Antarctic Ocean -- When the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru bursts into flames on February 14, we on board the Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter are 1,770 kilometres to the northeast.
Not far enough, unfortunately, to stop the rumours in the Australian press, egged on by Japanese government accusations, that activists aboard ships flying the skull and crossbones of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are responsible.
Not true. We've been given no choice but to return to port in Melbourne. In the case of the Robert Hunter, it's to comply with an order by the British Registrar of Shipping after the Japanese government, flexing its economic muscles, demanded the UK strip the vessel of its credentials. The Farley Mowat, meanwhile, has eight and a half days of fuel left, and it's eight days to port.
For the last month, we've been playing a harrowing game of cat and mouse with the Japanese fleet.
Our mission was to head off its efforts to fish endangered minke and fin whales here above the Whale Sanctuary off the coast of Antarctica
Yes, we intimidated and harassed them, at one point deploying crews on Zodiac inflatables to toss smoke canisters and stink bombs on deck to shut down the Nisshin Maru's on-board killing factory.
Our critics call us eco-terrorists, but I believe it's our duty and we've been given the right under the UN Charter for Nature to uphold international conservation laws.
We favour direct action. Our ships have rammed whaling vessels in the past, even sunk a few in port, to get our point across.
But Sea Shepherd would never employ a tactic that could cause injury to others or jeopardize the environment. And considering that the Nisshin is full of toxic heavy oil and huge volumes of ammonia to freeze whale meat, the last thing we'd want is a spill that would kill countless whales, seals, penguins and other marine birds and species we've dedicated our lives to saving.
The fact is, there were many opportunities for fire and explosions on the Nisshin, given the boilers and machinery used to process whales. It had happened before (back in 1998, when the ship was on its way to another expedition).
These slaughterhouses are not even supposed to be in these waters. Whaling is illegal here, according to a moratorium of the International Whaling Commission in effect since 1986. The targeting of endangered whales like humpback and fin is also a direct violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
But Japan trolls for whales despite the fact that, aside from a few niche restaurant markets, whale meat is not generally desired by the Japanese.
The killing is indiscriminate: pregnant females, older males and even baby calves are massacred using explosive-tipped harpoons, in the process putting the blue, fin, humpback, bowhead, sperm and right whale on the endangered species list.
The Japanese claim they're whaling to conduct scientific research, a loophole under the 1986 moratorium.
Nobody believes it. Other countries are doing the same research using non-lethal methods. This is not about science, but about profit.
It's the second year in a row that Sea Shepherd has been able to halt Japanese whaling operations in these waters. Last year, with the help of a new helicopter and Greenpeace vessels the Esperanza and the Arctic Sunrise, Sea Shepherd was able to keep Japanese whalers on the run for 16 days, preventing the fleet from filling its quota of some 400 whales.
This year, Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace have gone our separate ways. Greenpeace's recent statement that it has no problem with whaling in principle only commercial whaling in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary is simply bizarre (see sidebar). The group has gone so far as to release a video suggesting it's okay to eat whale meat.
Does Greenpeace think it can stop whaling in Antarctica by publicly eating whale meat and declaring it delicious? What are these people thinking?
Captain Paul Watson is founder and president ofthe Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Countries in violation of the International Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling: Denmark (Faeroe Islands), Iceland, Norway, Japan, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Sea Shepherd’s position on aboriginal whaling: Opposed to any hunting of whales not endorsed by the International Whaling Commission, including the killing of bowheads by the Inuit in northern Canada
Whale species threatened by these countries: Humpback, fin, minke, sei, sperm and right whale
Methods used: Trapping in shallow water and knifing or clubbing, electrocution, explosives-tipped harpoons
What whales are used for: Sushi, whale-meat burgers, dog food, research
How Sea Shepherd intends to stop the killing: Direct action, economic sanctions for countries whaling in defiance of international law
Is Greenpeace lukewarm on whaling?
"What we're not opposed to is aboriginal subsistence whaling. The Japanese whaling efforts we're completely opposed to. We don't endorse Japan's argument that whale meat is a cultural necessity. But you have to remember that the Japanese equate being anti-whaling with being anti-Japanese. We need to counter that.
We favour non-violent direct action. We were founded as an organization opposed to nuclear weapons, and we've maintained that non-violent attitude through all of our history.
This year, for the first time, we managed to get it [a video of the hunt] shown on Japanese national television. This is a huge breakthrough, because Japan's media have only shown images that the Japanese government has wanted [people] to see." Toni Vernelli Greenpeace oceans campaign coordinator
Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society