I am a warrior, and it is the way of the warrior to fight superior odds.

― Paul Watson

In the battle not only for whales, but for the hearts and minds of the public, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is in a class by itself. With the possible exception of PETA, no other animal-rights nonprofit has attracted so much mainstream media attention ― positive or negative ― while shining a spotlight on a single injustice. For Paul Watson and the rest of Sea Shepherd in the Antarctic right now, guarding the whales from Japanese poachers is a matter of life and death.

This is Sea Shepherd’s sixth campaign to defend endangered whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and both sides have raised the stakes with high-tech equipment and more vessels navigating the often hazardous waters. While whaling apologists accuse Sea Shepherd of relying on violent tactics and call them “eco terrorists,” it’s the Japanese whalers who have no qualms about using violence. Not only are they killing protected animals, but they’ve deliberately destroyed a Sea Shepherd vessel, injuring a crew member in the process.

Of course, we knew from the beginning that the current anti-whaling campaign, named Operation Waltzing Matilda, would be unlike anything we’ve seen before. Last year, with their whaling hunt still months away, the Japanese revealed that in addition to their factory ship, Nisshin Maru, and its catcher boats, this year’s whaling fleet would include at least two government “security vessels.” Their ships are equipped with such cutting-edge weaponry as photonic disruptors and sonic blasters, along with some good old-fashioned water cannons, and they do love to use them on the protesters.

Sea Shepherd vessels, meanwhile, are also armed with photonic disruptors (lasers that temporarily blind the target), which they have used, and sonic blasters (long-range acoustic devices), which they haven’t. They have most famously lobbed stink bombs (bottles of butyric acid) onto the decks of Japanese ships, while the whalers have retaliated with flash grenades and apparently a bullet that struck Captain Watson in 2008. But it was Sea Shepherd’s futuristic vessel Ady Gil that captured everyone’s attention when it was unveiled late last year. It was sleek, it was fast and it heralded a new age in the fight against whaling. Perhaps that’s why the Japanese rammed and sank it on January 6. “This was close to murder,” declared Captain Watson, demanding an investigation. “It was such an extreme act that if no one takes action now, we may have an even more serious incident in [the] future.”

Photo by JoAnne McArthur/Sea Shepherd

This is clearly the most volatile campaign Watson has waged against the Japanese whalers. Just last Saturday, the harpoon ship Yushin Maru 3 rammed another Sea Shepherd ship, the Bob Barker. The Bob Barker was blocking the slipway of the Nisshin Maru, making it impossible for the Japanese to offload and “process” dead whales. The whaler tore a gash three feet long above the waterline in the Bob Barker’s hull; no one was injured this time.

Watson, who flies the Jolly Roger and keeps his ships vegan, saysOperation Waltzing Matilda is turning out to be a tough, protracted effort, but I am confident we will once again impact their kill quotas despite the new obstacles thrown at us this year by the whalers.” It’s often these new obstacles that get media attention for Sea Shepherd, which then gains more members and volunteers eager to join the fight. The organization is buoyed by international support for the whales, and it’s in no small part due to the efforts of Sea Shepherd that most Americans are now aware of and opposed to the whale hunt.

This season, according to a rep for the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a front group for the commercial whalers, the whaling fleet is targeting 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales. Though most observers recognize that Japan’s hunting of whales has nothing to do with scientific knowledge (the nation’s foreign minister has confirmed the hunts are motivated by an appetite for whale flesh), they’re still keeping up with the research charade. And what exactly has Japan learned after all its “research”? Last year they discovered that — wait for it — whales eat krill. Apparently, no one in Japan has access to marine reference books, Wikipedia or old Jacques Cousteau documentaries. And after killing hundreds of whales in 2008, ICR announced that injecting whale sperm into a cow does not produce a whale-cow hybrid creature.

Directly challenging the notion that you must kill an animal in order to study her, 18 scientists from Australia, France and New Zealand are currently taking part in a 6-week program to research whales, their food and their interaction with the environment. Their non-lethal research techniques include biopsy sampling using retrievable darts, satellite tag tracking, photography, acoustic surveys and whale feces recovery. The Japanese should just scrub that ridiculous “RESEARCH” label from its whaling ships right now.

Despite the hazards of the annual campaigns against the whalers, Captain Watson remains resolute. “Will we win this year?,” he asks. “Perhaps we won’t, but if not we will be back again next year and the year after that if possible. For the Japanese whalers we intend to make this a never-ending trip to the dentist. … Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet, economically, to bankrupt them and to humiliate them.”

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