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Reality on the High Seas
  • April 18, 2012 : 09:04
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The hangar door begins to pull back, telescoping into itself, until it’s stopped by an awful noise—a large bolt has fallen on the track and bent. Aultman puts it into a vise and tries to bend it back. When that doesn’t work, he grabs a mallet and bangs away as two deckhands—one of whom has just raced in, looking disheveled—start to assemble the helicopter’s rotor, the blades of which are removed when the aircraft is not in use. “Chris, what’s the best time to OTF you?” asks Whale Wars producer Philippe Denham, referring to an on-the-fly interview, which differs from those conducted in the ship’s office, away from anyone else’s hearing, at least until the crew members’ comments air on international television. “Right before I get in.” The five blades slide in, bolts slide down, and the helicopter is ready. Aultman is thrilled. “Fourteen minutes. That’s a new record,” he says. Inside the transparent bubble, Aultman plays with the stick, and the helicopter moves a bit. The area is engulfed in an incredible downdraft and noise that’s loud even with protective earphones.

Another camera operator runs back and forth, filming the helicopter from different angles, until he slips and falls, tumbling toward the hangar—a potentially fatal fall anywhere else, as guardrails have been lowered to allow the helicopter access. After a few minutes, Aultman lifts the helicopter effortlessly off the ship, banking toward the reported grind. It’s suddenly quiet. The camera operator now wants to interview Beatrice Yannacopoulos, the deckhand whose time off was interrupted by a call to come help. “No, let’s not talk about that,” she says. “I’m not going to say I was fast asleep.” But he encourages her, and finally they begin. With the camera positioned on her face, she recaps. “I was on a break,” she says, laughing. “I can’t lie. Fuck.” She ends up saying she was “taking it easy” when she heard about the grind, and the cameraman drops his equipment and hugs her. “You did such a good job,” he tells her.

Back on the bridge, quiet is occasionally interrupted by radio static. The phone rings, and a crewman answers: “That you, Chris?” Then comes the verdict: “Confirmation that it was a race and not a grind. So, false alarm.” The 15 boats someone on shore had spotted were part of a regatta, not a whale hunt.

Built in 1975 to patrol and protect Scotland’s marine life, the Steve Irwin shows its age, from worn carpet to rusted metal, and smells of toast, fuel, burning tar, sour hotel rooms and human sweat. Life aboard is not glamorous; it is not the kind of place you want to be unless you have a reason, a passion. If Whale Wars misleads viewers, it’s only in the compression of time: The editing skips across the surface of weeks or months at sea until the requirements of advertiser-driven television win and it plunges into confrontation: ships colliding, water cannons blasting, projectiles launching. Instead, hours of boredom and rote tasks consume the lives of the Sea Shepherd’s different crews, a diverse, international group of mostly volunteers who range from an American college student to an Australian property developer, all of whom wear the Sea Shepherd uniform of long-sleeved black T-shirts or hoodies emblazoned with its logo. Volunteers don’t just give their time, they pay $100 to apply—the popularity of Whale Wars has helped the organization with its recruiting and fund-raising—and pay their way to and from the ship. Once onboard, they’re assigned jobs in different areas of the ship, such as the bridge, engine room, galley and deck, and trained on the job. Watson is convinced his team of untrained volunteers is far more effective than professionals, whom he mostly loathes.

The deck crew, who operate the small boats used in confrontations, have the most routine set of jobs, such as cleaning toilets and emptying the nearby buckets of shit-covered toilet paper. (Detailed instructions tacked to a board direct that these be emptied overboard if the ship is more than 12 miles offshore.) The work is shared: One morning, Yannacopoulos, the deck crew member who works on the helicopter, mops hallways so narrow it’s impossible to stretch out even one arm.

Before a campaign begins, a senior crew member gathers the volunteers for brief media training. They are told to speak to cameras honestly but positively, not swearing or focusing on personality conflicts—the meat of most reality-television shows. That may explain why conversations with Sea Shepherd volunteers tend to take an on-ramp into passionate but predictable and almost rote comments about the importance of saving whales, discussions almost inhuman in their predictability except for the passionate veneer of belief that coats every word. At first, Whale Wars struggled to get even that.

In the summer of 2007, Charlie Foley, who’d left Animal Planet a year earlier, was working for the Discovery Channel on a film about the Gettysburg Address when new Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan, hired to reshape the network, recruited him to return. During his interview, Foley said he’d take the job only if Kaplan let him pursue a series following the efforts of anti-whaling activists. “I was expecting what would have been a sort of harsh, mealy-mouthed answer or maybe an inscrutable look,” he says. “Instead, she broke into that huge Carly Simon grin she has and said, ‘I absolutely want to do that.’?”

As the network’s vice president of development, Foley commissioned a report about the possibility of following the activities of Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd. The consultant said of Sea Shepherd, “Stay away. They are very dangerous. They’re going to cause you no end of trouble if you do this.” But Foley moved forward. “Animal Planet needed something to be iconoclastic, to break with this sort of treacly, family-friendly image it had,” he says, and a series about volunteers under the leadership of a “cop who’s thrown away the badge and is pursuing the fight on his own” was it. The success of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch had encouraged Watson to let his efforts be filmed for television. “If these guys could do it with crabs, we can sure as hell do it with whales,” Watson says. After the campaign ended and Foley watched the raw footage for the first time, he sent an e-mail to Kaplan. Its subject: “Holy shit.” The body: “We’ve got a hit.”

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read more: entertainment, tv, issue april 2012

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