On February 15, under the cover of night, Peter James Bethune boarded a jet ski in the southern Arctic and rode the frigid waters in pursuit of his whale hunting nemesis, Hiroyuki Komiya, the captain of the Shonan Maru 2. A month prior the Shonan Maru 2 had collided with Bethune’s anti-whaling ship, the Ady Gil, injuring a member of its crew and causing it to sink. Now, Bethune was out for revenge.
Peter Bethune Court. of Disc.
This saga plays out in Animal Planet’s docu-drama, “Whale Wars,” a reality show that follows an arsenal of ships comprised of members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as they attempt to prevent Japanese ships from whaling off of Anartica's coast. As they patrol Arctic waters, the vigilante activists ambush whaling vessels by hurling butyric acid onto the decks and debris at the engines. Contrary to most reality TV shows, “Whale Wars’” dramatic material isn’t preconceived or scripted—it’s been stirring for decades.
The Japanese have been hunting whales for as long as a millennium. In the last century the practice became commercialized, but only recently did people become conscious of the devastating impact that commercial whaling was having on whale populations. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on commercial whaling, but using a scientific research provision that arguably permits killing whales for research purposes as a loophole, Japan, Iceland, and Norway have all continued the practice. Together these three whaling nations kill an approximate combined total of 1,500 whales a year. Additionally some indigenous cultures in places like Greenland and Alaska are permitted to hunt whales under strict quotas.
Pro-whaling nations argue that whaling is an important part of their cultural heritage and that objections to it are based largely on anthropomorphism, while environmental groups, such as Sea Shepard, insist that whales should not be hunted because many are endangered species.
Two weeks ago, representatives of the 88 member nations of the International Whaling Commission met in Morocco in order to try and find a compromise that would halt the moratorium and regulate the industry. The meeting was largely a failure as allegations of Japan bribing members for their votes against the moratorium tainted the process, and agreements could not be reached on regulation. Until the International Whaling Commission meets again next year, the situation will remain the same: the moratorium will continue, whaling nations will keep legally hunting whales through loop holes, and activists will hunt the whalers.
Bethune caught up with the Shonan Maru 2 that same Februrary evening and, using a knife cut through the vessel’s anti-boarding net and climbed onto the ship, seeking out the captain with a vial of butyric acid in one hand and a $3 million bill for the destruction of the Ady Gil in the other. The crew detained Bethune until the end of their voyage, at which point he was placed under arrest in Tokyo and charged with assault, intruding a ship, forcibly obstructing business, violating the Firearms and Swords Control Law, and damaging property. After five months in prison awaiting trial, last week a Tokyo court found Bethune guilty on all counts and handed him a sentence of two years in prison.
A new season of “Whale Wars,” began on June 4th, but Peter Bethune is no longer on the show. Because his sentence has been suspended, he is a free man for the time being and was deported to his home in New Zealand last Friday. The July 16th episode will be dedicated to his plight, airing air footage of the collision between the Ady Gil and the Shonan Marun 2 that kicked off this drama, some of which can already be seen on You Tube.
“Captain Komura should have been the man on trial,” the whale activist organization Sea Shepherd wrote in a statement responding to the sentencing. “He was not, because in the waters of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, might--rather than the law--makes right.”