Sea Shepherd boat “Steve Irwin” heads to Somalian pirate waters

whale warsIn a not-too-surprising move last week the Sea Shepherd took its ship the “Steve Irwin” – proudly waving its skull-and-crossbones pirate flag – straight into the heart of real pirate country.

While the Shepherd’s are regarded among conservation groups as being rebels and outsiders, willing to go to nearly any lengths to protect whales, dolphins, baby seals, tuna and more, happy to obstruct and lob stink bombs onto opposing vessels … to-date they’ve not actually engaged in what we would consider today to be real piracy, i.e. boat-seizing, hostage-taking and gun-rattling.

But last week they painted the usually all-black “Steve Irwin” in green camo, with a giant “77” on its bow (“so we looked like a Navy ship,” spokeswoman Tiffany Humphrey told me, the number representing the year – 1977 – the organization was founded), crossed the northern Indian Ocean, transited the Gulf of Aden and sailed into the Red Sea, through the waters still regarded “the most dangerous” on the planet thanks to Somali pirates.

“A few (real) pirates came and looked,” said Humphrey, but apparently the “official” look of the environmentalist’s boat gave them pause. Three separate skiffs with a half-dozen men in each approached the ship, tailed for a few miles, but kept their distance. As well as the new paint job, the ship was ringed with barbed wire, 4-foot-long steel spikes and the on-watch crew manned water cannons and “imitation” weapons.

The ship’s new look apparently confused some local navies as well. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter buzzed the ship, thinking it to be a Dutch warship.
Humphrey reports that they’ll keep the camo look during the ship’s upcoming season in the Mediterranean Sea (dubbed “Operation Blue Rage II”), which starts on June 1 and will attempt to stop bluefin tuna catching off the coast of Libya. “It’s too hot in the Med for our usual black,” said Humphrey.

In related news, the Shepherd’s website suggests that Japanese whalers may not return to the Southern Ocean for their annual hunt (November-March) because they’ve lost funding from the government.
In large part due to the impacts – and ballooning costs – of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear leakage the government in Tokyo has announced massive, across the board budget cuts, including “child support, senior citizen support and pensions, and infrastructure repairs and maintenance.”

But the non-profit groups insists if the whalers do return to Antarctica next November, they’ll be there waiting.
“There have been a few critics who have been advising us to lay off Japan because of the recent disasters,” reports the Shepherd’s website. “The point is that Sea Shepherd interventions are not targeting the Japanese people. We are addressing unlawful activities – whale poachers in an area far from Japan, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where whales are supposedly protected by law.”

[Flickr image via gsz]

Southern ocean police report

As Sea Shepherd predicted, when two of its boats made port in Hobart, Tasmania, over the weekend – on the heels of a just-completed and successful campaign against Japanese whalers – Australian police greeted them.

Armed with search warrants both the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin” were scoured by the police with Sea Shepherd boss Paul Watson observing. No charges were made, nothing confiscated. Yet the search went on, spurred by complaints by the Japanese government that the Shepherd’s activities in the Southern Ocean were “obstructing commerce and industry.”

Japan Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara had asked New Zealand and the Netherlands, as well as Australia, to condemn the anti-whalers, since the Shepherd’s ships are registered in those countries. It claims the Shepherd’s put the lives of Japanese crewmen at risk.

Australia’s Green party leader, Sen. Bob Brown, was at the docks to welcome the Sea Shepherd activists and told the press: “The good police (of Australia) are doing the work of Tokyo…I have written to the Minister for Foreign Affairs this morning calling for an end to this charade.”

Watson said this was the third year in a row his ships have been searched when they’ve first made port. “All I can say to the Japanese who every year say ‘you guys are eco-terrorists, you’re criminals’ is ‘look, arrest me or shut up.’ It’s just getting really irritating constantly being called an eco-terrorist without actually being arrested.”

While the Japanese did quit the whaling season early, it’s no guarantee they are giving up, despite that the Shepherds’ formally announced that this past season’s “Operation No Compromise” is finished.They will most likely return to the Southern Ocean next year and in the meantime – since they took fewer than 100 whales this season, hardly the 900 they anticipated – it is possible they may turn to hunting whales closer to home, in the northwest of the Pacific Ocean.

For its part, Sea Shepherd says it will be back down south next season if necessary. “We will be prepared and we will be ready,” Watson said in a statement posted on his website. “Our objective is to defend the integrity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. We have done so since 2002, and we will continue to do so if there are any future threats to the sanctuary and the whales.”

In more Antarctic-related police news, Norwegian skipper Jarle Andhoy, whose ship the “Berserk” sank off the coast on February 20 with three crewmembers onboard while he and another man attempted a misguided and secretive effort to reach the South Pole by ATV, has been charged back home with negligence.

The charges, recommended by Norway’s Polar Institute, cite his lack of a proper permit and for failing to have a search and rescue plan filed in advance in case of the very kind of emergency that sank his 42-foot sailboat.

Since the seventh continent is governed by international treaty – a unique agreement, thus there are no police or military there – citizens are subject to the rule of law in their home country.

Andhoy argues that Antarctica should be “free and open” to everyone, though he realizes he faces jail time for ignoring the rules. He may also have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to compensate the rescue efforts staged by the government of New Zealand and two private ships (including the Sea Shepherd’s “Steve Irwin,” whose helicopter logged 21 hours in the air searching for signs of the sunken boat).

IAATO, the organization that oversees all visits to Antarctica by private vessels, has condemned Andhoy and his unannounced effort to “sneak” to the South Pole without proper permit, thus endangering the crew left behind on the “Berserk” and rescuers.

Apparently Andhoy contacted several IAATO member ships prior to last season asking for support of his vague plan to reach the South Pole, which they all refused due to the fact he had neither asked for nor received permission.

No one who knows Antarctica is surprised the “Berserk” got in trouble. I’ve organized private expeditions to Antarctica and gone through the permitting process, which in the U.S. meant I had to file lengthy applications with the EPA, State Department and National Science Foundation.

I’ve sailed to the continent with veteran round-the-world sailor Skip Novak aboard his “Pelagic Australis,” and will do so again next January. He knows the conditions in the Ross Sea, where the ship was last heard from on February 20, as well as anyone and says he would never take a sailboat there, no matter the condition or season.

In an interview with Explorer’s Web, Skip said he’d been contacted by Andhoy last year and asked about making landings on the continent. “I get many of these ‘dreamers,’ who are largely ill informed of the basics of the geography and climate … I never heard from the guy again.”
Caught in a vicious though typical Antarctic storm – 80-knot winds, -10 degrees Celsius air temperatures, 25-30 foot seas — while the “Berserk” did manage to send out a distress signal, in all likelihood it sank very quickly, weighted down by ice and capsized.

This is the first time in modern history a private yacht has sunk off the coast of Antarctica.
“Every ship, aircraft, expedition and in some country’s cases, even individuals must apply for permission to enter Antarctic Treaty territory, defined by any movement south of 60 degrees,” says Skip.

“For the skipper of Berserk to be unaware of this is not believable. What has proved to be a maverick’s misadventure causing loss of life is symptomatic of a few ‘adventurists’ who still consider Antarctica an unregulated ‘wilderness’ area.

“The reality is that Antarctica via the Antarctic Treaty system collaborating with IAATO is a highly regulated territory, and it is unacceptable for anyone to claim they had no prior knowledge of the requirements proving due diligence.”

[flickr image via ]

Japanese call off whale hunting season — end of Whale Wars?

whale warsDespite the seemingly good news from the Southern Ocean – that Japanese whalers have stopped hunting – activists and governments alike are waiting on formal word that they have truly stopped for the season.

There is concern the “suspension” could be some kind of stalling tactic or publicity stunt.

From Australia, Environment Minister Tony Burke, admits to hearing conflicting reports. “At this point, we do not have any statement from the Japanese government to us confirming that this season of whaling is at an end.”

The Japanese Fisheries Agency is only saying that whaling operations have been “suspended” since February 10 “to ensure the safety of the crew.”

For the moment the Sea Shepherd‘s “Bob Barker” is still trailing the Japanese processing ship, the “Nisshin Maru,” on a meandering route that has led both ships away from whaling grounds.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this season the Japanese have taken very few whales, thanks largely to the constant harassment of the Shepherd’s. Traditionally the Fisheries Agency holds off until season’s end to announce exactly how many whales were taken in the name of science; this year’s goal was between 800 and 900. The best guess right now is that they’ve taken fewer than 100.Sea Shepherd spokesman Peter Hammarstedt, aboard the “Bob Barker,” explained the success the group has had this season: “Every day we prevent them from whaling we’re costing them millions of dollars in lost profit. And we speak the only language that these poachers understand, the language of profit and loss.”

Hammarstedt also reported that the Japanese ship had made a U-turn just before entering the Drake Passage, slowed and headed back to the west.

“The turnabout could mean one of two things,” said Hammarstedt. “First, they may be on a great circle route back to Japan, or second, they may be returning to the whaling grounds in the Ross Sea where the three Japanese harpoon vessels may be waiting to continue their illegal slaughter.”

From the Shepherd’s mother ship, the “Steve Irwin,” Captain Paul Watson was his typical bold self in reaction to the suspension of hunting: “The Japanese Fisheries Agency had no choice but to suspend whaling operations. Sea Shepherd had already enforced a suspension of operations by blocking all whaling operations since February 9th and blocking 75% of all whaling operations for the month of January. We will not allow the Japanese whalers to kill another whale down here in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.”

To celebrate its successes this season, Sea Shepherd’s website today announced a “10 percent off” sale on all its merchandise (beanies, hoodies, baby bibs, tank tops, tote bags and more) – a so-called “No Compromise Sale” – in gratitude to its loyal and growing list of supporters around the world.

[Flickr image via gsz]

A mid-season whale wars update from the Sea Shepherd

whale warsThe Sea Shepherd’s Southern Ocean season – dubbed “Operation No Compromise” — is more than half over and reports so far it may be having its best season of protest ever.

How to measure? Very few whales taken by the Japanese whaling fleet and no ships sunk on either side. Yet.

Of course there’s been plenty of verbal slugging since the season began in December, as well as the tossing of some literal bamboo spears, by the Japanese!

Lead-Shepherd Captain Paul Watson accused the Japanese of making a false “Mayday” distress call from the Southern Ocean last Friday, claiming it was “under attack” by the anti-whalers.

Watson admits he and his gang had deployed its typical weaponry: prop foulers (wire ropes intended to damage engines), and a fair number of stink and paint bombs – resulting in the return fire of those bamboo spears — but that they were hardly close to ramming the Japanese whaling ship.

“They said they were in distress and we were standing by,” Watson told the AP. “The ‘Gojira’ [the Shepherd’s new attack ship, named after Godzilla] is right beside them and they refuse to answer our calls.”
Truth is, according to Watson, it was the Japanese ship “Yushin Maru No. 3” which nearly cut the “Gojira” in half, coming just 10 feet from its hull.

Given the remoteness of the battleground, for now all we have is the he-said/she-said issuances of the two fighters. But all will be made clear later in the year, since for the fourth consecutive season a film crew from Animal Planet is on board documenting the campaign for “Whale Wars.”

It would appear that this year’s campaign strategy has paid off. Utilizing thee ships, a helicopter and 88 crewmembers the Shepherd’s have successfully chased the Japanese whaling fleet over 5,000 miles. Early in the season they isolated and cut off its refueling vessel – the “Sun Laurel” – even while being harassed by two of the Japanese’ three harpoon boats – which have focused on trailing the Shepherd’s rather than hunting whales.

Watson checked in from port in New Zealand, where he’d taken the Shepherd’s lead ship, the “Steve Irwin,” for fuel and supplies. He is optimistic about the season, suggesting it may be “our most successful yet.”

“They have taken very close to zero (whales),” he says, hoping this may be the last season the Shepherd’s presence will be required off Antarctica, hoping its non-stop harassment will finally encourage the Japanese to give up its “scientific” hunt.

Where whaling commission edicts and international protest have failed, a combination of the seaborne fights, new Japanese tax laws, falling meat sales and having been caught running a whale-meat black market, may succeed in stopping whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Success has apparently been felt on the fundraising front as well, since the Shepherd’s have recently raised a giant electronic billboard in Times Square depicting a breaching whale about to be harpooned. It is the media savvy non-profit’s first stab at outdoor advertising.

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[Flickr image via gsz]

Whale Wars continue — despite Wikileaks

whale warsThat the Sea Shepherd’s and Japanese whalers are skirmishing again — a recent tête-à-tête included the sling shotting of stink bombs (by the Shepherds) and false attempts to ram (by the Japanese) — the bigger news was the Wikileaks release of conversations between representatives of the U.S. government and their Japanese counterparts about how to shutdown the increasingly popular conservation group.

On the eve of a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in November 2009, a U.S. representative, Monica Medina, apparently broached the idea with senior officials from Japan’s Fisheries Agency of the possibility of revoking Sea Shepherd’s tax-exempt status.

On what basis? According to the leaked cable, first published on Wikileaks website and then in the Spanish daily El Pais, it was because the group “does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

In the past the Japanese have suggested if the Shepherd’s would stop chasing them, they might actually slow down their annual whale hunts. The group’s charismatic leader Paul Watson, for one, doesn’t trust them. “This is not about politics, it’s about economics,” he has said. “They will stop until they realize it is bad business, not because some government tells them to.”

In the cables both governments labeled the conservation group’s annual anti-whaling campaign an “irritant” in international relations.

Contacted by the AP aboard his ship Steve Irwin in the Southern Ocean, you could almost hear the glee in Watson’s reaction to the leaked cables, saying the secret talks proved Sea Shepherd was having an effect.

“We have had our tax status since 1981, and we have done nothing different since then to cause the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to change that,” he said by telephone.

Meanwhile the daily cold war continues off the coast of Antarctica. For the past week the Sea Shepherd ships have been pursuing the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru ever since finding the whaling fleet on December 31st. The pursuit has now covered a thousand miles.

If things continue like this – lots of harassment and engagement, few whales taken, no loss of life or ships and lots of media coverage — the Shepherd’s and Watson will be satisfied. As will the “Whale Wars” camera crews onboard documenting a fourth season.

This season’s campaign motto? “Operation No Compromise.” Watson’s goal is to cause enough distractions to force the whalers to give up and go home. For good.

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[Flickr image via gsz]