Hunting the hunters

The prop fouler is launched by bosun Daniel. Photo: © Adam Lau.
The prop fouler is launched by bosun Daniel. Photo: © Adam Lau.
In his new book 'Hunting the Hunters - at war with the whalers', Laurens de Groot recounts his adventures with Sea Shepherd in the Southern Ocean, saving whales from Japan's 'scientific research'.
The crew are a motley bunch, but they're an incredibly passionate motley bunch. This is the life. There's nowhere I'd rather be.

All of a sudden a voice comes on over the loudspeakers on deck. "Whales on starboard side."

We all stop what we're doing and look to the bridge. Four guys rush outside and point to the water. "Whales. Whales!" the quartermasters yell excitedly.

Everybody on deck hurries over to the bow to catch a glimpse of the animals. I've never seen a whale and work my way to the front. Two finbacks.

A gorgeous rainbow

Their elongated backs are visible as they glide through the water. As soon as the whales exhale, a blowhole expels a big cloud of water drops.

Sunlight transforms the spray into a gorgeous rainbow hovering for several seconds above the giant mammals. This is the first time I've seen these enormous creatures in the flesh. They're more impressive than I ever imagined.

Japan has fifty of these finbacks on its hit list. In addition, they're planning to harpoon 935 minke whales. They're also keen to capture fifty humpbacks, but may be willing to forgo this after diplomatic pressure from Australia.

And all this under the guise of "science". Not all that long ago, the oceans were full of whales. The wonderful spectacle of whales frolicking off the coast was just as common as screeching gulls in the skies above the beach.

Industrial whaling

In open seas the gigantic mammals swam together in huge numbers, fulfilling their role in the fragile ecosystem of the oceans. That was until countries such as Japan, and many western European countries, discovered industrial whaling.

They piled onto steamships and hunted the giant mammals in their droves. Everything was used: meat for consumption, oil for fuel, fat and liver oil for food supplements. Even the bones were used for things like cutlery, corsets and picture frames.

But there was worse to come after World War II. Years of conflict had led to a shortage of fat and protein. Offering plenty of both, the gigantic whales were caught in huge numbers to provide hungry people with food.

Finally, the moratorium

Worldwide, the whale population declined at an extraordinary rate because stocks were not being replenished. In 1986, when it was almost too late, the international community introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling.

While no species had become extinct yet, the huge mammals had all but disappeared off the coasts. Whereas most countries observed the fishing ban, Japan tried to find new hunting grounds.

The country saw opportunities in the seas around Antarctica. More than two million whales had been slaughtered there over the past century, but Japan couldn't care less.

After the blue whale had disappeared, the harpoons began targeting sperm whales. And when they'd all been killed, the finbacks faced a similar fate.

'Scientific' whaling

No species was safe from the predatory whalers. One after the other, the whale species around Antarctica were brought to the brink of extinction. And still Japan didn't care.

The crew are a motley bunch, but they're an incredibly passionate motley bunch. This is the life. There's nowhere I'd rather be.

In the Japanese hierarchy animals don't count. With the major whale species breathing their last, the Japanese government began to shift its focus to the minke whale.

But because of the moratorium issued by the International Whaling Commission it had to come up with a loophole for the massacre. The answer: science.

A clause in the fishing ban states that whales may be caught for scientific purposes. There are no limits on these so-called "scientific catches"; countries are allowed to decide for themselves how many cetaceans they want to catch.

A joke - but not a funny one

Without any sanctioning powers, the commission is a bit of a joke anyway. The Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research concluded that in order to carry out serious research it had to catch more than a thousand whales in the Antarctic.

To lend the whole story some credibility, the spin doctors had to modify the terminology. Commercial whaling was scrapped from the dictionaries and replaced with scientific-sounding terminology; words aimed at misleading the public.

The spin doctors had clearly heeded Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister who once said that it's not the truth that matters, but what the people believe to be the truth. And so it happened.

The 8,000 tonne factory ship Nisshin Maru, onto which the whales are loaded before being hacked to pieces, became the mother ship for cetacean research.

Whale meat - a research by-product

The harpoon vessels, which, when the opportunity arises, shoot an explosive device into the whales and rip the animals apart from the inside, became sampletaking ships.

The rare harpoons that missed their targets were dubbed failed samples by Japan. A cut-up and frozen minke whale wasn't whale meat, but a by-product of research. And those by-products could be sold on the market after the research was completed.

Japan had found a solution. The world turns a blind eye to what's going on. And because the Whaling Commission doesn't have the power to impose penalties, nobody is taking any action against this Japanese pseudo-research.

Nobody, except the 31 volunteers who are now on the bow of the Steve Irwin, cheering the colossal finbacks like little children. That evening we celebrate seeing our first whales. In a day or two we'll reach the Antarctic, so we know that this may be one of our last chances to relax.

Scientific drinking?

A small group of us have gathered in a cabin. The room is no bigger than two by three metres, but to my surprise it actually holds more than ten people. Everybody is squashed together, sitting on each other's laps or leaning against something or other.

We're listening to the veterans' hair-raising stories, with Bob Dylan singing The Times They are a-Changin' in the background. One of the deckhands pulls a pack of beers from under the bed.

The ban on alcohol is still in place, but there's an unwritten rule among the crew that everybody smuggles some booze on board. A rule that the new recruits were unaware of. Now we have no option but to take advantage of the veterans' generosity.

Well, drinking on your own is no fun, so in no time at all the young buccaneers are swigging from a can of lager, and a hipflask filled with whisky is passed round as a nightcap. With a little booze inside the jolly green pirates, the volume inside the cabin increases exponentially.

Bob Dylan has been replaced by Irish folk musicians and now Whiskey in the Jar is blasting from the small stereo. We're all singing along at the top of our voices when the door of the cabin swings open, banging hard against the bunk bed.

Just chilling ...

"What the hell is going on here?" Peter yells furiously. Normally officers don't venture below decks, but the second mate was looking for his girlfriend Amber when he heard the laughter and noise. The beers are stashed away under cushions and mattresses.

"Just chilling", we say in unison. Peter is about to launch into a sermon, but before he has a chance to open his mouth he spots Amber among us. He goes red in the face and stammers that any minute now we could run into the whaling fleet. We must be ready for action at all times.

Every crew member in the room knows that the moment is at least two more days away, but we all think it's best to keep our mouths shut. The officer marches off in a huff. Amber leaps to her feet and, clearly embarrassed, runs after her boyfriend.

Does life get better than this?

We slowly shuffle out of the cabin. Now that our clandestine gathering has been detected nobody wants to carry on boozing. With a big grin on my face, I stagger back to my berth.

Tiresome chores, insufficient equipment (and what we do have urgently needs replacing), volunteers who can't tell their arse from their elbow, superiors who are greener than grass, and yet the Steve Irwin is sailing 24 hours a day, heading steadily towards the whaling fleet.

The crew are a motley bunch, but they're an incredibly passionate motley bunch. This is the life. There's nowhere I'd rather be.



Laurens de Groot worked for Sea Shepherd for several years, travelling the world raising funds and spreading the word on global media. He is currently fighting rhino poachers in South Africa, using his law enforcement experience to help improve anti-poaching efforts.

Twitter: @Laurens_deGroot

Youtube interview.

This article is an extract from Hunting the Hunters - at war with the whalers, by Laurens de Groot. Just published by Bloomsbury, it is available for purchase on their website. RRP £12.99 (paperback, currently on special offer) or £10.99 as EPUB ebook.