Tonight begins the second season of "Whale Wars" in which a scruffy band of eco-crusaders, the Sea Shepherds, go to war against the evil whaling ships, by any means necessary. The reviews for the first season were great. Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times writes: "Whale Wars splashes across the increasingly exhausted genre of people-at-work reality series like icy seawater, jolting you awake with a frothy, briny burst of -- well, you get the idea. This is one spunky show."
What's not to like? The show is action on the high seas; ocean combat to save the whales! Everyone likes whales. I like whales. Who doesn't like whales? What great television for those bored with shows about fishing off Alaska, Ice Road Truckers or the Real Housewives of Duluth!
So what is the problem with "Whale Wars"? The problem is that it is cheap exploitation in praise of what is nothing less than eco-terrorism. It is the glorification of vigilantism on the high seas. And oh, by the way, the Sea Shepherds do almost nothing to protect the whales where they really do need protection.
While "Whale Wars" presents a simplistic case of us against them, the noble environmentalists against the evil whalers, the reality, of course, is not so black and white. By international agreement with the International Whaling Commission, the Japanese were allowed to kill up to a nine hundred minke whales and fifty fin whales in 2007/2008 in the Antarctic ocean for "research purposes." Critics claim that this is thinly disguised commercial whaling. Whatever it may be, minke whales, in particular, are not considered to be particularly threatened. Estimates have placed the minke population in the Southern Hemisphere in the range of 200,000-416,700 whales.
Negotiating international agreements may not make for rousing "reality TV" but it has made a significant difference in actually "saving the whales."
The Sea Shepherds on "Whale Wars" are abolitionist animal rights activists. They believe that every whale is sacred and should be preserved. On this basis, they justify aggressively interfering with and attempting to disable whaling ships in international waters, including pelting the ships with bottles containing butyric acid, which recently injured four Japanese crew members. Their zealotry is strongly reminiscent of anti-abortion extremists. (Both groups share a fondness for butyric acid attacks.) The Sea Shepherds also attempt to maneuver Zodiac boats in between the whalers and their prey. More seriously, they have taken to ramming Japanese whalers with their ship, the Steve Irwin. (They deny this but several videos of the Irwin ramming a whaler are widely available.) Members of the Sea Shepherds have also boarded whalers at sea and in one case the Sea Shepherds interfered with the search and rescue of a Japanese sailor washed overboard. (The Sea Shepherds deny they interfered but that is not the opinion of those conducting the search and rescue.)
The Sea Shepherds fly the Jolly Roger flag of piracy. I think that they should be more accurately described as eco-terrorists.
''You don't beg criminals to stop doing what they're doing,'' Mr. Watson said in the first episode last season. ''You intervene, and you physically and aggressively shut them down.'' Of course the whalers, whatever you may think of their activities, are operating legally. It is Watson and the Sea Shepherds who are the criminals.
And where are these self-described pirates or eco-terrorists, call them what you will, based? In Friday Harbor, Washington. Given their arguably illegal and dangerous antics, I am surprised that the group, as well as the producers of the television show and the Animal Planet Network have not been swamped in lawsuits.
But do the Sea Shepherds make a difference? Not in any significant way. The WWF estimates that 90% of non-natural whale deaths are due to collisions with ships, followed by "by-catch," whales becoming caught in nets, and then lastly, by fishing. Only this week, an oil tanker bound for Valdez apparently collided with a humpback whale and dragged the carcass into the harbor on the bow of the ship. Special shipping lanes have been set up off Cape Cod to reduce collisions between ships and the extremely endangered northern right whales, which migrate through the area. It is hoped that these collisions will be reduced by an estimated 74% during the migratory season. Changes in shipping lanes around the world and the development of new technologies are making a real difference in reducing the number of whales who die needlessly, which also does not make for entertaining television.
In the end, "Whale Wars" is a highly dangerous sideshow, which may make for diverting "reality TV" for the couch-bound, but has nothing meaningful to do with "saving the whales."
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