The Southern Ocean is vast, remote, rough and icy cold. Not the easiest place to go to war.
This battle is not about land, but whales. Their crusading foes beg to differ, but the Japanese say they’re conducting research.
“It’s obviously bogus,” says Vince Burke, first mate on the Steve Irwin, one of the Sea Shepherd ships attempting to thwart the Japanese off the Antarctic coast. “You don’t have to kill 1,000 whales to know there are whales here.”
Entrails in the ocean waters indicate Japanese ships have been harvesting whales nearby, and now the three ships from the conservation group Sea Shepherd are zooming to stop the perpetrators.
It’s a crazy but deadly serious cat-and-mouse game with international ramifications. Crazy that it’s come to this. But deadly serious in that, short of pointing and firing lethal weapons, the two sides are utilizing every possible means to impose their will on the other.
One dastardly method of sabotage both sides have used is to drag floating cables, hoping to tangle them in their foe’s propellers. During a confrontation involving cables Feb. 2, the Japanese ship Nisshin Maru bumped the Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker – or vice-versa, depending on whom you believe.
Also crazy is that a Durangoan is involved firsthand in this war taking place in the remote Ross Sea. And it’s crazy, too, that while this real-life drama is underway, I’m talking live to crew members on the underside of the globe.
At 1 a.m. the day the Bob Barker got bumped, “I was still bleary-eyed,” says deckhand Eric Burris, a longtime Durangoan whom acquaintances know better as “E.B.” “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do for the first 20 minutes ... because these were kind of new tactics.”
Soon, he began to help others spotting a buoy that indicated the end of the cable. Burris, putting off for the moment the celebration of his 49th birthday, relayed that information to Steve Irwin ship captain Siddharth Chakravarty of India, one of 25 nations represented on the three ships.
Before diving back into the battle at hand, a little bit of how we got here.
In 1982, amid fears that over-harvesting was driving some species to extinction, the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling. That moratorium is still in effect, although Norway, Iceland and Japan use what conservation groups call loopholes to continue to hunt whales.
In 1994, the commission established a whaling-free zone in the Southern Ocean, basically the waters that surround Antarctica. Japan did not support the so-called Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary; it established the Institute of Cetacean Research and now self-imposes an annual 1,000-whale limit in the Southern Ocean. The Japanese say minke whales are abundant and should not be part of the sanctuary. Meat from those whales is sold in Japan.
In 2002, citing the Japanese actions and inaction from the international community, Sea Shepherd set out to confront and stop the whaling activities. Perhaps you’ve seen the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars,” which since 2008 has chronicled the Sea Shepherd’s battles against the Japanese whalers.
The Sea Shepherd measures its success in whales saved: 4,500 in nine years, it says, getting that total by subtracting the Japanese institute’s actual take from its quota.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes so far as to say that “biased protection of some selected species (i.e. whales) in the marine ecosystem will cause disruption in the balance of the ecosystem and lead to a decline in the amount of marine living resources that could be used as food for the human population.”
But back to the unfolding drama. When I chat on Feb. 22 with first mate Burke, a 62-year-old Aussie, the Steve Irwin is closing in on the Nisshin Maru. In his fourth season with Sea Shepherd, he acknowledges a respect for both the hostile Southern Ocean and Japanese.
“It’s dangerous in a natural sense and dangerous in the sense of the work we’re involved in,” he says. “In 34 years (since Sea Shepherd’s founding), nobody’s been killed. We’re pretty safety conscious.”
Burke joined after he noticed the Sea Shepherd in his Melbourne-area suburb. He says he carefully investigated the group’s ethics. He noticed no racism or corruption. “If I had smelt any of that I wouldn’t have gone near them.”
Eric Burris and his wife, Sarah Musil Burris, also were wary when they traveled Down Under last August for a two-week volunteer stint on the Steve Irwin while it was in port. Sarah Burris worked in the galley, preparing vegan meals for the crew. Eric Burris used his metalworking skills – developed when he worked for Yeti Bicycles in its mid-’90s Durango heyday.
“Some people think this is a terrorist group,” says Sarah Burris, who is in Durango, trying her best to monitor Eric’s progress despite limited communication opportunities. “We got down there and fell in love with everything and everyone. They are so dedicated.”
Eric Burris said with irony that they’ve been on river trips “with 15 hand-picked people” who don’t get along nearly as well as the Steve Irwin’s 38-person crew. He envisioned hippies and radicals, but instead found crew members to be level-headed and capable.
“I had tons of reservations,” he says. “It’s exceeded my expectations in every way.”
Says Sarah Burris: “Let’s go save a whale. It comes down to that.”
During my chats with E.B. and with Burke, I’m still a little blown away that I’m talking to someone at about 60 degrees south latitude six time zones away. But the Sea Shepherd is not media shy. It goes to great lengths to publicize its causes. Eric Burris points out that about one-third of the crew have media-related tasks.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson has never operated under the radar. Watson was a Greenpeace board member until 1977, when his philosophies of direct action clashed with the board’s, and he was let go. That’s when he started the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based in Washington state.
Sea Shepherd’s tactics are “maybe less aggressive now,” Burris says, but that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t try to keep the upper hand in its war. Burris does daily boat maintenance – cleaning up the mess hall and toilets, painting and welding – but he also had a hand recently in cooking up a new scheme. When the Steve Irwin was docked in New Zealand – for 20 hours in mid-February after a 50-day stretch at sea – it picked up “a bunch of steel” among the other necessary supplies such as food and fuel, Burris says.
“The leadership cooked up some ideas for if we get jumped (by the Japanese) in the same way again.
“I don’t know if I should mention what we’re making,” he says, concluding, “It feels good to be proactive.”
The Sea Shepherd ships plan to keep thwarting the Japanese until late March, when the Southern Ocean becomes too rough for whaling. Then volunteers such as Burris will fly home and, at least temporarily, resume their normal lives. Burke, whose looks more closely fit the prototype of a Harley rider, will return to his vocation of refurbishing violins.
“Some things in life are just more important than work,” he says from the middle of a remote ocean 9,000 miles away, on a planet that technology continues to make smaller.
“We’ve got to work toward conservation, not destruction. ... If humans want a future, they’d better get smart real quick.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.