We had been told for days that confronting the Japanese whaling fleet could happen at any moment. A battle was imminent in the Southern Ocean. A final round in the war for the whales was beginning. Every day the crew on the Sea Shepherd ship, the Steve Irwin, believed “today was the day.” But it never was.
I started to think the group had missed its chance. The fleet had escaped us, and there would be no stopping the whalers, and more whales would be taken this year. But on the morning of Sunday, February 1 the day came — the eco-battle began.
Sea Shepherd began their campaign to save whales last December. A campaign destined for the bottom of the world, Antarctica, aiming to stop a whaling fleet from Japan. Within the first leg of our voyage to the Southern Ocean, Sea Shepherd had intercepted three vessels: two harpoon ships and one spotter vessel.
None of these instances concluded with the victory they had hoped for. Their goal was to find the mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, an 8,000 tonne processing ship that works like a floating factory. Stopping the Nisshin Maru would effectively stop the entire whaling fleet. Unsuccessful in their first attempt to find her, Sea Shepherd embarked on the second leg of the mission after a short stop to refuel in Australia.
After eleven days at sea, at the beginning of February, the Sea Shepherd spotters found what they were looking for: At 10 a.m., they saw the Nisshin Maru and a harpoon ship 10 nautical miles ahead of the Steve Irwin. The chase began.
It was a slow chase at first, taking 18 hours to catch up to the mother ship. But even a long, slow chase was worth it for Sea Shepherd, since keeping the mother ship on the run is the main strategy for preventing more illegal catches. As long as the Nisshin Maru is running, the fleet isn’t whaling.
A year ago, the Steve Irwin found the Nisshin Maru on February 3 and shut down whaling for 11 days using this tactic. About 500 whales were saved and the quota for the fleet was cut in half. This year, the Sea Shepherds plan to chase the mother ship until their fuel tanks run dry. It could prove to be a lengthy battle, but it’s an important one. For now, the chase is on.
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.