Whale Wars: Attack of the Drones
During a previous life, in which a large portion of my twenties was spent chasing after the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic in an attempt to prevent it from killing whales, I found that the most challenging part of the whole exercise by far was two-fold:
1. Finding the fleet
2. Staying with the fleet
The reason for the first problem is presumably evident enough: the Southern Ocean is a big ole' patch of water, and the fleet comprises only a few ships. I used to liken the exercise to driving randomly around the western United States looking for four specific vehicles.
Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society claims he found the fleet this week by using a drone that was developed by the Moran Office of Maritime & Port Security and donated to the organization by Bayshore Recycling of New Jersey.
Although Sea Shepherd gives full credit for finding the fleet to the drones, the reality was likely more complex. My own experience is that, absent additional information, aerial searches can be frustrating and fruitless: I still vividly recall one morning flying in a helicopter among towering icebergs, convinced the whalers lay in hiding in a nearby patch of fog. Of course, the drones may well have a greater range than our helicopter, but their light build probably makes them even more susceptible to the vagaries of the Antarctic weather, limiting their deployment. I suspect that Watson and crew already had a pretty solid idea of where the fleet was, and used their drones to help narrow down their search area and then deliver the revelatory coup de grace.
Either way, the drones clearly have the potential to provide significant added value to Sea Shepherd's efforts; in particular, now that Major Problem Number One has apparently been solved, they can prove a great aid in Major Problem Number Two: Staying with the fleet. While the rest of the whalers are apparently shadowing one of Watson's vessels, the factory ship Nisshin Maru has seemingly begun a sprint for safety. That was what it did to us on numerous occasions, but Watson is confident the drones give him an unassailable advantage: "This is going to be a long hard pursuit," he said, "but thanks to these drones, we now have an advantage we have never had before — eyes in the sky."
Although less flashy than drones, however, Sea Shepherd has an even bigger advantage in keeping with the whalers. Whereas we were normally stuck with one old, slow ship that was easily outpaced by the Nisshin Maru, Sea Shepherd is able to deploy three vessels, all of them at least as fast as the whaling ships. (Although the capricious Southern Ocean has apparently reduced that number, at least temporarily, to one.)
The factory vessel's bid for freedom therefore seems doomed to failure. However long the fleet decides to stay in the Antarctic – and evidence suggests Japanese authorities have no expectation or determination of killing anything close to the 900+ whales they have said they are pursuing – it seems likely they are going to have to accept that Sea Shepherd will be shadowing them the whole time, on sea and in the air.
The Steve Irwin and some of the crew arriving in Fremantle, Australia, on Dec. 3 for this season's Japanese anti-whaling operation "Divine Wind." (Sea Shepherd FB photo)