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The Whaling Season
An Inside Account of the Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling
By Kieran Mulvaney
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2003 Kieran Mulvaney
All rights reserved.
Amsterdam, September 1991
WALT SIMPSON TOOK A BITE OF HIS SANDWICH, LEANED BACK IN his chair, and looked at me, the faint hints of an incredulous smile gracing his lips as he contemplated the notion that the naive kid in front of him had actually been tapped to help lead an expedition into the coldest, stormiest, most remote waters on Earth. Walt had been a captain and mate on several Greenpeace ships and a member of a good many journeys to sea as a merchant seaman. Now, no longer interested in spending months at a time away from land, he was helping to oversee Greenpeace's maritime adventures from the relative comfort of the organization's international headquarters in Amsterdam. He put his hands behind his head and spoke slowly and quietly, with a soft Southern drawl.
"This is going to be the longest, hardest, most risky, most uncomfortable, most frustrating, most boring—basically the all-round most difficult—trip Greenpeace has ever put together."
He watched me stare nervously at the chart of the Southern Ocean he'd laid out on the table, and smiled some more.
"So," he said. "Still want to go?"
That I was in a position to even contemplate going to Antarctica was the direct result of a circuitous journey that had its origins seven years earlier when—sixteen years old, living in a beach resort town in the west of England, my childhood love of wildlife having morphed first into teenage angst over the state of the environment and then into an aspiration to pursue a career writing about and campaigning on environmental issues—I saw an advertisement for a magazine.
If I hadn't seen that ad—for a publication called BBC Wildlife, produced by the same department of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the company's famed wildlife documentaries on television—I wouldn't have picked up a copy at my local newsstand. I'd have missed its lead article, a critical analysis of zoos, by a writer named John May, and wouldn't have been prompted to consider the debate surrounding the issue of whether animals should be kept in captivity as one worthy of research and writing. I wouldn't have picked up the subsequent issue of the same magazine and seen, in the heavy mailbag of readers' letters in response to May's article, one from Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, the husband-and-wife acting team famous for their roles in the movie Born Free and now leading an anti-zoo pressure group called Zoo Check. I wouldn't have written them to ask for further information on the controversy surrounding zoos. And they, in turn, wouldn't have put me in touch with a man named Bill Jordan.
A gray-haired, soft-spoken Ulsterman, Bill Jordan was an experienced environmentalist and veterinarian. He had been a leading light in the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and personal veterinary adviser to the shah of Iran; he had coauthored a seminal critique of conditions in British zoos, The Last Great Wild Beast Show, and was now director of an organization called the People's Trust for Endangered Species. He proved remarkably responsive to my constant inquiries: so much so that, instead of merely fielding my questions about zoos, he saw some hint of promise in my persistence and interest and took me under his wing. I went with him when he gave talks and lectures to local conservation groups; I edited a newsletter about the trust's activities around the world; and I soaked up the advice he gave me on how to evolve from an aspiring writer to a successful one. It was under Bill's tutelage that I first began to write articles and see them appear in print.
Around the time that my first articles were being published, a note came in the mail. It was from another People's Trust alumnus, Sean Whyte. I had told him earlier about my zoo project, and now Sean had dropped me a line, mentioning that he had traveled frequently to the United States and had photos of several of the larger zoos and wildlife parks there. Did I want to come and take a look?
So I made the forty-minute train journey to the home that Sean shared with his wife, Margaret, and over coffee we talked about zoos, about conservation, about the People's Trust, about whales and whaling. I mentioned that as part of my research into zoos, I had begun studying dolphin shows; to understand dolphin shows, I needed to understand dolphins; and to understand dolphins I had been doing a lot of research on them and their larger cousins, the whales—research that I had found so interesting that it was pushing my putative zoo project to the sidelines.
Much of the early research on whales had been conducted by scientists wading through the entrails and carcasses of specimens on the deck of whaling ships. But in recent decades, a dedicated and growing band of researchers had been working in their subjects' natural habitat, taking photographs and lowering hydrophones from boats, and even diving into the water to watch and film whales in their element. With each passing year, it seemed, something new was being added to the whale and dolphin knowledge base, be it that several species of dolphins live in complex social groups, communicating through clicks and whistles; or that humpback whales sing long, haunting songs; or that the low moans of a blue whale are the deepest, loudest noises made by any living thing on Earth; or that the giant testicles of male right whales are the size of small cars; or that sperm whales have the largest brains on the planet, dive to depths in excess of three thousand feet, and possibly stun the giant squid with which they do battle by shouting at them very, very loudly.
I began visiting Sean and Margaret regularly, and on each occasion we sooner or later ended up talking enthusiastically about our mutual interest—not just about our enthusiasm for them, but also the numerous threats that many different species of whales and dolphins faced around the world.
Commercial whaling, long seen as the greatest threat to whale populations, was substantially reduced from its heyday and was continuing to decline. But declining did not mean deceased, and although an international moratorium on commercial whaling was scheduled to take effect in 1986, Japan, Norway, and the Soviet Union had announced their intention to carry on whaling anyway, while Iceland and South Korea looked as if they would try to continue by using a loophole that allowed countries to kill whales for "scientific research."
But in many ways, commercial whaling was now the least of the problems various whales and dolphins faced. Tens of thousands were drowning every year in the huge drift nets used by commercial fisheries, or were caught and killed in tuna nets because they swam with yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Pacific. Similar numbers were being hunted for food around the world, in such varied places as Japan, Sri Lanka, and the Faeroe Islands. Others were being put on display in shows around the world. And everywhere, it seemed, they were being contaminated by the pollutants that were being dumped and pumped into the seas.
Yet in Britain at least, relatively little was being done to help them. There was Greenpeace, of course, which for more than ten years had been confronting whaling ships at sea and which we looked up to as the preeminent defender of the world's whales. There were other, smaller groups like our own People's Trust. But there was, so far as we were aware, not a single organization in the United Kingdom devoted solely to the conservation of all the world's species of whales and dolphins.
Sean and I began to throw around the idea of doing something about that, of starting our own organization. We were two people; we had no way of putting together anything to match the feats of Greenpeace, no chance of being in a position to force changes of policy or directly bring about an end to whaling. But we were enthusiastic, and we knew the issues. I was a writer and Sean had had a successful career in business and retail; between us, we felt we would be able to attract enough funding and contacts to start an organization that could educate, inform, network, and possibly even mobilize people across Britain who were interested in cetaceans.
And so the Whale Conservation Society was born. Its origins were humble: a typewriter in my bedroom; sheets of paper spread across my parents' living room floor, on which I planned and plotted our first newsletters; and stacks of envelopes on Sean and Margaret's dining room table, into which we stuffed the flyers we had printed up, advising of our society's imminent arrival.
We picked June 5, 1987—World Environment Day—as our official launch date. A week later, one of the country's leading newspapers, The Guardian, published an article I had written exposing the sham of "scientific" whaling, which was rapidly becoming the favored way of avoiding the moratorium. The first issue of what we hoped would be a regular and authoritative publication—an eight-page broadsheet we called the International Whale Bulletin—carried a front-page article along the same lines. We sent out copies to local media, to experts we knew, and to the few people who had to that point responded to the flyers we had mailed. And we took the rest with us to Bournemouth, on the southern coast of England, where the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body that regulated whaling and had voted for the moratorium, was holding its annual meeting. Nongovernmental organizations are allowed to attend IWC meetings as observers, and so we paid our membership dues and I went to my first International Whaling Commission meeting as the observer from the Whale Conservation Society.
The evening before the meeting started, WCS held a reception, complete with a reading of a new poem by the writer and actor Heathcote Williams. Entitled Whale Nation, it had been published in the alternative British press and was winning attention as a piece of performance art. Few people came to our inaugural reception—I believe there was a conflict with some other event and we were, after all, the new kids on the block—but it didn't really matter. Sir Peter Scott, founder of the World Wildlife Fund and son of the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, had agreed to endorse us and even serve as our president, bestowing upon us an instant aura of gravitas and respectability; a couple of days later, at the end of a long day of IWC discussions, I found myself in exalted company indeed, standing alongside Sir Peter and esteemed whale scientist Roger Payne and addressing local supporters of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
From those beginnings, WCS went from strength to strength. Supporting the conservation and welfare of whales and dolphins was something of a no-brainer in England, and positioning ourselves as the only cetacean conservation organization in the country meant we soon began to attract a lot of support. I was regularly called and quoted by newspapers, radio, and television, asked to comment mostly on commercial whaling but also on captivity, the hunting of dolphins, pollution, and other related issues. Geography worked to my advantage: my hometown of Weston-super-Mare was just thirty minutes away from Bristol, site of the BBC's famed Natural History Unit. Accordingly, I was frequently asked to the studios to pontificate on some issue or contribute to some program or other. In addition, having pestered the editor since I had pulled that first copy off the shelf of a local newsstand three years earlier, I finally began seeing my articles appear in BBC Wildlife magazine.
Early in 1988, I made my first solo foreign trip, to Costa Rica, as a delegate to the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), a giant gathering of governments and nongovernmental organizations. Later that year, I was back at the IWC annual meeting, this time in Auckland, New Zealand. A few weeks after I returned to Great Britain, I was asked to take part in a nationally televised discussion on whales, whaling, and the environment—a program prompted by the publication, in coffee-table format, of Heathcote Williams's Whale Nation—where I found myself alongside some of my greatest idols, including Jim Lovelock, originator of the influential Gaia hypothesis (which essentially postulates that Earth is one giant megaorganism) and Petra Kelly, leader of the German Green Party.
The Whale Conservation Society was riding high. By late 1988, we had changed the organization's name to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), to better reflect our concern for all dolphin and whale species; we had attracted more than two thousand dues-paying members; we had hired a leading London publicity and public-relations firm; and we had begun publishing a new color magazine called Sonar.
Others had been paying attention to us and what we were doing, and when I returned from Auckland, I was approached to work for Greenpeace. Various Greenpeace campaigners I had encountered at the IWC and assorted other meetings over the past twelve months had banded together to try to persuade me to join a small unit coordinating Greenpeace's IWC work, to zassist with the European end of the organization's global dolphin campaigns, and to help write a book on dolphins—which, coincidentally, was being edited by John May, whose BBC Wildlife article on zoos had helped steer me down the path that had brought me to this point. I would be based at the organization's international headquarters, presently sited in England but soon to be moving to Amsterdam.
In response to Sean's concerns that my departure would mean the end of WDCS, I insisted (correctly, as it turned out) that he'd be able to keep it going, attract talented new people, and go from strength to strength. To be honest, though, that wasn't foremost in my mind. I was twenty years old, I had been given a dream offer, and I was really thinking only of myself. It was a chance to join a big, glamorous organization, leave Weston-super-Mare, move to Amsterdam, and write a book—just about everything I could have wanted—and I intended to take it. Early in 1989, I piled my belongings into a truck and headed off to start my new life with Greenpeace.
Long before I joined the organization, Greenpeace had become synonymous with the campaign to end commercial whaling, and images of its boat-driving activists blocking the line of harpooners' fire were icons of the movement. But the organization had been born out of a very different event: the detonation, on November 6, 1971, of a five-megaton nuclear bomb.
Code-named Cannikin, the explosion was the third in a series of underground nuclear tests, all conducted on the remote island of Amchitka in the Aleutian chain, an archipelago that curves its way like a necklace from Alaska almost to the Kamchatka Peninsula and separates the North Pacific from the Bering Sea. When the first test, Long Shot, took place on October 29, 1965, it did so to relatively little outcry; by the time the Atomic Energy Commission announced plans for a second, larger test, code-named Milrow, in 1969, opposition had begun to mount.
Ranks of anti-nuclear protesters were swelled by Vietnam dissenters and people afraid that the test's location, in the middle of a mosaic of fault lines, could prompt an earthquake as massive as the magnitude 9.2 temblor that had ripped through south-central Alaska in 1964, devastating several towns in the state and powering tsunamis that crashed along the shores of Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Japan. The day before the detonation, ten thousand protesters, most of them Canadian, massed at the Douglas Border crossing between British Columbia and Washington State to give voice to their fears. DON'T MAKE A WAVE, their placards read; IT'S YOUR FAULT IF OUR FAULT GOES.
After Milrow's detonation, three participants in the Douglas Border crossing protest—Jim Bohlen, a forty-three-year-old American who had fled to Vancouver with his family when his son became eligible for the draft; Irving Stowe, a converted Quaker who had entered self-imposed exile in the same city for the same reason; and Paul Cote, a young Canadian lawyer—sat down to try to organize opposition to Cannikin. Borrowing from the sentiments expressed on the signs at Douglas Border, they fashioned themselves the Don't Make a Wave Committee, attracted other like-minded would-be protesters and, following the Quaker tradition of "bearing witness"—a form of passive resistance that involved traveling to the scene of an objectionable activity and registering opposition simply by being there—they hit upon the idea of chartering a boat and sailing it to the test site. Shortly after the notion had been agreed upon, Irving Stowe signed off a meeting of the Don't Make a Wave Committee and its supporters by flashing the V sign and saying, "Peace." Bill Darnell, the youngest person at the table, offered that it should be something more, a union of peace and ecology: "Make it a green peace," he suggested. To Bohlen, that sounded like a good idea. If they managed to find a boat, he declared, they would call it Green Peace.
Excerpted from The Whaling Season by Kieran Mulvaney. Copyright © 2003 Kieran Mulvaney. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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