Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Saving Whales: Japan 2 (Greenpeace Days)

(Read part 1 here)

We stood on the beach watching the blood-red sun rise and I tried not to cry. We'd failed: we could see a dead whale in the station. The whalers had come in overnight, while we'd slept. 

What now? There is no instruction manual for saving whales, remember. You've got to figure it out as you go.

Okay, so let's launch the boats and get out on the water. We'd be ready if  another killer boat came in. From sea level, we would have a lousy view of any incoming ships, but Rusty could spot them for us on shore, and let us know via walkie-talkie.

Yeah, that floatation suit is a nice look. You
gotta wonder why it never caught on.
So we pumped up the little inflatable boats, and attached the engines. I donned my eye-popping neon-orange floatation suit and the yellow vest with "Greenpeace" on it that my sister had made for me. The floatation suit was just in case the whalers decided to throw me into the water. It'd help me float and be easier to spot. The vest was because my sister loves me (even if she might've wondered what a nice girl from Ohio was doing putting on a floatation suit in case someone threw her overboard). I linked one end of the 5-foot chain around my waist and locked it securely. The rest of the chain and another lock were in the little bag I buckled around my waist.

We launched through the surf, and then we waited. And waited some more, while I realized that the nice thing about waiting in the blue-tinted van was that it stayed on shore and didn't bob about aimlessly and turn me green. Finally the radio stopped speaking static and Rusty said, "I see a killer ship. This is it, folks." Bruce and Kevin restarted the engines, opened them up, and within a few minutes, we could also see the Ryuho Maru 10

Killer ships have a very distinctive look: a sharp bow, with the harpoon gun silhouetted at the very front, a long catwalk from the wheelhouse to the bow, which allows the gunner to quickly reach the harpoon when whales are spotted, and a low-slung stern. Low enough that when someone drives you up to it in a little inflatable boat, you can just reach up and grab ahold of the railing, climb over it, and step aboard a whaling ship. 

It's easy to do. The tricky part is walking the length of the ship up to the harpoon gun without being stopped. But the crew was busy with a dead whale on one side of the boat, so I walked up the other side. At the steps leading up to the harpoon, I encountered two whalers whose jaws dropped at the sight of me. How bizarre it must have been to encounter me: they hadn't seen me board, so I'd appeared out of nowhere, I was female, I was gaijin, I stood at least a head taller than either of them (the media would later call me a "giantess"), and I was dressed in a bulky screaming-orange-neon jumpsuit.

I smiled and said in Japanese, "Excuse me. Please read this." I handed them each a leaflet that explained why I was on their ship and why we wanted them to stop whaling. Stunned, they accepted the papers, and I went past them and climbed the steps to the harpoon gun.

We'd practiced for this moment, anticipating that I would have to struggle to reach the harpoon--my friends had harassed me, pushed and shoved as I practiced looping the chain around a stand-in for a harpoon gun base, and securing the lock. 

But now, at the harpoon gun itself, I was alone. The men hadn't followed me. I
easily wrapped the chain around the base, and closed the lock. And just like that, we'd done it. For the first time, Greenpeace was between the harpooner and the harpoon

When the men finally approached me, they offered me tea. I gave them Greenpeace buttons with whales on them--which the whalers immediately put on. One fellow pinned a button to his cap and called down to Kevin in his boat below, "Thank you!" Incredulous, Kevin called back to me, "What did he say?" "He said 'Thank you!'" I repeated. This was not the reception we'd anticipated.

I was so engaged in chatting in broken Spanish, Japanese, and English with the whalers that I didn't notice that we were motoring away from the shore station. I was surprised when Kevin called up to me, "Patty, I don't know what to do!" He had less than a half a tank left of gas and we'd traveled many miles from shore. Bruce's engine had broken down and he'd been left far behind. "You have to go back," I told Kevin. It was the only thing to do, and I was fine. Years later, Kevin would tell me the anguish he felt turning the inflatable back toward shore and leaving me on the whaling ship.

The whalers seemed puzzled by his leave-taking. "We are going to kill whales," one man said. "You want to kill whales?" Eventually they cut the chain and I was escorted to the captain in the wheelhouse, who also informed me that we were going to sea. We'd imagined various responses the whalers might have to my arrival on their ship, all of which ended in water or jail; that they would decide to take a foreign woman to sea was so absurd we'd never considered it.

The captain was a talkative fellow, and he told me about some of the whales he'd killed, and the seas he'd hunted in. He spoke matter-of-factly about taking calves and endangered species; these things were against international agreements. I asked questions, urged him on and filed all the information away to use in my coming trial. I would later learn that according to international inspectors, the Ryuho Maru 10 had taken more lactating mothers than any other Japanese whaler. 

Suddenly someone started yelling over the radio in Japanese, and a heated conversation ensued between the captain and whoever was on the other end. A new change of plans, I was informed. We were going into port after all.

TOMORROW: Saving Whales: Japan Part 3 


  1. Wow. I was holding my breath.


  2. Very brave! It would be scary heading out to sea on a ship full of foreign men and not sure what was going to happen. You were either brave or nuts. Or a mix of both!! LOL

  3. So you jumped up on to their ship, handed out leaflets, charmed the socks off them, and chained yourself to the harpoon. You totally had it going on, and they had no instructions for dealing with this lovely amazon. Imagine the story you would have to write if you had gone to sea with them!