Whale Warrior

6.18.2009

By Derek de Koff

What's the most harrowing experience you've had working with Sea Shepherds?
That was definitely our last campaign to Antarctica to stop Japan's illegal whaling there. We've been to the Antarctic five times, but this was the first year they killed a whale in our presence. Usually they're too busy running away from us. But we'd cost them too much money (almost $70 million in lost profits each year), and they decided to test our resolve. As one of the harpoon boats tried to transfer the dead whale onto the factory ship, our ship got in-between, and a collision occurred. Our ship listed over almost 15 degrees to port and I was almost sure that we were going to drown! But nothing compares to the 22 minutes of agony experienced by the whale they killed. And that puts everything into perspective for me.

There's a scene where you and another crewmate, Pottsy, exchange some heated words. Did you guys eventually make up? How often would you find yourself getting into a debate with people? I would imagine that in such a constantly heightened environment that people would constantly be at each other's throats.
Pottsy and I did make-up. Tensions between the crew can be high on the ship because we spend 40 days at sea with over 40 other people. We're obviously all very passionate and sometimes we have our disagreements. But in the end, we're all on the ship for the same reason and bind together when it counts.

One more thing about the fight with Pottsy: In the reality show, many of the characters assert that falling into the water is practically as dangerous as falling into a pit of lava -- that the frigid water will kill you in a matter of minutes. In your fight, you said you thought this was a wild exaggeration. Do you still believe that the danger of going overboard was overstated?
Not overstated, no. We're in one of the most remote areas of the world and the nearest hospital is almost a week of sailing away. If you were to fall off the M/Y Steve Irwin, you'd be as good as dead. I was referring to falling out of one of the small boats while wearing both a wetsuit and a survival suit. It would be far from good, but I'm sure that I'd survive it. One day when we were dead in the water and half the crew took an Antarctic swim off the ship in our swimsuits. It only lasted for a few seconds, but I'm still here today.

What's been your favorite moment working with Sea Shepherd?
One of the best moments for me came when we were chasing the Nisshin Maru, the big factory ship of the Japanese whaling fleet. It was day two into the chase, and a big pod of whales surfaced between us and the whaler. There were literally hundreds of minke, humpback and pilot whales. The whaler was powerless because we were there and it felt so right. Those whales were safe from the harpoons because we'd intervened. That made the entire trip worth it. That year, the Japanese whaling industry fell 500 whales short of their quota. Every one of those lives saved is a victory, and that experience reminds me of that.

Can you explain exactly what a quartermaster does? What are your primary responsibilities aboard the Sea Shepherd?
A quartermaster stands watch on the bridge and assists with the safe navigation of the vessel. I've done a few stints on the bridge, but my passion is in the galley, where I prepare three vegan meals a day for a crew of forty. We don't serve any animal products on the ship (no meat, milk or dairy) because it would be hypocritical if we sailed to the bottom of the world to save animals at the same time as have them in our freezer. Animals have the same capacity to suffer as humans do, and I see a lot of parallels between how we treat animals and the oppression of people based on their gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

Are you willing to give up any teasers about Season Two?
Season Two will trump the first season! The whalers were increasingly violent towards us, and not only rammed our ship, but also attacked us with high-powered water cannons and acoustic weapons. You'll see more danger, but most of all, you'll understand why whaling needs to be stopped and why it requires our involvement to do so.

Whale Wars airs every Friday at 9pm EST on Animal Planet.

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