The crew carrying out Sea Shepherd’s 11th Antarctic whale defence campaign, Operation Nemesis, returned safely to Fremantle last month after a largely successful three month outing in the Southern Ocean.
The M/Y Steve Irwin was joined by M/Y Ocean Warrior, the first custom-built ship in the Sea Shepherd Global fleet on its debut mission, to confront and stop the Japanese from illegally slaughtering whales under the dubious guise of scientific research in an internationally-recognized sanctuary.
Despite a global moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, the Japanese fleet has continued to hunt and kill whales since 1987, ignoring the International Whaling Commission’s establishment of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, encompassing 50 million square kilometres around Antarctica.
M/Y Ocean Warrior, icebergs at sunset
The mission left Hobart on December 4th carrying 51 crew members from eight countries and OnboardOnline secured exclusive interviews with returning captains Adam Meyerson on M/Y OCEAN WARRIOR and Wyanda Lublink on M/Y STEVE IRWIN.
Adam, whose team spent 95 days at sea, fills in the history leading up to recent changes in legislation governing whaling.
‘The Japanese had been whale hunting for years down there on a research plan called JARPA II but they were sued and taken to the International Court of Justice by Australia and New Zealand,’ explains Adam.
‘The court decided that it wasn’t research so after a one-year absence in the waters, Japan’s response was to rewrite the plan and come out with a new ‘scientific programme’ which changed the number and types of whales they could hunt and the area they could hunt in. They also withdrew from the ICJ so they couldn’t be challenged again.’
Delivering food supplies
The 12-month moratorium had led to a premature celebration that the end was nigh, according to Adam. ‘When they didn’t go whaling in 2014/15, we actually thought man, this is over so we went and did the Icefish campaign in the Antarctic on the Bob Barker, which was hugely successful.
‘We caught guys who had been illegally fishing and on the wanted list for 12 years. We chased them for 110 days and they finally sank their boat to get away from us. We got rid of them and five other ships that had also been wanted for a long time.
‘Unfortunately, the following year, the Japanese fleet started whaling again and we didn’t have time to prepare a proper campaign to go down after them so we missed that year. This year we went back again to find that a lot of the rules had been rewritten to make it more difficult for us to interfere.
‘They doubled the area they hunt in, reduced their quota from 1035 whales down to 333 because on average, they would get about 300 whales so even if we were down there opposing them, they could still get that quota. They also made that quota roll over to the next year, meaning that if they only get 100 whales, the following year they can catch 500. It is pretty disappointing.’
From left: Chief Engineer, Captain Adam Meyerson and Crew - M/Y Ocean Warrior
In addition, the Japanese fleet made a vow to no longer engage with Sea Shepherd vessels, stopping their hunt as soon as the defenders show up and moving to another area.
‘It’s like cat and mouse,’ adds Adam. ‘They used to go home and rant and rave about how we had ruined their hunt, which was playing into our hands, but this year, although they played down our role we are still having an effect.
‘Last year they got their quota and were gone after 65 days at sea, while this year they were at sea for 100 days so it was more difficult for them. We had two other ships engaged for days on end so they weren’t hunting but just babysitting us. We definitely made a difference, it’s just not as dramatic as the conflicts we have had with them in the past.
‘Of 333 slaughtered, 230 were pregnant females which is pretty typical. Somebody who is used to harpooning whales can tell the difference between males and pregnant females so it makes me think they target the pregnant females on purpose.’
Adam admits he has nothing but admiration for the young team of mainly volunteer sailors who join the mission determined to make a difference. ‘It is hideous but it’s also amazing to me how many young people remain sensitive and keep a soft heart and yet still do this work. That is the ultimate sign of strength.’
M/Y Steve Irwin and Crew
His colleague on M/Y Steve Irwin, Wyanda Lublink, recalls how she and her crew were tailed by two different harpoon ships for 36 days out of a total of 83 days at sea.
‘They followed us all the way until we crossed territorial waters at Macquarie Island as they weren’t allowed into that territory,’ Wyanda reveals.
‘My view is if they were following us, they weren’t harpooning whales so it was a success in that regard as we cost them a lot of money. Their crews all have a salary so their ships are much more expensive to run than ours.’
Her biggest regret about Operation Nemesis is that the Steve Irwin did not get close to the Japanese fleet this year. ‘They have been pretty violent towards us in the past, but we are always ready for it,’ she says wryly.
‘This time, I got within 26 nautical miles of the Nisshin Maru (the Japanese slaughter ship) but with the harpoon ships following us, unfortunately we couldn’t get close enough to even get a picture of them.’
With Antarctica classed as possibly the most dangerous part of the world to sail in, Wyanda says her primary concern aside from protecting marine wildlife is ‘keeping the crew safe and the ship in one piece.’
M/Y Steve Irwin
‘The weather can change so quickly, we’re talking about going from no wind at all to 50 – 60 knots and a sea that easily reaches 10 metres,’ she adds. ‘I wasn’t sure how the ship would handle it so going through that first storm with six metre high waves was terrifying.’
‘People might think we failed our mission but the quota was lowered thanks to Sea Shepherd,’ she asserts. ‘A lower quota is better but even one whale killed is one too many.
‘In the past, whenever we were there to defend the whales, they would have killed between 150 and 350 so if you compare that to the old quota of 1035, we were always able to save 700 – 800 whales. But lowering that figure to 333 means they will get them regardless of the effort we put in.
Captain Wyanda Lublink and M/Y Steve Irwin's helicopter
‘Looking at numbers was always a key way to measure our success but now we have to look at how much we cost them to stay at sea for longer. They took about a month longer so economically we are hitting them where it hurts.’
Wyanda is cautiously optimistic that things will change eventually. ‘I don’t think they will stop straight away because Japan is a very proud country and they won’t let us tell them what to do. I believe they will give up at some point, just not yet.’
Let’s hope she is right, but meanwhile Sea Shepherd will continue their Herculean task.
*All images courtesy of Sea Shepherd