Next Eco-Warriors and a documentary on illegal whaling in Antarctica.

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