Passion fills 'Whale Wars'


POSTED: Tuesday, June 02, 2009

If shock value makes compelling reality television, then “;Whale Wars”; is right on course. The second season, which starts Friday night on Animal Planet, opens with shots of minke whales swimming at 17 knots to escape the Japanese whaling ship frantically pursuing them. You don't need to be a conservationist to be horrified by the scenes that follow: flying harpoons, blood filling the icy Antarctic ocean, tears running down the faces of activists who say they've failed the animals.




On television


        ”;Whale Wars”;

Season 2 premieres at 8 p.m. Friday on Animal Planet (329 digital).


Learn more about the mission of the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society and the crew of the Steve Irwin and watch deleted scenes at animal.discovery.com/tv/whale-wars.


“;This is our line in the sand,”; one says. With a clear purpose, members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society recommit themselves to stopping the whaling ships once and for all.

Led by Capt. Paul Watson, the crew consists of 36 volunteers willing to die or risk severe injury to save whales. Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace who was voted out of the organization because of his radical, extremist tactics—he thinks protests are passive and worthless—wouldn't have it any other way.

“;That's why I get volunteers,”; he says in the season premiere. “;I want people with passion. I don't want professionals who don't care one way or the other, as long as they're getting paid.”;

These people certainly are dedicated to the cause. For starters, they live for two months on board an aging 34-year-old vessel (named the Steve Irwin after the late Crocodile Hunter/conservationist) that isn't particularly seaworthy in icebergs, bunk (or sleep on the floor) in cramped quarters and endure storms twice the size of Texas.

But there are disadvantages to having a crew comprising volunteers who might lack expertise in such dangerous conditions. The icebergs are as hard as concrete. One wrong move could send these floating monoliths ripping through the hull. Watching them navigate through this treacherous maze is almost painful.

In another instance, the communications officer, who is charged with keeping all of the equipment on the bridge in working order, is confounded when the gyroscope—which balances the ship in rough seas—breaks down.

“;At home I make Web sites,”; he says, obviously stressed as the crew gets tossed about. “;Definitely not this stuff.”; Somehow, everyone figures out what to do.

After the mesmerizing opening scenes, “;Whale Wars”; returns to the beginning of the expedition, introduces the people on board and leads viewers through the journey of locating a fleet of six whaling ships in more than 1 million square miles of Arctic waters.

Along the way, they prepare for the confrontation. Mind you, the volunteers don't motor around holding signs. They will board the whaling ships, hurl butyric acid stink bombs that render the whale meat useless and prevent people from slaughtering on deck, and even initiate a collision if it will end the whaling season.

The shepherds accuse the whalers of violating a 1986 ban on commercial whaling. However, a legal loophole allows for the slaughter of whales in the name of research. On the deck of the Nisshin Maru, the ship that processes the whales after the harpoon boats kill them, workers hold signs for the television cameras they know are flying overhead: “;We're collecting tissue samples”; and “;We're weighing stomach contents.”;

Like all reality television, it's inevitable that a certain amount of staging is associated with some of the drama. But it's impossible not to get swept along with people who believe so vehemently in what they are doing, as well as the international controversy they generate.

According to the show's Web site detailing the coming season, workers on the Japanese ships pound the Steve Irwin with high-powered fire hoses and long-range acoustical devices designed to cause pain and destroy hearing. When a crew member dies in an accident, the whaling operation is shut down for more than a month. After the ship docks in Tasmania following a two-month campaign, police board and seize hundreds of hours of videotape. Obviously, Animal Planet retrieves that footage, because it comprises much of the second season.

Multiple attempts to reach someone from the show for an interview—through a public relations firm and Animal Planet—were unsuccessful. Either they don't care about promoting the series or they're worried about unleashing the activists to the press. Indeed, a disclaimer graces the screen before the first episode begins: “;The following program contains commentary and opinions that do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Animal Planet.”;

But that doesn't change the fact that it's interesting television. And it's not always fraught with conflict. Probably the best scene in the first episode is the moment when the shepherds spot a few whales swimming freely. The activists lean over the rails, and point and grin with awe-struck expressions, making it clear why they are stepping into the line of fire.




Local 'rookie activist' uses Navy experience

        The new season of Animal Planet's “;Whale Wars”; contains a small tie to Hawaii. Quartermaster Jane Taylor, 28, grew up in Honolulu, graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in oceanography and spent six years as a surface warfare officer in the Navy.

She served aboard the USS Denver in the Arabian Gulf in 2004, and was deployed later on drug patrol in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean aboard the USS Ford. As officer on the deck, she was qualified to drive the ship.


Capt. Paul Watson calls her experience a valuable asset to the team, but she admits her father was less than thrilled when she committed to a two-month campaign with the Sea Shepherds.


Described as “;skilled seafarer but a rookie activist,”; Taylor hopes she can share some of her oceangoing knowledge with her boat mates.


“;I think this crew's real smart, so I'm not too worried about it,”; she says in the first episode.


Because their vessel began and ended its Antarctic journey in Australia, Taylor was still there and could not be reached.


According to the Discovery Network's Web site, her passion for animal rescue led her away from the Navy to the Sea Shepherds, which she joined in November.


—Katherine Nichols