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(Still) Big in Japan

Thought whaling was a thing of the past? Think again.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 3:00 AM EST

In mid-January, Japan’s official whaling organization, the Institute of Cetacean Research posted a video on its website titled "Greenpeace increasingly dangerous stunts: Part 1.” The minute-long clip shows a small inflatable boat, manned by Greenpeace activists in orange polar survival suits, swerving out in front of an 800-ton steel-hulled whaling ship. On the ship, high above the bow, a man in a thick jacket stands behind a mounted harpoon which is angled toward the horizon, where the choppy ocean meets a bright sky of scattered clouds. A few seconds later, a whale breaks the surface about 30 yards in front of the boat, and the inflatable tries to steer in between as the harpooner fires. It's hard to tell from the footage, but the whale has been hit by the grenade-tipped harpoon. It splashes down and disappears. The inflatable, now only a few feet away from the whale, slows and drifts out of the frame. In the next frame, after a cut, it reappears, entangled in the harpoon rope. The whale, obviously now dead, floats in a spreading circle of bloody water. Then the camera zooms out and the clip cuts off.

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The video, shot in the Antarctic Southern Ocean, which is intended to portray Greenpeace activists as “foolish” and "reckless," is quite similar to those found on the website of Greenpeace International, except there the clips are titled “Between the whale and the harpoon” and “Death of a minke whale,” and are designed to show the bloody brutality of whaling.

The harpoon ship was part of a six-vessel, 250-man Japanese whaling fleet that entered the Southern Ocean in late November. The whalers hoped to have killed more than 900 minke and 10 fin whales by mid-April, ostensibly to study them. By the time Greenpeace’s two ships caught up with them, they had been killing whales with grenade-tipped harpoons—the modern method designed to kill quickly—for three weeks, impeded only by inclement weather.

Whaling was banned by international treaty in 1986, with a limited exception for "scientific research." Many whale species were near extinction, including in the Antarctic Oceans, where the Japanese have been whaling since the 1930’s. Blue whales in the mid-1800s were thought have numbered more than 600,000, but today there are only about 1,000 in the southern hemisphere. Japan is one of the few countries still killing whales. Kyodo-Senpaku, the company that operates the whaling fleet and is partly owned by Japan’s second largest marine products company Nissui, gets their permit through the government-sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research. Greenpeace and other environmental groups don’t recognize special permits. They insist that all whaling should be stopped, and that the study of whales should always be non-lethal. For 30 years Greenpeace has disrupted whalers in the world’s oceans, including six campaigns over the last fifteen years in the icy waters around Antarctica.

Greenpeace International’s expedition leader Shane Rattenburry and 57 hired crew members, found the whalers on December 21 in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which mostly covers the sea inside the 40 degrees South latitude circle all the way to the Antarctic ice-edge. Rattenbury radioed the whaling captains and ordered them out of the whale sanctuary—established in 1994 by the International Whaling Commission—and reminded them that their activities were illegal.

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