The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

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Author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Dog Stars

For the crew of the eco-pirate ship the Farley Mowat, any day saving a whale is a good day to die. In The Whale Warriors, veteran adventure writer Peter Heller takes us on a hair-raising journey with a vigilante crew on their mission to stop illegal Japanese whaling in the stormy, remote seas off the forbidding shores of Antarctica. The Farley is the flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and captained by ...

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The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

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Author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Dog Stars

For the crew of the eco-pirate ship the Farley Mowat, any day saving a whale is a good day to die. In The Whale Warriors, veteran adventure writer Peter Heller takes us on a hair-raising journey with a vigilante crew on their mission to stop illegal Japanese whaling in the stormy, remote seas off the forbidding shores of Antarctica. The Farley is the flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and captained by its founder, the radical environmental enforcer Paul Watson. The Japanese, who are hunting endangered whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, in violation of several international laws, know he means business: Watson has sunk eight whaling ships to the bottom of the sea.

For two months, Heller was aboard the vegan attack vessel as it stalked the Japanese whaling fleet through the howling gales and treacherous ice off the pristine Antarctic coast. The ship is all black, flies under a Jolly Roger, and is outfitted with a helicopter, fast assault Zodiacs, and a seven-foot blade attached to the bow, called the can opener.

As Watson and his crew see it, the plight of the whales is also about the larger crisis of the oceans and the eleventh hour of life as we know it on Earth. The exploitation of endangered whales is emblematic of a terrible overexploitation of the seas that is now entering its desperate denouement. The oceans may be easy to ignore because they are literally under the surface, but scientists believe that the world's oceans are on the verge of total ecosystem collapse. Our own survival is in the balance.

With Force 8 gales, monstrous seas, and a crew composed of professional gamblers, Earthfirst! forest activists, champion equestrians, and ex-military, the action never stops. In the ice-choked water a swimmer has minutes to live. The Japanese factory ship is ten times the tonnage of the Farley. The sailors on board both ships know that there will be no rescue in this desolate part of the ocean. Watson presses his enemy while Japan threatens to send down defense aircraft and warships, Australia appeals for calm, New Zealand dispatches military surveillance aircraft, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence issues a piracy warning, and international media begin to track the developing whale war.

For the Sea Shepherds there is no compromise. If the charismatic, intelligent Great Whales cannot be saved, there is no hope for the rest of the planet. Watson aims his ship like a slow torpedo and gives the order: "Tell the crew, collision in two minutes." In 35-foot seas, it is a deadly game of Antarctic chicken in which the stakes cannot be higher.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Some people are so highly dedicated to defending endangered species that it occasionally takes them to the point of fanaticism. Such activists include the captain and crew of the Farley Mowat, a self-proclaimed pirate ship run by the Sea Shepherd Society (which some law-enforcement organizations have identified as ecoterrorists). Adventure writer Heller tells the story of his two-month cruise with the Farley Mowatto the Antarctic in search of the Japanese whaling fleet in order to stop their illegal hunting. There is a lot of nail-biting action, plus good information, both political and direct, on the whale species and the efforts to keep commercial whaling illegal. The author's reflections on his doubts about the methods of Capt. Paul Watson and his crew are especially well expressed. Readers who enjoyed G. Bruce Knecht's Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fishshould also like this one. Recommended for college and public libraries where interest in marine policy, Antarctica, or whales and whaling is high.
—Margaret A. Rioux

Kirkus Reviews
The author's account of his December 2005 voyage with a radical captain and crew who risk their lives to halt the Japanese whale hunt off Antarctica. Greenpeace may garner most of the headlines in the battle to save the whales, but the real commandos in this ongoing war sail for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose passionate volunteers aren't content with passive resistance. In this stirring account, Heller (Hell or High Water, 2004, etc.) describes his two-month journey aboard the Sea Shepherd's 180-foot converted trawler, Farley Mowat, and its running battle against a fleet of Japanese whalers. Capt. Paul Watson and his mostly vegan 43-member crew aren't the shy retiring types. They fly the Jolly Roger from the ship's mast, brew their own moonshine to celebrate New Year's Eve in an Antarctic blizzard and exclude no strategy in their quest to save whales from slaughter by the persistent Japanese. Measures include everything from trying to entangle the whale ship's propellers with steel cables to tossing foul stink bombs onboard to sicken their crews. The Farley Mowat also comes equipped with a steel-reinforced bow, used for ramming the much larger Japanese whalers head-on. Watson, one of the founders of Greenpeace, tired of watching endangered whales die while the organization merely unfurled protest banners. Considered a "lunatic" and an "eco-terrorist" by his enemies (and possibly by some who'll read this book), placed on the "piracy watch list" by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, his full-frontal assaults against both whaling and seal hunting have made him revered by his supporters and crew. Watson justifies his radical measures by pointing out that although commercialwhaling has been officially banned by the UN Charter, the Japanese continue to ruthlessly kill hundreds of whales each year under the guise of "scientific research." In fact, Heller argues, the whales are merely slaughtered for Japan's fish markets, a crime made even more senseless by the fact that polls indicate the Japanese consumer doesn't even like whale meat. In fact, the Japanese whaling industry loses money every year. Still, the Japanese whalers persist, refusing to back down in the face of mounting international pressure. A convincing, passionate account that both educates and infuriates.
From the Publisher
"Heller's writing is energetic and bold, at times a swashbuckling adventure, at others a portrait of a determined eco-warrior, at others a heart-rending expose on the cruelty of whalers." —-Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416532484
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/14/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 332
  • Sales rank: 527,070
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Heller

Peter Heller is an award-winning adventure writer and long-time contributor to NPR. He is a contributing editor at Outside magazine and National Geographic Adventure and the author of Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado. He can be reached at

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Read an Excerpt


At three o'clock on Christmas morning the bow of the Farley Mowat plunged off a steep wave and smashed into the trough. I woke with a jolt. The hull shuddered like a living animal and when the next roller lifted the stern I could hear the prop pitching out of water, beating air with a juddering moan that shivered the ribs of the 180-foot converted North Sea trawler.

We were 200 miles off the Adélie Coast, Antarctica in a force 8 gale. The storm had been building since the morning before. I lay in the dark and breathed. Something was different. I listened to the deep throb of the diesel engine two decks below and the turbulent sloshing against my bolted porthole and felt a quickening in the ship.

Fifteen days before, we had left Melbourne, Australia, and headed due south. The Farley Mowat was the flagship of the radical environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The mission of her captain, Paul Watson, and his forty-three member all-volunteer crew was to hunt down and stop the Japanese whaling fleet, which was engaged in what he considered illegal commercial whaling. He had said before the trip, "We will nonviolently intervene," but from what I could see of the preparations being conducted over the last week, he was readying for a full-scale attack.

I dressed quickly, grabbed a dry suit and a life jacket, and ran up three lurching flights of narrow stairs to the bridge. Dawn. Or what passed for it in the Never-Night of antarctic summer: a murky gloom of wind-tortured fog and blowing snow and spray — white eruptions that tore off the tops of the waves and streamed their shoulders in long streaks of foam. When I had gone to sleep four hours earlier, the swells were twenty feet high and building. Now monsters over thirty feet rolled under the stern and pitched the bow wildly into a featureless sky. The timberwork of the bridge groaned and creaked. The wind battered the thick windows and ripped past the superstructure with a buffeted keening.

Watson, fifty-five, with thick, nearly white hair and beard, wide cheek bones, and packing extra weight under his exposure suit, sat in the high captain's chair on the starboard side of the bridge, looking alternately at a radar screen over his head and at the sea. He has a gentle, watchful demeanor. Like a polar bear. Alex Cornelissen, thirty-seven, his Dutch first officer, was in the center at the helm, steering NNW and trying to run with the waves. Cornelissen looked too thin to go anyplace cold, and his hair was buzzed to a near stubble.

"Good timing," he said to me with the tightening of his mouth that was his smile. "Two ships on the radar. The closest is under two-mile range. If they're icebergs they're doing six knots."

"Probably the Nisshin Maru and the Esperanza," Watson said. "They're riding out the storm." He was talking about the 8,000-ton Japanese factory ship that butchered and packed the whales, and Greenpeace's flagship, which had sailed with its companion vessel the Arctic Sunrise from Cape Town over a month earlier, and had been shadowing and harassing the Japanese for days. Where the five other boats of the whaling fleet had scattered in the storm no one could say.

Watson had found, in hundreds of thousands of square miles of Southern Ocean, his prey. It was against all odds. Watson turned to Cornelissen. "Wake all hands," he said. nnn

In 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group of seventy-seven nations that makes regulations and recommendations on whaling around the world, enacted a moratorium on open-sea commercial whaling in response to the fast-declining numbers of earth's largest mammals. The Japanese, who have been aggressive whalers since the food shortages following World War II, immediately exploited a loophole that allows signatories to kill a certain number of whales annually for scientific research. In 2005, Japan, the only nation other than Norway and Iceland with an active whaling fleet, decided to double its "research" kill from the previous year and allot itself a quota of 935 minke whales and ten endangered fin whales. In the 2007/2008 season it planned to kill fifty fins and fifty endangered humpbacks. Its weapon is a relatively new and superefficient fleet comprising the 427-foot factory ship Nisshin Maru; two spotter vessels; and three fast killer, or harpoon, boats, similar in size to the Farley Mowat.

Lethal research, the Japanese say, is the only way to accurately measure whale population, health, and its response to global warming and is essential for the sustainable management of the world's cetacean stocks. The director general of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), Hiroshi Hatanaka, writes, "The legal basis [for whaling] is very clear; the environmental basis is even clearer: The marine resources in the Southern Ocean must be utilized in a sustainable manner in order to protect and conserve them for future generations." Though the ICR is a registered nonprofit organization and claims no commercial benefit from its whaling, critics scoff, pointing out that the meat resulting from this heavily subsidized research ends up in Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market, and on the tables at fancy restaurants. By some estimates, one fin whale can bring in $1 million.

Each year the IWC's Scientific Committee votes on whaling proposals, and at its annual meeting in 2005 it "strongly urged" Japanese whalers to obtain their scientific data "using nonlethal means," and expressed strong concern over the taking of endangered fins, and humpbacks from vulnerable breeding stocks. The whalers' response was silence, then business as usual.

Although this resolution is not legally binding, much of the public was outraged that the whalers would openly disregard it. The World Wildlife Fund contended that all the research could be conducted more efficiently with techniques that do not kill whales. New Zealand's minister of conservation, Chris Carter, among others, described the Japanese research as blatant commercial whaling. Even dissenters within Japan protested: Mizuki Takana of Greenpeace Japan pointed to a report issued in 2002 by the influential newspaper Asahi in which only 4 percent of the Japanese surveyed said they regularly eat whale meat; 53 percent of the population had not consumed it since childhood. "It is simply not true that whaling is important to the Japanese public," Takana said. "The whaling fleet should not leave for the antarctic whale sanctuary."

To Watson there is no debate. The Japanese whalers are acting commercially under the auspices of "bogus research" and therefore are in violation of the 1986 moratorium. Even more controversially, the whaling occurs in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an internationally ordained preserve that covers the waters surrounding Antarctica as far north as 40°S and protects eleven of the planet's thirteen species of great whales. Although research is permitted in the sanctuary, commercial whaling is explicitly forbidden. The whalers are also in clear conflict with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). And although the killing area in 2006 lay almost entirely within the Australian Antarctic Territory, the Australians, while protesting, seemed to lack the political will to face down a powerful trading partner. It irks Watson that Australian frigates will eagerly pursue Patagonian toothfish poachers from South America in these same waters, but will turn a blind eye to the Japanese whalers. "It sends a message that if you're rich and powerful you can break the law. If the Australian navy were doing its job," he said, "we wouldn't be down here."

Watson has no such diplomatic compunctions. He said, "Our intention is to stop the criminal whaling. We are not a protest organization. We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don't wave banners. We intervene."

Whaling fleets around the world know he means business. Watson has sunk eight whaling ships. He has rammed numerous illegal fishing vessels on the high seas. By 1980 he had single-handedly shut down pirate whaling in the North Atlantic by sinking the notorious pirate whaler Sierra in Portugal and three of Norway's whaling fleet at dockside. He shut down the Astrid in the Canary Islands. He sank two of Iceland's whalers in Reykjavik harbor, and half the ships of the Spanish whaling fleet — the Isba I and Isba II. His operatives blew open their hulls with limpet mines. To his critics he points out that he has never hurt anyone, and that he has never been convicted of a felony in any country.

Copyright © 2007 by Peter Heller

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Table of Contents

1 Storm
2 Prelude
3 The Farley Mowat
4 The Good Captain
5 Final Preparations
6 Salt
7 Lifeboat Drill
8 Hobart
9 Southern Ocean
10 Ghost
11 Ice
12 The Whale Spoke to Justin
13 Uninvited Guest
14 Force 7
15 Force 8
16 The Law of the Sea
17 Flight
18 The Definition of a Pirate
19 Among the Penguins
20 A Good Day to Die

Epilogue Afterword Acknowledgments Index

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Customer Reviews

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    Not cohesive, but very vivid

    I got to about page 230 and realized that this book -- as vivid as the writing is -- wasn't cohesive and I didn't know why I was still reading it. Each chapter is a snapshot, but I couldn't see a central theme.

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    Posted October 8, 2013

    Good book

    Love it

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    The book was ok but not cohesive

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