The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

by Peter Heller


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Now with a new afterword by the author, the tenth-anniversary edition of Peter Heller’s “swashbuckling adventure” (Publishers Weekly) takes us on a hair-raising journey aboard a whale saving pirate ship with a vigilante crew whose mission is to stop illegal Japanese whaling in the stormy seas of Antarctica.

The Whale Warriors is an adventure story set in the far reaches of the globe. For two months in 2005, journalist Peter Heller was aboard the Farley Mowat as it stalked its prey—a Japanese whaling fleet—through the storms and ice of Antarctica. The little ship is black, flies under a jolly roger, and carries members of the Sea Shepherd Society, a radical environmental group who are willing to die to stop illegal whale hunting.

Heller recreates a nail-biting showdown when Captain Watson and his crew attempt to deliberately ram an enormous Japanese whaling ship, trying to tear open its hull with a steel blade called a “Can Opener.” In thirty-five-foot seas, a deadly game of Antarctic chicken begins. But while the ships are far from rescue, the world is watching. Japan threatens to send down defense aircraft and warships, Australia appeals for calm, New Zealand dispatches military surveillance aircraft, the US Office of Naval Intelligence issues a piracy warning, and international media begin to track the developing whale war.

As Heller describes the slow, rusting, old Norwegian trawler Farley Mowat and the fast, new six ship whaling fleet of the Japanese, we also learn about the crisis of our oceans, which are on the verge of total ecosystem collapse. The exploitation of endangered whales is emblematic of an over-exploitation of the seas that is now entering its desperate denouement with our own survival in the balance. “A swift kick to any remaining complacency about the plight of our oceans” (National Geographic Adventure), The Whale Warriors is “two parts high seas swashbuckle and one part inconvenient truth” (Surfer).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501193767
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 769,341
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peter Heller is an award-winning adventure writer and long-time contributor to NPR. He is a contributing editor at Outside magazine and National Geographic Adventure and the author of Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado. He can be reached at

Read an Excerpt

The Whale Warriors

The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals
By Peter Heller

Free Press

Copyright © 2007 Peter Heller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416532460


At three o'clock on Christmas morning the bow of the Farley Mowat plunged off a steep wave and smashed into the trough. I woke with a jolt. The hull shuddered like a living animal and when the next roller lifted the stern I could hear the prop pitching out of water, beating air with a juddering moan that shivered the ribs of the 180-foot converted North Sea trawler.

We were 200 miles off the Adélie Coast, Antarctica in a force 8 gale. The storm had been building since the morning before. I lay in the dark and breathed. Something was different. I listened to the deep throb of the diesel engine two decks below and the turbulent sloshing against my bolted porthole and felt a quickening in the ship.

Fifteen days before, we had left Melbourne, Australia, and headed due south. The Farley Mowat was the flagship of the radical environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The mission of her captain, Paul Watson, and his forty-three member all-volunteer crew was to hunt down and stop the Japanese whaling fleet, which was engaged in what he considered illegal commercial whaling. He had said before the trip, "We will nonviolently intervene," butfrom what I could see of the preparations being conducted over the last week, he was readying for a full-scale attack.

I dressed quickly, grabbed a dry suit and a life jacket, and ran up three lurching flights of narrow stairs to the bridge. Dawn. Or what passed for it in the Never-Night of antarctic summer: a murky gloom of wind-tortured fog and blowing snow and spray -- white eruptions that tore off the tops of the waves and streamed their shoulders in long streaks of foam. When I had gone to sleep four hours earlier, the swells were twenty feet high and building. Now monsters over thirty feet rolled under the stern and pitched the bow wildly into a featureless sky. The timberwork of the bridge groaned and creaked. The wind battered the thick windows and ripped past the superstructure with a buffeted keening.

Watson, fifty-five, with thick, nearly white hair and beard, wide cheek bones, and packing extra weight under his exposure suit, sat in the high captain's chair on the starboard side of the bridge, looking alternately at a radar screen over his head and at the sea. He has a gentle, watchful demeanor. Like a polar bear. Alex Cornelissen, thirty-seven, his Dutch first officer, was in the center at the helm, steering NNW and trying to run with the waves. Cornelissen looked too thin to go anyplace cold, and his hair was buzzed to a near stubble.

"Good timing," he said to me with the tightening of his mouth that was his smile. "Two ships on the radar. The closest is under two-mile range. If they're icebergs they're doing six knots."

"Probably the Nisshin Maru and the Esperanza," Watson said. "They're riding out the storm." He was talking about the 8,000-ton Japanese factory ship that butchered and packed the whales, and Greenpeace's flagship, which had sailed with its companion vessel the Arctic Sunrise from Cape Town over a month earlier, and had been shadowing and harassing the Japanese for days. Where the five other boats of the whaling fleet had scattered in the storm no one could say.

Watson had found, in hundreds of thousands of square miles of Southern Ocean, his prey. It was against all odds. Watson turned to Cornelissen. "Wake all hands," he said.


In 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group of seventy-seven nations that makes regulations and recommendations on whaling around the world, enacted a moratorium on open-sea commercial whaling in response to the fast-declining numbers of earth's largest mammals. The Japanese, who have been aggressive whalers since the food shortages following World War II, immediately exploited a loophole that allows signatories to kill a certain number of whales annually for scientific research. In 2005, Japan, the only nation other than Norway and Iceland with an active whaling fleet, decided to double its "research" kill from the previous year and allot itself a quota of 935 minke whales and ten endangered fin whales. In the 2007/2008 season it planned to kill fifty fins and fifty endangered humpbacks. Its weapon is a relatively new and superefficient fleet comprising the 427-foot factory ship Nisshin Maru; two spotter vessels; and three fast killer, or harpoon, boats, similar in size to the Farley Mowat.

Lethal research, the Japanese say, is the only way to accurately measure whale population, health, and its response to global warming and is essential for the sustainable management of the world's cetacean stocks. The director general of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), Hiroshi Hatanaka, writes, "The legal basis [for whaling] is very clear; the environmental basis is even clearer: The marine resources in the Southern Ocean must be utilized in a sustainable manner in order to protect and conserve them for future generations." Though the ICR is a registered nonprofit organization and claims no commercial benefit from its whaling, critics scoff, pointing out that the meat resulting from this heavily subsidized research ends up in Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market, and on the tables at fancy restaurants. By some estimates, one fin whale can bring in $1 million.

Each year the IWC's Scientific Committee votes on whaling proposals, and at its annual meeting in 2005 it "strongly urged" Japanese whalers to obtain their scientific data "using nonlethal means," and expressed strong concern over the taking of endangered fins, and humpbacks from vulnerable breeding stocks. The whalers' response was silence, then business as usual.

Although this resolution is not legally binding, much of the public was outraged that the whalers would openly disregard it. The World Wildlife Fund contended that all the research could be conducted more efficiently with techniques that do not kill whales. New Zealand's minister of conservation, Chris Carter, among others, described the Japanese research as blatant commercial whaling. Even dissenters within Japan protested: Mizuki Takana of Greenpeace Japan pointed to a report issued in 2002 by the influential newspaper Asahi in which only 4 percent of the Japanese surveyed said they regularly eat whale meat; 53 percent of the population had not consumed it since childhood. "It is simply not true that whaling is important to the Japanese public," Takana said. "The whaling fleet should not leave for the antarctic whale sanctuary."

To Watson there is no debate. The Japanese whalers are acting commercially under the auspices of "bogus research" and therefore are in violation of the 1986 moratorium. Even more controversially, the whaling occurs in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an internationally ordained preserve that covers the waters surrounding Antarctica as far north as 40°S and protects eleven of the planet's thirteen species of great whales. Although research is permitted in the sanctuary, commercial whaling is explicitly forbidden. The whalers are also in clear conflict with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). And although the killing area in 2006 lay almost entirely within the Australian Antarctic Territory, the Australians, while protesting, seemed to lack the political will to face down a powerful trading partner. It irks Watson that Australian frigates will eagerly pursue Patagonian toothfish poachers from South America in these same waters, but will turn a blind eye to the Japanese whalers. "It sends a message that if you're rich and powerful you can break the law. If the Australian navy were doing its job," he said, "we wouldn't be down here."

Watson has no such diplomatic compunctions. He said, "Our intention is to stop the criminal whaling. We are not a protest organization. We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don't wave banners. We intervene."

Whaling fleets around the world know he means business. Watson has sunk eight whaling ships. He has rammed numerous illegal fishing vessels on the high seas. By 1980 he had single-handedly shut down pirate whaling in the North Atlantic by sinking the notorious pirate whaler Sierra in Portugal and three of Norway's whaling fleet at dockside. He shut down the Astrid in the Canary Islands. He sank two of Iceland's whalers in Reykjavik harbor, and half the ships of the Spanish whaling fleet -- the Isba I and Isba II. His operatives blew open their hulls with limpet mines. To his critics he points out that he has never hurt anyone, and that he has never been convicted of a felony in any country.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Peter Heller


Excerpted from The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller Copyright © 2007 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

1 Storm
2 Prelude
3 The Farley Mowat
4 The Good Captain
5 Final Preparations
6 Salt
7 Lifeboat Drill
8 Hobart
9 Southern Ocean
10 Ghost
11 Ice
12 The Whale Spoke to Justin
13 Uninvited Guest
14 Force 7
15 Force 8
16 The Law of the Sea
17 Flight
18 The Definition of a Pirate
19 Among the Penguins
20 A Good Day to Die

Epilogue Afterword Acknowledgments Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Heller's writing is energetic and bold, at times a swashbuckling adventure, at others a portrait of a determined eco-warrior, at others a heart-rending expose on the cruelty of whalers." —-Publishers Weekly

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