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Death and the whale



The sea down here is always in motion: always rolling, forming waves and dissolving them, colliding with itself, shifting forms and colours, casting illusions and revealing secrets. It seems more like a million small seas with separate agendas – the liquid version of a New York subway terminal at rush hour.


And suddenly there it was. After a month and a day at sea, there on the horizon sat the factory ship of the Japanese whaling fleet, the infamous _Nisshin Maru_. Our captain called over the radio and asked them to leave the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and return to Japan or we would start ‘non-violent direct action’ to stop them killing whales.

There was no response. So without delay our four inflatable boats and their crews were lowered into the water, ready to meet up with the four others simultaneously launching from our sister ship. The plan was simply to form a circle round the _Nisshin Maru_ with our flags and banners - written in 10 different languages, including Japanese - flying high to let them know in no uncertain terms that we have arrived and we mean business. For about three seconds everything went according to plan. What spoiled the plan was the arrival of one of the three hunter ships to transfer a dead whale to the _Nisshin Maru_ for ‘processing’. So we did what any self-respecting Ocean Defenders would do. We tried to stop them.

The next hour was a blur. Our boats closed in. Within seconds, four fire hoses and two water cannon were turned on them and their crews. The _Esperanza_ and all the inflatables placed themselves between the hunter ship and the back of the _Nisshin Maru_, preventing the transfer of the dead whale. The hunter ship started to get impatient and tried a new tactic of bumping the Esperanza out of the way by banging into her port side.

At one point the factory ship did a U-turn and headed straight towards the _Esperanza_. One of our smaller boats was caught between two huge waves created by the ships’ wakes and was flipped upside down, putting the survival suits of the two crew to their first real (and successful) test. In the end we delayed the whale transfer by nearly an hour, which translates into an hour where that hunter ship could not hunt any whales.

Until this morning the _Nisshin Maru_ was nothing more than a ghost ship to me, a feathery image in my mind made from snippets of video footage and photos. But now I can look outside and there she is: a black silhouette on the horizon with her hunter ships floating silently nearby, harpoons poised...


From the helicopter I see it all. You see the blow first and then the slow rolling movement of its back and dorsal fin above the water, before it dives again into its own world where we cannot follow. There is a moment of exhilaration at seeing this wild creature. The next time it surfaces... boom! The harpoon is grenade-tipped and the noise is startling. The whale dives, mortally wounded – but not dead. Taut line runs from the bow of the catcher to the harpoon in the whale. I follow the line to see where it will surface. It is the bloodiest struggle of a dying life that I have ever seen. The whale surfaces, blows and dives again. Blood in the water. Again it surfaces, thrashing and blowing; again it dives. Its strength sapped, it surfaces once more. A man comes to the bow with a rifle. He fires. Once, twice. It’s still alive. Thrashing around in the water. Blood and foam. It lives as they secure it alongside for the transit they will now make to their factory ship. ‘Why don’t they just kill it,’ I hear myself say to anyone who is listening.


First thing this morning we were in our inflatable boat the _African Queen_ racing towards the whale hunting vessel, the _Kyo Maru_, with its harpoon at the ready. Just as we got to its bow the harpoon fired and the whale was struck just below her (she looked very feminine) left fin. Our mouths dropped as we watched the harpoon line zigzagging in the water with the whale writhing like a fish caught on a hook for a good five minutes, meaning that neither the harpoon nor the explosive device had killed her. She was trying to swim away and stay on the surface to breathe, but the harpoon and vicious wound in her side were pulling her down. For a moment, when she looked straight at us, I saw into and through her eyes and could see her mouth gaping open, appearing to let out a sound. It took two gunshots to her head from a crewmember onboard the hunter ship before she succumbed. Later on, Mathijs and I swerved through the ice packs, blocking the _Kyo Maru_’s harpoon-fire for three hours. Finally, the harpooner got his kill, just 10 metres off our inflatable’s right side. It was one of three whales swimming together, and by the look of it, one of them was a baby. I managed to climb on top of the dead whale’s body when it finally surfaced and held its fin for a while before being blasted off by fire hoses.


No matter how you look at it, the killing of whales here in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is not for ‘research’. It’s for cold hard cash. I’ve done a bit of my own research into the Japanese Government’s research and have discovered some interesting facts.

Did you know they claim that whales eat three to six times what the entire world’s fisheries catch each year? No, I’m serious, they really say this. When invited to discuss this claim with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) the entire Japanese Government and all its scientists were a bit busy and couldn’t make it...


All morning, Nathan (driving the _Billy G_) and Philster (driving the _Mermaid_) dogged the _Yushin Maru No 2_ – the newest (hunter) ship in the whaling fleet. The _Yushin_ tried to shake them off by driving through pack ice. Normally this would have worked. Few people would venture into an ice field unless they were driving an ice-class ship with a strengthened steel hull. They definitely wouldn’t want to be caught in the ice in something made out of rubber and aluminium. On the other hand, our boats weren’t going to let a little frozen water get between them and the whales we’re out here to protect. So in they went - dodging around chunks of ice, finding clear leads and, as a last resort, dropping behind the _Yushin_ to ride in its wake, then darting forward when in the clear. No matter what it did, the hunter couldn’t shake them, and its crew was too distracted even to try for any whales.

Meanwhile, the _Yushin_ had found a whale. Every time the whale surfaced we put the boat right up near it. On the whaling ship the grenade-tipped harpoon was in place and the gunner ready. Thankfully, he wouldn’t take the shot with our people in the way. He kept trying to fake them out though, swivelling the gun around and pretending to take aim - hoping we would swerve out of position. But we stayed focused and his crew got the pump working. The _Yushin_ was swerving about like crazy, the whale diving out of sight, then surfacing. At one point we misjudge what spot to be in. The harpooner spun far to starboard. For a moment he had a clear shot, with our boat well out of the way. He took it. There was a bang, the harpoon flew. But it was a miss. The whale resurfaced and dived once again. But by now it was clearly exhausted. And, in the end, our boats could not protect it. The harpooner got another clear shot, and this one hit home.

  1. Text and images reproduced with permission from the Greenpeace Defending Our Oceans website: http://weblog.greenpeace.org/oceandefenders/
  2. The _Esperanza_ is nearing the end of its marathon, year-long, round-the-world journey to encourage understanding of the ocean and promote Greenpeace’s Ocean Defenders campaign – and the crews have kept on blogging. Take a look.
  3. Sign up now as an Ocean Defender with Greenpeace at http://oceans.greenpeace.org/en/

Watery Words

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came... •John F Kennedy• (US President 1960-63)

To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there... *Gertrude Ederle* (US swimmer and poet 1906-2003)

My soul is full of longing for the secrets of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me... *Henry Wadsworth Longfellow* (US poet 1807-82)

The sea is the universal sewer. *Jacques Yves Cousteau* (French marine conservationist 1910-97)

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came... John F Kennedy (US President 1960-63) To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there... gertrude ederle (US swimmer and poet 1906-2003) My soul is full of longing for the secrets of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me... henry wadsworth longfellow (US poet 1807-82) The sea is the universal sewer. Jacques yves cousteau (French marine conservationist 1910-97) Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. *Hermann Broch* (Austrian writer 1886-1951)

Why do we love the sea? It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think. *Robert Henri* (US artist 1865-1929)

Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war... *Loren Eiseley* (US philosopher and essayist 1907-77)

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself... *Rachel Carson* (US environmentalist 1907-64)



All life on Earth owes its origin and survival to the Ocean. But its resources are not infinite and its bounty has been badly misused.

Common salt has been extracted from evaporative pools since prehistoric times. Oil from natural seeps has been used for several millennia in China and the Middle East. By the late Middle Ages, tidal mills for grinding wheat operated along the coasts of Britain and Holland. Today, offshore sand and gravel extraction, chiefly for the construction industry, exceeds that on land.

About 30 years ago, the mining industry had great expectations of the deep ocean. Initially, interest focused on manganese nodules that had been discovered there in abundance. Then oil and gas became the centre of attention, at first in relatively shallow waters like the North Sea. Today, commercial drilling can take place in depths in excess of 3,000 metres anywhere from the Arctic Ocean to the tropics. ‘Targets’ for oil exploration can be as deep as 7,000 metres below the seafloor. Oil and gas are now being consumed at a rate of six billion metric tons per year – roughly the amount it took a million years to produce.

The enormous energy of the oceans themselves is still untapped, largely due to the relative cheapness and convenience of fossil fuels. The reserves of energy contained in tides are very little used. Projects to tap the thermal energy of the ocean, using the difference in temperature between warm surface water and cold deep water to power turbines, remain in their infancy.

By far the greatest tangible resource the Ocean provides for people is food, from both plants – such as seaweed – and animals. There has, however, been a transformation within living memory. The emphasis has shifted away from traditional fisheries to fleets of large boats circling the globe equipped with gigantic nets, employing satellite technology to trace shoals and accompanied by factory ships. Just one factory ship can salt 200 metric tons of herring, process 150 tons of fish meal, fillet and freeze 100 tons of flat fish and make 5 tons of fish oil every day. Fish are being caught more quickly than they can breed. As much as a quarter of the catch is routinely thrown away as ‘bycatch’, while thousands of mammals and birds are trapped incidentally by nets and hooks.

What people extract from the Ocean is matched by what we dump in it. Every year nearly 6 billion metric tons of domestic waste and 10 billion tons of sewage sludge are produced, much of it ending up in the Ocean. Coastal zones, wetlands and mangrove forests are being destroyed by human ‘development’, while coral reefs are dying from pollution and climate change.

New Internationalist issue 397 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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