by Tim Watters, Media Production – The Steve Irwin

Tim Watters, Photographer aboard The Steve Irwin photo: Eliza MuirheadTim Watters, Photographer aboard The Steve Irwin
photo: Eliza Muirhead
On the 5th of January, 2014, I awoke aboard The Steve Irwin as we sailed steadily forward amongst towering icebergs that I will never grow tired of marvelling at. We had been at sea for just over two weeks and on this morning, over a coffee, I remind myself just how beautiful and wild this area is, how lucky we all are for being able to experience this area of our planet, and how disappointing it is that somewhere ahead lie the harpoons of killers. For several days we had been approaching an area of the Southern Ocean that we suspected the Japanese whaling fleet was illegally operating within, and our plan for the day was to send our helicopter up for a series of search flights with the intention of finding the Nisshin Maru - the factory vessel of the whalers. 

As a photographer aboard The Steve Irwin, I was to fly with Gerry, our helicopter pilot, and Joey, one of our videographers. At around 11am the first flight departed, and within the hour I stared dead ahead, focusing and re-focusing my eyes on a dark line that I'd seen just below the horizon amongst the pack ice. With my camera, I fired off a shot in the distance, and reviewing my display screen, zooming in, I excitedly announced to Gerry and Joey, "I would like to tell you that we have visual on the Nisshin Maru."

As we approached the Nisshin Maru, I could see that something was different. I became familiar with the ship last year during Operation Zero Tolerance, flying over it multiple times as we chased the entire fleet out of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. What was different this year? I thought that perhaps there was a new structure towards the stern of the ship by the slipway, but my investigation came to an abrupt halt as my eyes locked onto a series of grey and black shapes lying just above the slipway. I muttered, “Damn it,” or something like that, through the microphone of the helicopters communications. Gerry asked me what I saw, and I replied, “They have whales.” 

The first glimpse of the Nisshin MaruThe first glimpse of the Nisshin MaruWe circled around the stern, from port to starboard, and as I set off my shutter, images of the past flashed in my head. This moment in time became entwined with memories of the past, from when I sat before a computer and learnt about the killing of whales in Antarctica. The images I saw back then enraged me and inspired a decision in me that has lead me to that very moment, sitting in a helicopter, circling the last remaining factory whaling vessel in the world. 

Three poached Minke WhalesThree poached Minke WhalesBefore me lay three dead Minke Whales. Two of them lay on their backs, their white chests exposed to the sky, blood pooling around them. The third lay flat on her stomach, her great weight pulling its mass downwards, her face frowning, her eyes closed. As we hovered behind the Nisshin I noticed that a thick hose had been inserted into the side of the third whale’s throat, pumping water into her body, bloating her mid-section, presumably diluting her thick warm blood so that when she is cut open, her insides will flush out of her body, ensuring that the cleaning of the decks post-butchering would be easier. I had not seen this part of the 'procedure' before, and I hated every element of it. Here lay a beautiful creature, her design and contours so obvious, so perfect for the purpose of swimming thousands of miles throughout her life, powering through the oceans of this planet. Beside this creature is man, who has just enforced his horrible will onto her, without consent or consideration for her feelings or reason of life. In her death, man has literally cut and inserted his manufactured materials into the body of this animal for the purpose of his convenience. 

Protected Minke Whale awaiting butcheringProtected Minke Whale awaiting butcheringAs horrific as this scene was, it became worse as we drifted around to the starboard side of the ship, looking down to the most open-decked area of the vessel. This is where the whales are to be cut up and butchered, and in this spot, underneath and around the feet of twenty or so men, lay the remains and blood of a recently destroyed whale. This was a sight that I had not seen in any images or footage before. I couldn't believe this massacre before my eyes. The red burst from the decks, shocking and grotesque. In the centre of the deck lay a twisted and contorted mess of flesh. All around it in every direction were chunks of dark red flesh, strings of muscle, a large section of spinal cord, and even the unmistakable formation of the jawbone and head - a fourth Minke Whale had just been decimated here. There was so much to see, so much to capture, but I was drawn to the twisted section of the whale in the middle of the deck; and as I zoomed in with my camera, I noticed that a hook connected it to a line that ran to the forward of the Nisshin Maru, telling me that this was most likely where they connected their winch to the body of the dead whale, dragging it forward from the stern of the ship, up to the butchering area. This mass, this mess, this unidentifiable collection of muscle and tissue and bone was all that remained of the once beautiful and giant mammal that myself and the world have grown to love over our time on this planet.

The grisly blood-smeared deck of the Nisshin MaruThe grisly blood-smeared deck of
the Nisshin Maru
The final remains of a butchered Minke WhaleThe final remains of a butchered Minke Whale

It looked like a struggle had taken place. I knew that the whale would have been dead by the time she reached this part of the ship, but from the centre of the deck, from this huge pool of congealed and reddish-black blood grew streaks and smears in every direction of the ship. I now focused on the crew of the Nisshin Maru who walked through this blood, who stood on the bones of the whale and how from our height, moved around like ants on the carcass of a dead animal on the sidewalk. Each one carried either a large blade, a knife, a hook, or sometimes all of the above. Each individual moved to a section of the remains of the whale and either cut the flesh into a manageable size, or thrust their hook into the flesh before dragging it off to another area of the ship. I reminded myself that if I were to believe the government of Japan, then these were their scientists. All that I saw were butchers selecting their cuts of meat, separating the prime sections from the flesh that they deemed useless, which was dragged to the port side of the ship, to a conveyer belt, to be tossed back into the wild seas of the Antarctic, that would otherwise be flowing free of blood and murder by human hands.

Nisshin Maru crew sorting poached whale meatNisshin Maru crew sorting poached whale meat Nisshin Maru crew sorting poached whale meat Nisshin Maru crew sorting poached whale meat

We continued to circle the abattoir as we relayed its position to The Steve Irwin, who in turn, relayed the position to The Sam Simon and The Bob Barker. Sea Shepherd closed in on the whaling fleet and they had nowhere to turn. Their game was up, they were caught red-handed and we had captured their shame - exposing the reality and brutality of this Antarctic tragedy to the world. Low on fuel, we returned to The Steve Irwin. A further two flights went up that day. By the time the second flight had taken off and reached the Nisshin Maru, a little over an hour after we first found them, all three whales had been destroyed and packed away - the decks were clean.

Reviewing the images, I finally realised what was different about the Nisshin Maru this year. It wasn't that they had added a new structure, and it wasn't the fact that this year they had whales aboard. What I realised is that last year, and always, the decks of the Nisshin Maru had been a dark brown wood. This year, their decks were a creamy-yellow colour. Whoever made the call to bring about this change must be lamenting that decision, as it was these light decks that made their murder all the more obvious for the world to see. The decks provided the perfect canvas to expose the bloody spectacle that is whaling, providing the shocking contrast between white and red, ensuring that they had no place to hide their crime.

Now, I think about what I saw that day. I would love to sit down with a representative of the government of Japan and have them explain to me how what I saw is science. How in such a short amount of time the crew of the Nisshin Maru was able to take four whales and have their flesh cut up into uniform sizes, stored in plastic containers, looking exactly like the chunks of whale meat that I have seen for sale in markets in Japan. How could they have studied the whales in that amount of time, and what is now going to happen with that meat? They say it's not for commercial sale, how am I meant to believe them? If all 1,035 whales that they aim to take are to cut up and packaged in the same way, then what science requires 1,035 samples? What are they looking for?

Of course, the answer is that we all know this is not science. There wasn't really ever a question about that. However, I would still like to sit down with that representative, and I would like the whole world to be there, so that collectively we can ask, "Why? Why do you need to do this? Why do you think that you have the right to do this?"

The world decided in 1986 that there was no place for whaling anymore. We had learnt our lesson. We decided that we were above this murderous and immoral practice that had destroyed the lives of so many innocent animals without any consideration for their right to live, and for the role that they played in the great tangle of life on this planet. Yet it continues, and those who can stop it - the governments of the world - do nothing. Even from here, aboard The Steve Irwin, at the bottom of the planet, we know that these images and the footage that we captured on the 5th of January, 2014, are speaking and touching the people of the world. We know that you are all seeing what we saw that day, and you are feeling. You are feeling angry, you are feeling sad, you are feeling that what happened that day should not be allowed to happen again - ever. We also know that the governments of the world will see this footage, and I do not doubt that they too, as individuals, will feel the same as we all do, but the difference between us and them is that they have the power to say enough is enough, and enforce this power and ensure that the government of Japan abides by international law.

I will always remember what I saw that day and I hope to never see it again. However, I know that this does happen; that still, today, the Japanese whaling fleet continues to illegally murder whales. So in a sense, I am glad that we were able to capture this moment in time, and to ensure that these four whales died for something. We have shown the world what is happening down here in Antarctica, and we will do all we can to make sure that not a single other whale is killed at their hands, but now it is your turn to play your role. If you too want to see an end to this slaughter, then it is your responsibility to figure out how you can help the best. Whether it be through helping us fuel our ships so that no more whales are killed, whether it be pressuring your government and letting them know that you are furious that they are not doing more to stop this, or whether it be passing our images and footage on to your friends and family - every little bit counts. 

What I can tell you is that it is up to us, the caring people of the world, to stop whaling. The whales need us now as much as they ever have, and I hope that the death of these whales can inspire something in you to help their brothers and sisters who today swim free with their young in the Southern Ocean, but tomorrow may face the explosive tip of the whaling fleet's harpoons.

A Minke Whale who visited The Steve Irwin one week agoA Minke Whale who visited The Steve Irwin one week ago
A Minke Whale who visited The Steve Irwin one week ago

except as noted, all photos by Tim Watters


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