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  1. The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    I realised while reading The Whale Warriors that when it comes to writing my first review for a non-fiction piece, my opinion of the book may very well be coloured by my stance on the issue. I do consider whaling to be abhorrent. I find it to be cruel, unnecessary, and driving a great species to extinction. I do feel that the Australian government should do more to stop the slaughter that occurs in our waters, in a whale sanctuary. I also feel that what Greenpeace does is important because they bring evidence to the world but that it is the Sea Shepherds preserving life there in the moment, even if they do often act in the extreme.

    In December 2005, journalist Peter Heller traveled to Melbourne, Australia to join the Sea Shepherd's on board the Farley Mowat (named after the author and conservationist). The goal of their voyage was to save as many whales as possible from whalers hunting in Antarctica. They are lead by Paul Watson, who was one of the original founders of Greenpeace before founding the Sea Shepherds, and who is dedicated to finding the Japanese ship the Nisshin Maru and doing whatever it takes to cut the whaling season short - even if it means putting at risk his ship and crew.

    The Whale Warriors is a fascinating insight into life at sea upon the conservation ship and the kind of people that are willing to not only put their lives on hold but to risk death to stand up for a cause. Indeed, you will wonder exactly what kind of person would do just this. The people onboard the Farley Mowat are people with very strong conservationist beliefs and they have guts. You have to have guts to play chicken with a massive whaling ship, to risk that your own ship will be torn in two and its inhabitants thrown into the freezing waters. Or some people might say you just have to be mad.

    Even so, there is a mix in degrees of points of view on board the Farley. Not everyone is vegan, or even vegetarian for that matter, but on the Farley an all vegan diet is what the crew gets served up. Heller points out the very interesting fact that on board the Greenpeace marine conservation ship the crew eat fish. I am not a vegetarian myself (although I should confess that I am steering in that direction) but it seems odd to me that they would consume fish while sailing to protest whaling and over fishing.

    When speaking to Watson and his then wife, Allison, they assure Heller that the only guns onboard are shotguns used "to destroy the buoys on long lines". Watson goes on to say that "they can say whatever they want, but we don't shoot people." Later on, however, Watson discovers that there are indeed guns on board that sure look like they are intended for use against people. Watson claims that they are only for self-defence should "real pirates" attempt to board the Farley. Watson had also told Heller how they had once had a can-opener (a blade attached to the ship to try rip into whaling ships) but that they had removed it due to rust. He fails to mention that during the voyage they are fashioning a new can-opener to attach to the ship.

    One problem with the Sea Shepherds, as you will see in this book, is that it sounds as though some of the crew lack experience. While these guys are doing an important job, this would be dangerous for anyone with all the right training, so it is a bit scary that some of these people are under trained. Passion can only help you survive so far. And they are passionate and willing to risk their lives, even after their first brush with death which really does get the crew spooked. That is one other major difference between the Sea Shepherds and Greenpeace. The crew on board the Farley Mowat are all volunteers whereas on the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, they are paid.

    There are times when it seems as though Watson is willing to risk everything to defend the whales but it is also a relief to see that, from Heller's perspective, Watson is not all extremism and does give thought to the safety of his crew. They talk about sinking whaling ships, about ramming and disabling them but at least his goal is not to injure people but to take away their means of killing the whales.

    Heller also asserts that "the market for whale meat has gotten dimmer... two surveys found the Japanese appetite for the dense meat to be at an all-time low." The price of whale meat has dropped and surplus is having to be used in pet food. He says that Japan's refusal to discontinue whaling is part of their feelings of "Japan's cultural heritage being threatened by the West." However, only "isolated coastal communities" in Japan have a history of hunting whales for centuries. Whale meat was only introduced to mainstream Japan after World War II when they were encouraged to eat it due to food shortages. He says that ICR does not even cover the expenses of whaling through the sale of whale meat! Furthermore, if, as they say, Japan wants to help sustain and protect the whale population then why do they lobby for the legalisation of commercial whaling every year?

    Personally, I was very interested in the history of the whaling and the conservation moment and life on board the ship, but I can see where others might find this dull. If you pick this book up with an expectation for many high action descriptions of confrontations with whaling vessels then you are setting yourself up to be disappointed. When the Farley set sail there was not even a guarantee that they would be able to find the whaling fleet and much of the book involves navigating around icebergs and through storms, nitpicking through the ocean hoping to stumble across the fleet, while the crew prepares the ship and mentally prepare themselves for what they hope will be a confrontation. All the same, I could not help but feel a thrill of excitement when the first evidence of another ship nearby was found.

    Perhaps, though, and I do understand that it was Japanese whaling ships that they were pursuing, I would have liked to learn more about at least the other major whaling nations as well.

    It says on the back cover that the book is "often hilariously funny." I would not go that far but, sure, it did have some funny moments. Also, and maybe this is just me, but I did laugh at the president of the Japan Whaling Association labeling the SSCS as "dangerous vegans." Oh sure, some of the things that they do are plenty dangerous but the word "vegans" is applied like it is some kind of insult or as though being even just vegan is something to be afraid of.

    I really enjoyed this book and with the whaling season approaching it really does set me off thinking about the issue. You do not have to agree with a perspective to be able to find it interesting or see the value in educating yourself about it so I would definitely say that people should give The Whale Warriors a go. In the very least, if you are looking to learn more about the SSCS, the perspective, I would figure, is going to be less biased than the books written by Paul Watson himself.

    Anyone interested in learning more about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society can visit their website.

    If you would like to read more about Greenpeace's anti-whaling campaign you can go here.

    If you would like to read The Institute of Cetacean Research's spin on things feel free to click here.

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