It is day 5 of chasing our target, the Nisshin Maru, the “mother ship” of the Japanese whaling fleet. On the message board near the ship’s kitchen, it reads: “Five days of no whaling!” Every day that the Sea Shepherd ship has the mother ship on the run is another day the entire fleet (made up of six vessels) can’t catch whales.
It’s estimated that 10 to 12 whales are killed per day by the whaling fleet here in the Southern Ocean. Their quota for the season is nearly a thousand whales, including some endangered species. Day five of chasing means about 50 to 60 whales have been saved, And up to US$15 million has been lost to the Japanese whaling industry. It would appear we are winning the battle for the whales. In lives, minds and against destructive capital.
In these five days it hasn’t been just a chase, but more like a running battle between our ship and the fleet. With any chance the Sea Shepherds have, they deploy their high-speed Zodiacs and helicopter to harass or gain evidence. Zodiac teams throw rancid butter cans and cellulose powder (a slippery substance) to contaminate the decks of the whaling ship. The helicopter captures video and photographic evidence of the illegal hunt.
The mother ship in return sends three harpoon ships to confront the Sea Shepherd vessel and its zodiacs. Maneuvering close to the Sea Shepherd boats in an attempt to intimidate, the boats’ bows hammer down some 10-15 feet away from the zodiacs. Crew on the harpoon boats throw pieces of metal at the zodiac teams.
The harpoon vessels use something called a Long Range Acoustic Device when they came alongside the Steve Irwin. The LRAD produces powerful sound waves that penetrate the skull, muscles and body, and can cause disorientation, headaches and pain to the Sea Shepherd crew. One cameraman on one of the Zodiacs was hit by high-pressure water cannons, suffering an eye injury and disorientation.
A photographer from the UK, Steve Roest, was affected by the LRAD on another Zodiac, causing him to lose his balance and hit his head on the console. He suffered a cut to his forehead and recieved five stitches. By day five, almost half the crew has cuts and bruises of some kind, but they believe it’s a small price to pay to prevent more whaling.
For years, Sea Shepherd’s stated intention has been that they do not aim to harm any of the whalers, and they have interfered with whaling in this way for thirty years. Recently, the same cannot be said about the whalers themselves. The whaling vessels’ responses over the past few days have not only been aggressive, but approaching lethal.
“They’re not just looking to stop us, they are out for blood this year” says David Nickarz, the ship’s third engineer who hails from Winnipeg.
Last year, in Sea Shepherd’s confrontation with the mother ship, the captain was shot at and flash bangs were thrown at the crew. This year, the whalers have shown their intentions to harm again. But Sea Shepherd is unwilling to back down, so the battle for the whales continues, human blood-shed and all.
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.