Sitting on green grass with my back resting on a tree, I pat the earth and look out at the calm world on a sunny day. The Sea Shepherd campaign I had been documenting for over a month, a campaign to save whales in the Antarctic waters, returned to land in mid-January to restock and refuel for a second trip to the southern ocean. Finding myself in Hobart, Australia, I took a break from the ship and crew I had lived with for the past 40 days at sea. But I was restless. After weeks on the heaving ocean, the land seemed calm — too calm. I think to myself: are people on land not aware of the war that has been raging south of them? The war for whales, the war for the fragile Antarctic ecosystem? Or were we on the ship too consumed by it, believing we had already won?
The reality is we have not yet won or lost. Despite the successes the Sea Shepherds had achieved in their whale-saving operations over the previous 40 days, the Japanese whaling fleet continues to operate, whales are still being harpooned, and the Sea Shepherds have not yet found their main target, the “mother ship” of the whaling fleet. However, there are real signs that this could be the year that southern ocean whaling is shut down.
“I’m very excited about this year, I believe this campaign could be the one that sets the course for shutting down the Japanese whaling fleet,” says first mate Peter Hammerstedt, as he readies the ship for the second leg to the Antarctic ocean.
On the Sea Shepherds’ first trip the southern ocean, they confronted the whalers three times: twice with harpoon ships and once with a spotter vessel. Confrontations included a ramming, rancid butter cans thrown on the whalers’ decks, and intimidation by circling whaling vessels. Ultimately they put the hunters on the run for over three weeks with their radical tactics.
“Every day the whalers are on the run means another day they cannot kill whales. This not only saves lives but costs the fleet as they only have so many days out here to make their catch. Losing economically could mean the end of this industry,” says Hammerstedt.
Limiting the whalers’ quota is one goal of the Sea Shepherds. The other is to put the whaling vessels themselves out of commission. Both goals appeared to have been achieved as news came through that the Yushin Maru No. 2 (a harpoon ship) had propeller damage after a confrontation with the Sea Shepherd on December 20th. Having no choice, the harpoon ship had to stop at the closest port to be repaired, in Surabaya Harbour, Indonesia. It left the whaling fleet with one less “killing ship” while the Yushin Maru seeks repairs.
News of another set-back to the fleet surfaced with weather readings forecasting a “red” storm in the southern ocean while while we were docked in Australia. A red storm means 50-knot winds, 15 metre swells, hail and poor visibility — all swamping the area the whaling fleet was operating in. The storm would make whaling impossible. So while the Sea Shepherds themselves had to abandon the battleground temporarily, it appeared the forces of nature took over for them.
“The whalers are having a bad year. We found them within their first week of whaling, chased them, cost them and now they are in a violent storm unable to whale. Soon the storms will rest and we will be back there to stop them,” says Hammerstedt.
On January 21, the Sea Shepherd crew began their second trek down south to confront their main target: the Nissin Maru. This is the mother ship that processes the whales and without this ship, the rest of the whaling fleet cannot operate. Their goal, to end southern ocean whaling, could very well be realized in the next month.
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.