Saving whales -- at a cost

Television Critic

It’s difficult to begrudge anyone their media savvy in this synergistic age, but there is a level of TV-consciousness in Animal Planet’s new weekly docu-series “Whale Wars” that often seems at odds with its dramatic and controversial subject.

The seven-week series, which premieres tonight at 9, follows an anti-whaling “campaign” against Japanese fishing vessels conducted on the high seas by Capt. Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace, was kicked out of that organization when his activism was deemed too extreme.

Although it is illegal to kill whales for commercial use, the law allows the killing of 1,000 whales each year for the purposes of research. Watson and his crew consider this a bogus loophole, used by the Japanese as a smoke screen for a purely capitalist enterprise, and they are not content to simply protest and document.


The point of their ventures, including the one filmed during “Whale Wars,” is to stop the ships, often marked in large letters with “Research,” from hunting and killing whales in the Antarctic. By whatever means necessary. Stink bombs, nautical tactics, illegal boarding of the ships -- very little seems off-limits. These people, we are told repeatedly, are willing to die for the whales.

Not surprisingly, many on both sides of the Save the Whales issue consider Watson more terrorist than activist, and the Japanese fishing industry has labeled him a pirate.

As a television show, “Whale Wars” adopts similar all-or-nothing tactics. The worst-case-scenario voice-over and terse crew interviews will be familiar to fans of reality shows like “Deadliest Catch” or “Ice Road Truckers.” Likewise, the soundtrack booms with majesty, crackles in anxiety or wails softly of strings, just in case the awe-inspiring sight of a sunset over an iceberg field or the vision of men in ski masks boarding a hostile ship is not enough to hold your attention.

Even the ship’s name seems a bit premeditated. The choice of the Steve Irwin is a fine tribute to the late great television naturalist, but it also seems like an attempt to put the Animal Planet brand on Watson’s enterprise. Irwin may have raised the consciousness of many, but he also put Animal Planet on the map.

Yet despite the distraction of its media grooming, the basic story of “Whale Wars” is quite a yarn. The premiere episode opens at a moment of confrontation, with a Japanese vessel ordering the Steve Irwin to back off in an increasingly hostile nature until shots are fired and Watson, we are told by various shocked crew members, is hit.

So when the rest of the hour takes you back through the slightly less dramatic first 41 days of the journey, you know this isn’t going to be one of those laborious efforts to find drama in mere dedication -- shots will be fired!

Meanwhile, there is the pathos and perils of a mostly young and inexperienced crew, who quickly learn that they are indeed in the middle of the frigid ocean. So if, by chance, their long boat capsizes, on the way down dumping three crew members in the water, they are going to have to figure out what to do. And it should not involve destroying the ship’s helicopter.

What makes “Whale Wars” different from a normal extreme career path-type show, is of course, the cause it is promoting. But more interesting is that murmuring beneath all the action is that age-old philosophic question: How far is too far in an undeniably just cause?

Watson may be certain, and persuasive, in his belief that these whales are not dying for research and that research does not justify slaughter, but the fishermen he and his crew are stalking are within the law. Which means the Sea Shepherds are not.

Presumably as the season unfurls, we will see the crew members come to grips with their political choices, just as they cope with the stink bombs and seasickness. And that should be worth watching.



‘Whale Wars’

Where: Animal Planet

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)