O vegan attack vessel

Traci J. Macnamara is a freelance writer and book reviewer currently living in Boulder, Colo.

The Farley Mowat, the flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, flies a Jolly Roger and is painted a stealthy black. It’s equipped with water cannons and a “can opener”—a homemade ramming device that can cut into the hull of any ship that gets too close. There are guns on board. The Farley’s crew spends its time making prop foulers designed to incapacitate Japanese whaling vessels. The goal? To shut down hunting of endangered species in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

The mission sounds scary, if not suspect, but is the Farley Mowat a pirate ship, and is Sea Shepherd an ecoterrorist organization? These are the questions that award-winning writer Peter Heller sets out to answer when he boards the ship for a 51-day anti-whaling campaign in 2005. Heller prefers to call the Farley Mowat a “vegan attack vessel,” and he muses that “Sea Shepherd made Greenpeace look like Sunday school.” By the end of his journey, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence has placed the Farley Mowat on its piracy watch, but Heller finds that his questions aren’t so easy to answer.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission endorsed a moratorium on open-sea commercial whaling, responding to the rapid diminishment of our planet’s largest mammals. The Japanese, however, have been exploiting a loophole in the legislation and continue to kill a certain number of whales each year “for scientific research.” In 2005, the Japanese research kills amounted to 935 minke whales and 10 endangered fin whales. Critics claim that the meat resulting from this research shows up in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, where one fin whale can rake in $1 million before being served up on shiny plates at fine-dining establishments across the globe.

Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd and the captain of the Farley Mowat, cites the U.N. World Charter for Nature, article 21, as justification for his actions. He has sunk eight whaling ships to the bottom of the ocean and isn’t bothered by the fact that the ships he pursues could T-bone the Farley in seconds. Watson claims that according to the Charter’s enforcement section, “‘Any non-government organization, individual, or nation-state is empowered to uphold international law, specifically and especially in international waters.’” Whether or not Watson is an ecoterrorist, one thing is certain: He means business. “We are not a protest organization,” he says of Sea Shepherd. “We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don’t wave banners. We intervene.”

Heller finds his niche among the ship’s 44-person crew, a hodgepodge group of volunteer activists holding passports from several different nations. There’s Geert, the Dutch “Buddhist-biker-vegan-black-belt-children’s illustrator eco-pirate,” and then there’s the young American who spent his 21st birthday in lockdown for destroying a fur coat. While a woman was wearing it.

The adventure and the all-star cast of characters aside, the heart of this book is Heller’s gripping account of the world’s oceans. Aboard the Farley Mowat, Heller gains insight into the claim that if current fishing practices and pollution trends continue, “every fishery in the world’s oceans will collapse by 2048.” Gone. Just like that. He delivers the news, such as that grim tidbit from the November 2006 issue of Science, while the Farley Mowat narrows in on its target.

The Whale Warriors portrays Sea Shepherd and its radical leader as players in some kind of a complex game where real lives are at stake. Juxtaposed within Heller’s narrative are gruesome scenes of whale harpooning and stories of the people who go to the ends of the Earth to save them—even if they should die in the process.