As the Southern Ocean’s insurgency nears the end of its eighth season, both sides should return to their respective ports without any loss of life to their crews. The certainty of this outcome wasn’t taken for granted; Japan’s state-funding whaling fleet and Sea Shepherd ventured into Antarctic waters after extensive safety precautions. The two sides also monitor each other’s new tactics and equipment during seasons, resulting in an technologically-infused arms race. Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) acquired the protection of arms guards after a confrontational 2011, while Sea Shepherd is expanding its arsenal of non-lethal tactics to counter numerical, mechanical and financial disadvantages.
“They have ten million dollars for every one million dollars we have to finance our three ships,” explained Captain Alex Cornelissen of the Bob Barker. “They have the full support of their government and literally have a license to kill because if any of us are injured or killed, their government will back them and justify their actions. Our governments condemn us just for tossing rotten butter on their decks.”
Both sides recently put their tools on their display after Sea Shepherd’s flagship, the Steve Irwin, finally located the ICR’s factory vessel, the massive Nisshin Maru. Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s veteran captain, claims to have executed a deceptive maneuver prior to discovering the Nisshin, in turn highlighting the Southern Ocean’s netwar. To negate Japan’s political influence in Australia and vote-buying within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Sea Shepherd shields its movements within territorial waters and relies on sympathetic governments to block Japanese entry. More specifically, Watson maintains a tenuous relationship with foreign governments and relies on individual supporters to complete his political objectives. The captain shifted his evasive maneuvers from Australia’s Macquarie Island to New Zealand in order to shake the ICR’s harpoon ships, citing inaction from the Australian government.
"Whaling vessels are not welcome in New Zealand territorial waters," a spokeswoman for Murray McCully, New Zealand Foreign Minister, informed the ICR soon afterwards. "We have conveyed this message to the government of Japan. The government of Japan has assured us that the whaling fleet will not enter the New Zealand territorial sea."
Tony Burke, Australia’s Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, subsequently came under attack from Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens Party and a vocal supporter of Sea Shepherd: "The New Zealand government is highlighting what a spineless approach Canberra has taken to the aggressive Japanese whalers. Mr Burke is missing in action, while hundreds of whales are being slaughtered.”
Senator Brown was instrumental in reversing a visa denial for Sea Shepherd’s helicopter pilot, Chris Aultman. Australia’s government did approve the use of reconnaissance drones supplied by private supporters.
Sea Shepherd’s fleet of two wasted none of the time gained through its political and nautical tactics. Days after leaving New Zealand waters, the Steve Irwin located the Nisshin Maru inside Australia's Economic Exclusion Zone, “where they have been prohibited by order of the Australian Federal Court and the Government of Australia.” A variety of situations put the Sea Shepherd and its inflatable boats into direct or near-direct contact with the ICR’s fleet of harpoon and security vessels, and both sides are now attempting to back the other down through shows of force.
Normal confrontations go something like this: Sea Shepherd attempts to deploy its prop foulers in front of ICR vessels, or the ICR converges on Sea Shepherd in numbers to free the Nisshin Maru. To slow down the ICR’s search vessels, Sea Shepherd’s crew launches low-intensity “incendiary devices” (or flares), smoke bombs, glass bottles containing paint or butyric acid, and paintball-loaded air guns. At one point a Japanese crew member was reportedly struck by butyric acid but treated before any wounds developed. In a separate incident, three activists were injured after Japanese crew members counterattacked Sea Shepherd’s inflatable boats with bamboo poles and iron hooks.
The latest night-battle mixed technology and propaganda to create an accessible example of asymmetric warfare, including the potential fifth-generation evolution to civilian-on-civilian warfare. Once discovered, the Nisshin Maru fled as two harpoon vessels employed Sea Shepherd’s own tactic, dragging “300 meter long, thick cables” across the Bob Barker’s bow. The vessels then cut their running lights and pointed their spotlights on the Bob Barker’s deck, leading the ship to fire what the ICR termed a “high-power laser beam” for 50 minutes. More than 40 flares were also fired at the harpoon vessels to deter their course, while the ICR deployed its own small boats against the Bob Barker.
“Yushin Maru No. 2 and the Yushin Maru No. 3 repeatedly broadcasted a warning message and towed from their stern a rope with keep-your-distance-warning buoys as a containment measure,” the ICR said in its press release.
The media-savvy Watson has already claimed victory: “This has been a long and tough campaign, with the worst weather and ice conditions that we have experienced in the entire eight seasons we have ventured into the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. But despite the temporary loss of our scout ship, the Brigitte Bardot, and our constant dogged pursuit of the Nisshin Maru, we have kept them on the run, taken two of their three harpoon vessels off the hunt for two months, severely crippled their killing capabilities and now once again we have shut them down 100%. Operation Divine Wind has been enormously successful.”
The success of Sea Shepherd’s latest campaign remains to be tallied at the season’s end. Watson predicts, "They won't get more than 30 per cent of their quota," a catch rate that hinges on government subsidies, but his group also pursues a zero-tolerance policy towards whaling. Sea Shepherd must concede the ICR’s financial advantage, forcing the group to wage a war of attrition that could extend throughout the decade. Sea Shepherd will never be able to compete with the ICR’s faster (and larger) ships, but its technological prowess continues to obstruct the ICR’s superior fleet and reduce its quota to minimal levels.
Although constantly on the offensive, Sea Shepherd’s actions can be defended on the belief that whaling in general is immoral. This ideology alone is sufficient to fuel a transnational network like Sea Shepherd. The group can also make a valid political case - more valid than Japan’s “research” argument - that the Earth’s oceans must be policed by citizens when governments fail to enforce international law. Tokyo and the ICR remain inherently powerful, but they’re positioned on the unsustainable end of a long-term insurgency in the Southern Ocean. Each year Sea Shepherd will return more determined and advanced than the last.