Whaling wars: Fishing for the truth

The Farley Mowat, one of two Sea Shepherd vessels.

The Farley Mowat, one of two Sea Shepherd vessels.

At the climax of the slanted 2009 documentary, “At The Edge of The World,” a modern-day pirate ship confronts a Japanese “research” vessel in the open sea around Antarctica.

It smacks of Stevenson’s classic, “Treasure Island.”  Only the treasure here is the whale and the pirates are portrayed as the good guys.

The pirate ship, aka the Robert Hunter or The Bob, is operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the group’s founder, Paul Watson.   Its stated goal is to win, as Watson says, “the never-ending war to save the whales.”

The ship has just lost its registry with Belize and now has no home country. Thus it is officially recognized as a “pirate ship.”

Paull Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd.

Paull Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd.

Watson is unwelcome at any port of call and, according to a radio interview heard recently on the Thom Hartmann show, is doomed to a life at sea.

The Japanese ship, Kaiku Maru, bears huge signs at its beams announcing “RESEARCH,” but Sea Shepherd sees that as a veil obscuring the vessel’s real purpose.  That purpose is the illegal and commercial harvest of whales that end up not in a lab in Osaka but in butcher shops and restaurants all over Japan.

The problem is that the Japanese are killing whales, an endangered species, from the clearly demarked Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary established by 23 nations in 1994 with only Japan opposing.

This is one of only a handful of whale sanctuaries in the world and not the first.  The Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary (IWC) came to life in 1979 and is the governing body of all sanctuaries.  The other, established in 1999, was framed by Australia.   These sanctuaries are areas, in name only, where whales exist “free from commercial whaling pressures.”

The larger problem is that no country enforces this international law.  So Sea Shepherd, with its two ships including the Farley Mowat, a helicopter “Kookaburra,” and some small tactical craft, have taken on the responsibility.

And of course when you mess with Big Business anywhere on this planet, you’re in for a heap of trouble.  That is basically why no country is willing to go up against Japan and allow registry of the Sea Shepherd ships.  Economic forces intimidate them.

Most of the film is shot aboard the two Sea Shepherd ships with its group of idealistic volunteers, most of whom are young and fit and fun-loving.   They dive off icebergs into a freezing Ross Sea and get into snowball fights.  But mostly they eat, sleep, pull maintenance duty — and on occasion get seasick — while the commanders track down the Japanese ships.  I counted in the credits 22 crew members aboard the Farley Mowat and 26 on the Robert Hunter.

We hear next to nothing from the Japanese.  A brief snippet of radio communication is about it.  And we see outlined on an upper deck of the Kaiku Maru a few stationary crew members.

As confrontation looms, the Sea Shepherd flag is raised.

As confrontation looms, the Sea Shepherd flag is raised.

This pirate ship fights not with canons and muskets but with “prop foulers,” stink bombs and “can openers.”

When The Bob finally confronts the Kaiku Maru, one of six ships in the Japanese whaling fleet, the crew in a small but fast boat throws a hand-woven chain of fabric in the water around the “enemy.”  This fabric gets entangled with the propellers and brings the ship to a standstill.

The stink bombs are hurled by hand from The Bob and land on the enemy’s deck as a red smoke.

The “can opener” is nothing more than a ram that punches a hole in the side of an enemy ship above the water line and fuel containers.  Ultimately the ship must return to port for repairs.   And the lives of whales are presumed saved.

After each maneuver, the crew of The Bob rejoices, smirks, smiles and cheers, just as little children might after being naughty.  One has to wonder how long the smugness would last should the Japanese retaliate.   But they don’t, at least in this film.

Surprising is the cordiality that exists between these opposing sailors of the cold blue sea.  When two members of The Bob in  boats become lost for more than three hours, the attacked Japanese ship offers to help.  And when the Japanese ship reports trouble with its mangled propellers, The Bob, in turn offers to send divers.

Though beautifully shot in color cinematography, “At The End” is not without a giant fault.

Because it can not or is unwilling to show the killing of a whale in the sanctuary, and because we are not shown proof that the Japanese are killing for profit not science, there is a fog of doubt that hangs on to the otherwise vivid scenes.

So, while interesting and informative,  the film can come off as propaganda for its own “righteous” cause and financial donors.  This, no matter how much we want to believe or sense the Japanese are heinous enviornmental criminals.

Strangely, in the end, I felt more kinship, even admiration, for the Japanese than with the 23 weak-kneed countries, including the U.S. and Watson’s native Canada, that turned collective backs on enforcing international law.