Defender of the Seas: Captain Paul Watson Travels the World to Challenge Illegal Whaling and Fishing, and Whale Wars Captures the Action

By Belli, Brita | E Magazine, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Defender of the Seas: Captain Paul Watson Travels the World to Challenge Illegal Whaling and Fishing, and Whale Wars Captures the Action


Belli, Brita, E Magazine


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A few years ago, National Geographic Traveler ranked Denmark's Faroe Islands first among unspoiled island destinations. The landscape there is breathtakingly dramatic--impossibly sheer green cliffs dropping into blue harbors, cascading waterfalls, white shaggy sheep, coastal towns with buildings in bright, primary colors and grass-roofed cottages that look like storybook pictures come to life. Situated between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes have a very distinct cultural identity drawn from their original Viking ancestry, with their own language (Faroese), a circular "chain dance" that consists of dancers holding hands and stomping feet along to Faroese ballads, and the annual grindadrap, or "grind," dating back to the 16th century. During the grindadrap, hundreds of pilot whales are rounded into a bay with a semicircle of boats, forcing the animals to shallow water where they become stranded. Then, as community onlookers, including children, look on, Faroese men kill the whales with knives, hacking into the whales' spinal cords. The many online photos and videos of these whale hunts show the men's faces splattered with blood as they set about their grim task, the bay running red from boats to shore. Gruesome as it sounds, the grindadrap is considered a celebratory festival by locals.

It is this last cultural tradition that brought Captain Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (seashepherd.org) to the Faroe Islands this past summer in a mission dubbed "Operation Ferocious Isles." The Animal Planet show Whale Wars follows Watson and his crew as they challenge whalers in remote corners of the world, and the show's notoriety ensured that his arrival would be noticed. Worried about the potential negative exposure, the Faroese police allowed no whale hunts while the Sea Shepherd boats--the Steve Irwin and the Brigitte Bardot--were on patrol. "They feel that if they don't give us a whale hunt than we won't have a show," Watson says. "But we're here to save whales, not to film whales being killed, so we're quite happy with that."

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The Sea Shepherd's patrol lasted from June to August, the whales' peak migration months, and ended without a single pilot whale killed. But a report from the Faroe Islands' Ministry of Foreign Affairs (whaling.fo) later noted that as of September 2011 "there have been five whale drives, with a total catch of 406 pilot whales." The average annual catch, according to the report, is 800 whales, a number it calls "fully sustainable."

What Watson has witnessed in the Faroes in past years, he says, is nothing short of a "blood orgy" with no commercial or practical purpose. "They say it's been done for hundreds of years, it's a tradition. God gave them this gift from the sea. These guys get all worked up, they get drunk, they go down and they kill things. They kill everything--males, females, calves. They even rip the fetuses out of the bodies."

For Watson, a staunch vegan and animal rights supporter, no amount of whale slaughter is justified. But the senselessness of such mass killings in light of the meat that cannot and will not be used--high mercury and PCB content means that blubber and whale meat, while part of the traditional Faroe diet, should not be eaten more than once or twice a month by adults, and not at all by pregnant women or children--and the fragile existence of whales across the globe, make such blood celebrations even more heinous.

Whales In Crisis

The killing of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is something of a sideshow in the global story of threatened whales, since that species is not thought to endangered. The American Cetacean Society estimates that there are about a million long-finned pilot whales and at least 200,000 short-finned pilot whales across the globe, adding that these numbers are decreasing and that hard figures are difficult to come by.

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