February 11, 2009

Confronting the whalers

Steve (Photographer)

blog_090127_StephenIt has been an incredible week. We've done all we can to save the whales. Even though everyone on board the ship wants to stay in the Ross Sea to keep the whalers from their murderous work - we must head home.

It was just 8 days ago that we had our first serious engagement with the Nisshin Maru which began when we spotted her at 67 degrees south/ 165 degrees west. The Harpoon ships Yushin Maru No. 1 and No. 3 were with the 'mother ship.'  The Japanese fleet ran from us and made way into the ice, we fell directly behind the Nisshin with the Yushin No. 1 & No. 3 at our stern. At 06.00 HRS on Feb 2nd, the fast boats were launched against the Nisshin Maru and two harpoon ships. Delta boat, on which I am a photographer, is tasked with holding station on the Nisshin, whilst the Gemini headed off towards the Harpoon ships.

During the next 6 hours, the Delta boat team are hosed down repeatedly by water cannons and hit with LRAD sonic weapons [Long Range Acoustic Devices] from the decks of the Nisshin high above us. Eventually, the Gemini team broke off from the harpoon ships to assist the Delta crew. But one of the Gemini crew was slightly injured as the inflatable went into the strong stern water cannons of the Nisshin.

The Nisshin made way deeper into ice and tried to make it difficult for the inflatables to keep with it. But despite numerous contacts with ice growlers the small boats maintained their course with the Nisshin. Then the Gemini headed back to the Harpoon ships, this time Laurens was hit on the head with a metal fragment thrown by crew members from the Yushin Maru 3. After recovering the Delta and Gemini, the Steve Irwin continued its chase with the Nisshin well into February 3rd.

On February 4th, it gets really exciting. All of a sudden early in the morning, out of the fog all 3 harpoon ships appear. The Japanese fleet interchanged across our bow and stern, attempting as best they could  to take the initiative and intimidate our lone Sea Shepherd vessel. It was an ambush. But the Sea Shepherd ship keeps its ground and continues to follow the Nisshin.

At  11.00 on the 5th of February, the small boats were launched again, once more the two inflatables squared up against the 8000 ton Nisshin Maru, which was now supported by 3 harpoon ships. The Japanese whalers were no match for us however. The Delta and Gemini sent bottles of rancid butter, dyes and cellulose powder (a slippery substance) onto the decks of the whaling vessels. Despite constant LRAD and water cannon blasts from the whaling ships (and a cut to my head above the eye, later requiring stitches) - the small boat teams continued the action for 5 hours.

The following day, the whaling fleet decided to retaliate in the worst way possible, by killing whales. This was the first time Captain Watson had seen whales taken in Antarctica since he founded Sea Shepherd. And it was the first time I have had to face the harsh reality of what was really at stake here. I am woken by Amber (quartermaster from South Africa) saying: "they're killing whales," as I arrived on the bridge.  I could see directly into the stern of the Nisshin Maru and it was hell itself. Blood gushing down the slipway and out through the vents. Chunks of unwanted whale meat being discarded over the side and whale carcass spread all over her deck. Flensing knives and eager whalers stripped the whale in minutes.

Although we were close behind the Nisshin Maru, the harpoon ships managed to bring another whale up to the Nisshin's stern. Offloaded the dead but still majestic animal. Captain Watson decided to close the gap behind the Nisshin and for several hours the harpoon ships were unable to run through our blockade.

The helicopter crew then filmed the killing of a great whale by one of the harpoon ships (the whalers refer to harpoon ships as sampling vessels). From the time the 'sample' was hit by the exploding harpoon to the final release of its last gasp - it had taken nearly 30 minutes for the beautiful creature to die. Our resolve is unbreakable; the whalers will land no more whales while we are here to protect them.

Eventually the whalers sensed a gap in our blockade. The Yushin 2 moved to block us and the Yushin 1 went forward, dragging its murdered cargo on the port side. The Captain had no room to avoid a collision - a firm contact with the Yushin Maru No. 1 is made.

I was outside on the bridge wing when this happened. I was only feet away from the deranged whalers who had added to the incident with LRAD use, water cannons and were throwing missiles of all types directly at us - metal pieces, ice chunks, golf balls, even taps (faucets)! Our anchor box took the impact of the collision and there was little damage to either ship.

Since that collision the whalers did not try to run through our blockade again. However, on the evening of February 7th we were told that Japanese commandos had been deployed from Fiji, given the go ahead to intercept and board us. We had to choose between defending more whales or protecting the thousands of hours of video we had taken. It was an agonizing choice, but the video we have could end whaling in Antarctica. We decided we must leave the whales to the cruelty of the whalers until we return in December 2009.

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The whales are counting on us for protection . . .
We are counting on you to keep us fighting for them.


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