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The battle gets ugly. The whalers are desperate. Sea Shepherd keeps blocking the transfer of dead whales, making further whaling impossible in the Southern Ocean. The Sea Shepherd ship, the Steve Irwin, stays close to the stern of the whaling fleet’s “mother ship,” the Nisshin Maru, preventing any harpoon vessels from transferring their whale cargo to the processing ship.
Desperate for their product not to be spoiled as whales hang dead off the side of two harpoon ships, a third harpoon ship is sent to attack us. Yushin Maru No. 2 closes in on the Steve Irwin, coming within 20 feet. The crew throws metal bolts and uses high-pressured water-cannons on the Sea Shepherd crew. They send blasts from the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), the non-lethal — but extremely painful — sound cannon mounted on board. Then the Yushin cuts dangerously close across our bow several times, and finally, the two ships collide.
“It was a slight nudge, but gangster tactics if I have ever seen them,” says Laurens De Groot, a policeman from Holland.
After hours of this chase, the Nisshin Maru ahead turns to circle around. The Irwin, as well as all the harpoon vessels follow, and it becomes a bit like a lethal marry-go-round. We went around in circles like this for hours, nearly causing me to get sick. But my adrenaline was pumping, which kept my seasickness at bay.
Eventually all the ships straighten out, at which point the harpoon boats carrying dead whales attempted to transfer their cargo, with us 100 metres away. The harpoon ships wedged their way between us and the Nisshin maru, and within seconds ropes and lines were being tossed back and forth between the Nisshin Maru and the harpoon ship to begin the transfer.
Unwilling to allow this to happen, Captain Paul Watson took the helm and attempted to get the Steve Irwin between the two vessels ahead, cutting the transport line in the process. Within twenty feet of the vessels, the Irwin shook wildly in their wake. Defiant and unafraid it appeared, the whalers stood their ground and successfully sent the whale up the Nisshin’s slipway.
But all was not lost, sailors on board the Yushin Maru No. 3 were getting ready to hastilyy transport a second dead whale onboard. This would be the fifth whale delivered to the Nisshin if successful. We believed this would be the final straw — the whalers would know they could continue their illegal operation with or without the activists around.
Again the harpoon ship came alongside the Nisshin quickly and within seconds lines were being exchanged. Captain Watson steered the Irwin closer than ever, 15, perhaps 10 feet behind the ships ahead. He was attempting to wedge between the ships and cut the line: we were so close it looked like it would be successful. But then I saw it — the whale was in the water on its way to the slipway. Before I could turn to tell anyone, the Irwin was out of control from the choppy waves the harpoon ship produced.
Suddenly, the ship was ten degrees on its side.
Both ships had collided. It looked like each ship was halfway headed into the ocean and halfway up in the air. I was on portside, the side headed for the ocean. But all I could see was the starboard side up in the air. Water cannons were sprayed onto the crew of the Irwin from the harpoon vessel, while the Sea Shepherd activists threw rancid butter cans onto the decks of the harpoon ship. There was a lot of screaming and yelling from both ships, and the screeching of metal as the two vessels slid off each other. This truly felt like war.
Once our ship was off the harpoon vessel, the whaling ships steamed ahead. We fell back to check the damage. The crew found holes in the ship’s hull, but they were all above the water line, and there were no serious injuries to the crew. We’re safe — just barely. But the Sea Shepherd crew made their stand for the whales.
At that point, whaling stopped. The whalers did not attempt to kill or transfer any more that day. It was 6:30 pm and the battle had ended. But the war goes on.
Five whales lost their lives in this battle on February 6th. But many more would live, because forty individuals from around the world and one black ship made a stand against whaling at the bottom of the world. They stopped a six-ship whaling fleet and its 240 person crew in their illegal hunt for over five days, and put the government-run Japanese organization, the Institute of Cetacean Research, at a stand-still. And they cost the private company, Kyodo Senpaku, that profits off the hunt, tens of millions of dollars. They hurt the whaling industry by making its business less feasible.
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.