I remember very clearly the first time I went whale watching. Near the end of the trip, a humpback stuck its head out of the water right alongside us. As the whale rose up, maybe 20 feet from where I was standing on deck, I made eye contact with it. It was an incredible moment. There was real intelligence there. Not human, certainly, but you could see that there was a lot going on upstairs. Certainly more so than my dog, which still hasn’t quite figured out that it’s not OK to eat gravel and wood chips.
After that trip, I began to see why anti-whaling activists get so bothered by those who flout the international ban on whaling (which was drafted when certain species were being hunted into extinction). In Norway’s case, it simply exempts itself from the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium and continues to hunt commercially. Minke whales, the most-hunted species by Norwegian operations, have since become notoriously shy around boats, knowing that they’re likely to get harpooned if they stick around at the surface for more than a few moments.
In Japan’s case, the nation issues “scientific permits” to allow whaling for research purposes. Any country can do this, but only Japan actually does. Given the scope of Japan’s whaling efforts, it seems the country has a deep need to experiment on the tastiness of whale meat, which is still widely sold on the open market there. It reminds me of an exchange I once heard on Iron Chef when a rare fish was introduced as the secret ingredient. “Those are really hard to find nowadays,” said a commentator. “Yeah. I’ll bet they’re delicious,” replied another.
A third class of exceptions involves aboriginal groups, such as the Alaskan Inupiat, who reserve the right to whaling as a way of preserving their heritage. I don’t have a problem with this, except that if you’re going to do it as a cultural thing, then do it as your ancestors did. The Inupiat still harpoon whales, but the real kill is made with a high-powered rifle, which has all the cultural authenticity of a modern Renaissance faire.
Ultimately, my protest against whaling remains confined to a snarky editorial, but there are groups willing to go to extreme measures. Chief among them are the Sea Shepherds, a group that broke away from Greenpeace, which it felt did too much talking and not enough direct action. The Sea Shepherds run a fleet of converted ships that shadow and harass whaling vessels (mainly Japanese ones) by cutting across their right-of-way, hurling canisters of butylic acid (rancid butter) on deck in the hopes that the eye-watering stench will drive crew members below deck and shining green lasers into ship captain’s eyes. They are known to trail ropes in front of whaling ships to snare the propellers, sometimes tearing them off completely. They have also nudged whaling vessels with their own ships in a jostling move not unlike NASCAR bump drafting. Boarding parties are probably the next strategy.
The Sea Shepherds are rather proud of what they’re doing, fashioning themselves after pirates and claiming to have deprived Japanese whalers of some $70 million in revenue this year alone. They see it as doing battle against those who violate anti-whaling laws. The Japanese whalers see it as eco-terrorism. For once, I actually find myself siding with the whalers.
In a situation like this, someone is bound to get hurt. And in January, the Japanese whaler Shonan Maru 2 and the Sea Shepherd trimaran Ady Gil (a converted racer that looked like something Batman might drive) collided. The Shonan Maru 2 ran over the Ady Gil and cut it in half. Nobody was hurt, but to hear the Sea Shepherds describe it, you would think a U-boat had just torpedoed an ocean liner full of orphaned puppies. I can’t feel sorry for the Sea Shepherds here. If you make a habit out of putting your face in front of someone’s fist, you’re going to get punched.
This whole thing has a grim air of inevitability about it. Right now, another whaling season is being planned and the Sea Shepherds are raising money for the Ady Gil 2. If someone doesn’t start practicing a little risk management, this time next year someone is going to get killed. And for what? Are cetacean lives really worth human ones? It all makes me wish Moby Dick would arise from the waves and put everyone in a time out. Nothing else seems to work.