BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — There's a war going on in the Antarctic. A war between Japanese ships whose crews claim to be killing whales for "scientific research" and the Sea Shepherds, who risk their own lives to stop the slaughter.
Are they heroes or eco-terrorists? The seven-part, seven-hour Animal Planet series "Whale Wars" will allow you to decide.
While Animal Planet and the filmmakers insist they're not taking sides, the fact that they're on board the Sea Shepherds' ship — the Steve Irwin — makes this a story told from their side. And, it's hard to watch "Whale Wars" (tonight at 7 and 9 p.m.) without being outraged by the Japanese whalers.
Or a bit troubled at times by the actions of Sea Shepherds' leader Paul Watson.
He founded the group after he was asked to leave Greenpeace, another organization he co-founded. His methods were too aggressive for Greenpeace — he'll do whatever it takes to prevent the whaling ships from killing whales.
"I left (Greenpeace) a long time ago because I got tired of seeing whales die," he said. "Since the day I left Greenpeace, I have not seen a whale die. When we show up, they stop killing whales."
His methods are nonviolent, although he's attempting to both dissuade and provoke. And his ships and crews have been "depth-charged, rammed, have had our lives threatened. But more importantly, I think that we are changing people's minds in areas like Norway and Japan where they are killing whales. And when they see that people are willing to risk their lives to protect (whales), they begin to think about what they are doing."
The Steve Irwin is crewed by volunteers from a number of nations, many of whom have no experience at sea. "Whale Wars" is, at heart, a reality show that documents their lives — from seasickness to chores to heart-pounding confrontations.
"There is a lot of action, and there is a lot of confrontation," said quartermaster Shannon Mann. "But it also shows everything that happens on the ship just from our daily activities, cooking up vegan food in the galley, doing our laundry, how we sleep, playing poker at night. That pretty much covers everything."
There are disagreements, but they're united in their opposition to killing whales.
"The television (audience) will see people from all over the world united for one single purpose, which is to stop whaling in the Antarctic," said second mate Peter Hammarstedt. "The first question that I was asked when I joined Sea Shepherd was, 'Are you able to risk your life to save the life of a whale?' And I didn't show up until I could answer a resounding 'yes' to that question."
Watson doesn't but the whalers' scientific-research excuse. "They've killed more whales in the last 20 years (since commercial whaling was banned) than they have killed in the last 50 years prior to that for that purpose. So it's illegal, and it is deemed so by international law."
"Whale Wars" does make the point that some legal experts disagree. But it's hard to argue that what the whalers are doing isn't cruel and unnecessary,
"There are other organizations that are doing litigation, legislation, lobbying, that sort of thing," Watson said. "But we are really an interventionist organization. That's what we do."
In the course of the filming, he was shot by someone on one of the Japanese vessels (although his bulletproof vest saved his life). And there's no one to prosecute his would-be killer.
"It's a free-for-all out there," he said. "We are going back there again, and the Japanese have promised to be even more aggressive with us."
Watson said his organization is making a difference because he's hitting the Japanese whalers where it hurts them the most.
"They only got half their quota this year, half their quota last year. I cost them $70 million," he said. "They're in debt in subsidies to the Japanese government to $50 million. If we keep this pressure up, they're going to be forced economically to shut down.
"They don't listen to the voices of reason. They don't listen to the scientists. They don't listen to the politicians, but they do listen to the bottom line."