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Reality on the High Seas
  • April 18, 2012 : 09:04
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As the Steve Irwin’s ropes are tied off and the crew exits to reunite with their friends, the mild weather turns quickly to cold rain. On the wet dock, the width of a small four-lane road, kids start kicking a ball with crew members and asking questions. “Is this ship American?” “Where was it built?” “Was it built for this?” “Do you have any weapons onboard?” “Is Paul Watson with you?”

“Paul Watson’s onboard, yeah,” crew member Scott Johnson says.

“Is he coming out?”

“I don’t know if he’s going to come out or not.”

Behind the younger boys asking questions, an 18-year-old hangs back, listening intently, hair neatly parted to the left, purple shoes darkened by the rain. His name is Jacob, which he first pronounces yay-cub.

The kids ask why Sea Shepherd is here, and Johnson tells them, “We like you guys.” He explains his love for animals but adds that like some of the volunteers, “I’m a meat eater. But at the same time I don’t believe in killing whales or dolphins.”

Jacob speaks up. “But we’re not hunting the whales; we’re harvesting the whales.”

“I know you’ve done it forever,” Johnson says. “It’s a normal thing. It’s like us harvesting cows.”

“Exactly.” Jacob is soft-spoken and holding an umbrella to shield himself from the near-horizontal rain.

“But right now, because there’s so much pollution in the oceans, there’s a high mercury content in the whales, and I don’t want you guys, not one of you, to have to eat poison whale meat with mercury in it,” Johnson says. Contaminants are not unknown to the Faroese, who gently point out that they are not responsible for poisoning the oceans. Earlier in the summer, the Faroese government said that because of contaminants, adults should never eat whale kidneys or liver and “eat at most one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber per month,” while women who are pregnant or breast-feeding or who will be pregnant within three months should not eat whale meat, and those who plan to have children should never eat whale blubber.

Later, Jacob concedes that eating whale meat is “not common anymore,” but isn’t eating it, he asks, “a human right?”

“It is, but I don’t want your mom or dad to be feeding that to you. I want you to have that right.”

“How about cigarettes? We don’t tell you you can’t smoke cigarettes,” Jacob says.

“Yeah, I don’t smoke cigarettes, but if you want to, hey, you can kill yourself with a cigarette.”

“Why can’t we kill whales?”

“Well, you can if you want. We’re just trying to raise awareness to everybody.”

As the debate goes on—polite, calm, direct—the kids challenge the crew members about an earlier story on Sea Shepherd’s website that used a photo of a Faroese man with a grind knife and suggested it was a threat; the kids insist the crew of the Bardot had just asked to see the knife. They also talk about Japanese whaling, which Jacob says he opposes. Regarding Sea Shepherd, he mostly objects to “the ridicule that you send to the rest of the world about Faroe Islands,” he says—the graphic photos of dead whales are the only images the world sees of his country. What if the only images of the United States were from inside slaughterhouses?

After the crowd clears, crew members head off to a pub in town or back to the ship, to their thin mattresses on plywood bunks in shared rooms or to the lounge with worn couches and easy chairs next to the mess where Watson and the crew have watched DVDs of such TV shows as Dexter and True Blood. Fiona McCuaig spends her eight p.m. to 12 a.m. watch guarding the corrugated metal plank with a hand-painted crew only sign at its end—the vessel’s only security. Crew members come and go. In the artificial light of the ship, McCuaig’s eyes seem blue with a hint of green; she makes eye contact and says hello to every car that passes, her Australian accent lingering on the vowels. The vehicles mostly contain people who seem curious, kids waving from backseats, but some men stop their cars and stare, presumably whaling foremen or others directly involved in the grind. She waves at them too.

“First, you need to empathize with them,” McCuaig says. “If I lived on these islands and grew up in the same situation as you, I’d probably be thinking the same as you.” She understands arguments like Jacob’s. “We’ve got blood on our hands. We have all these horrible factory farms,” she says. “I’m from Australia, and we are so bad. We kill all these kangaroos, and we shoot possums. We are not perfect either.”

Sea Shepherd left the Faroe Islands in late August, and shortly thereafter two grinds took place. The organization had declared victory, saying, “Our mere watchful presence prevented any killings” because “Faroese police ordered that no grinds…would be allowed for as long as the Sea Shepherd ships were in Faroese waters.” The Faroese government said the opposite. Kate Sanderson says that the lack of grinds “was not due to any official decision to stop whaling. No such decision was made by the Ministry of Fisheries, which is the authority responsible for the regulation of whaling in general.” The grinds that took place after Sea Shepherd’s departure, she says, were predictable. “Had they had a better understanding of Faroese life and culture they may have known that early September is the season for catching young fulmar around the coast, which is done close to shore from small boats. There is quite often a whale drive at this time of the year, as there are more boats out and about than usual.”

A few months later, Watson—his fleet of three ships (the third is named Bob Barker after the game show host, who donated $5 million after a conversation with Watson) preparing to return to the Southern Ocean once again after Japan announced its intention to resume whaling—says he won’t know the impact of the Faroe Islands campaign until Animal Planet broadcasts the episodes. “I think what we’ve proven here is that the most powerful weapon in the world is the camera,” he says.

In truth, the cameras mostly captured the monotony of the campaign: circling the islands, sending the helicopter to investigate what usually turned out to be races or festive gatherings. There were also Sea Shepherd’s own blunders, like having the acoustic devices they planned to place around the islands confiscated as they tried to transport them in a van via a ferry. Instead of action in the small boats, there were trips to view whale bones underwater and encounters with the Faroese, including a local politician who stood on the dock near the Bardot in front of small tables stacked with containers of whale meat, telling a Sea Shepherd volunteer, “You are a vegetarian; you stick to the apple,” adding, “Adolf Hitler was the best-known vegetarian in world history.” The camera in his face, he said Paul Watson “needs bit of drama, doesn’t he? He needs a bit of sensation on television to con more people out of more money, eh?” Of course, that’s exactly what he was providing.

Still, Watson characterizes the response as successful. “The Faroese strategy was smart in one way: They actually didn’t do anything. They were very concerned about the cameras. We just did our patrols and found whales, and escorted the whales around and did interviews with people, but nobody really confronted us or anything,” he says.

Sea Shepherd has been concerned about cameras too. “They kept expecting that we were going to manipulate it and make them look terrible and that the show wasn’t going to be good for them,” executive producer Bronstein says. “Everybody wants to control how they’re seen and how they’re perceived, and the more you try to control how you’re seen, the less control you have. What I always tell my cast at the beginning of every shoot is if you are emotionally naked and vulnerable, the audience will love you. And if you hold back and try to control how the cameras see you, the audience will sense it and you will not win fans. Nobody ever believes me until season two.”

Sanderson says the Faroese are anxious about Whale Wars. “We have always been fully open with the media about whaling, and we have been cooperating with foreign journalists for decades, so there was no reason not to help them with access to accurate information and relevant expertise,” she says. “But the important distinction is that this time we were not dealing with documentary filmmakers or news reporters but quite a different kind of media product altogether. So we await the outcome with a certain sense of foreboding.”

Will seeing themselves and their way of life on television change the Faroese? Will kids, like those on the dock, find new appreciation for their cultural traditions now that they’ve been attacked by outsiders? Or will external forces like pollution make the decision for everyone?

“It’s pretty amazing to see how strong they believe in this,” camera operator Jillian Morris says later. She is referring to Sea Shepherd’s volunteers but could have been talking about the Faroese—or herself, Brake and the other Whale Wars crew members. “I just have a new tremendous, positive outlook on what they’re doing,” she says. “Whether you agree with their tactics or what they’re doing, at least appreciate the commitment and the passion they have.”

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read more: entertainment, tv, issue april 2012

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