“We live in a media culture,” says Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson in episode two, turned slightly away from the video camera that records him, then looking back over his right shoulder as he pontificates so that the camera catches him at the perfect angle. “Things don’t happen unless you see it on TV.”
Welcome to Whale Wars: self-aggrandizing television at its most abject.
The Animal Planet series is not unlike Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and Lobster Wars. Whale Wars follows Sea Shepherd, a conservation agency that seeks to disrupt whale hunting by (almost) any means necessary.
That includes commandeering the video cameras to help sway public opinion against whaling. While the Whale Wars’ narrator attempts to keep an objective keel, the Sea Shepherd crew spends every spare second on camera trying to convince the TV-viewing world of the barbarism of whaling.
It might be an effective use of airtime for conservationists, but it makes for some really boring TV. (The first hour is among the slowest, most inchoate 60 minutes of television I’ve ever watched).
Things start to crackle, though, when crew dynamics heat up. Watson has populated his officer staff with like minds. First Mate Peter Brown is a true believer in the cause and pretty obviously the worst mariner in recorded history. Second Mate Peter Hammarstedt, also clueless, is Watson’s biggest sycophant. The captain believes that any true Sea Shepherd must be willing to lay down his life for a whale, and the triumvirate spends its time trying to whip the rest of the crew into a suicidal frenzy, with mixed results.
When Watson — who never offers to go himself — needs two volunteers to board a whaling vessel and become hostages in order to plunge Australia (which claims the waters) and Japan (whose ships do the whaling) into a diplomatic crisis, he goads young Ben Potts and another to go aboard. Successful, Watson — a total media whore — spends the next 36 hours sleepless, fielding phone calls from news agencies asking him to comment on the international incident. Once that’s resolved, he goes to bed. When four more crew members’ lives are mortally imperiled, Watson — probably because no international press is on hand to witness it — sleeps through the crisis.
Whale Wars, then, is most captivating as an examination of the power of demagoguery to convince people of principle to do really risky things for nothing more than a pat on the head from a messiah figure. As a result, it speaks more to social dynamics than to the problem of whaling. •
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