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06.02.11

The Whale Wars Season Premiere

Upon the premiere of the fourth season of Whale Wars, Animal Planet’s reality-TV series about anti-whaling activists, the show’s star tells Andy Dehnart, "We've actually won.”

"We've actually won the whale wars," Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said on Tuesday, three days before the fourth season premiere of Animal Planet's Whale Wars, which documents his group's attempts to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.

That's fantastic news for conservationists—and horrible news for fans of outstanding real-life television. Since 2008, Animal Planet's Whale Wars has followed Sea Shepherd's efforts to stop Japanese whaling, and the result is a reality-TV series like no other, one that is a fly on the wall of events that would happen whether cameras were there or not. As a result, it is often more dramatic than most scripted television.

As the series has explored over its three seasons, the Japanese whaling fleet captures whales under a quota allowed for research; Sea Shepherd insists their actions are illegal and does everything it can to find and stop the fleet, from hurling bottles of butyric acid onto the decks of whaling vessels (making whale meat unusable) to attempting to foul the propellers of the whaling ships. The whalers fight back, with devices such as water cannon and acoustic devices.

Watson said his group's actions "saved 800 whales" this season, and the Japanese fleet actually suspended their hunt early because of their efforts. "Our objective right from the beginning was to sink the Japanese whaling fleet economically, to bankrupt them, and I think we achieved that," he said.

On TV and in real life, the intensity of the interaction between Sea Shepherd and whalers has increased every season, culminating last season when a Japanese ship rammed into a stationary Sea Shepherd boat, on which its crew and a Whale Wars camera operator were sitting. The footage was dramatic and violent

Watson said "every year they're going down more desperate, and desperation translates into being more aggressive, so they have been much more aggressive, much more violent toward us."

Last year, an Associated Press report claimed that Japan and Sea Shepherds' "claims of aggression ... are generally impossible to verify," but the truth is that Whale Wars illustrates the reality in a way that press releases from Sea Shepherd or Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research never could.

One volunteer said, "We're down here to save the whales, not to make a television show."

The series' executive producer, Liz Bronstein, told me that her show is "an action-adventure series," and producers "never, ever want it to feel like it's propaganda. If you believe in their cause, great. If you don't, you're watching the show, and we love the dialogue it produces and the passion it produces." Sea Shepherd has no editorial control over the series just as the producers, Lizard Trading Company, and the network have no control over the Sea Shepherds' actions.

Bronstein makes an annual offer to send crews aboard the Japanese whaling fleet or even just interview representatives. She is always rejected, and thus Whale Wars focuses on the Sea Shepherds alone. "It's hard to tell a story from the point of view of people who won't talk to you," she said.

Much of the show’s excitement actually doesn't come from the confrontations, as brutal as they can be, but from the actions of the crew aboard Sea Shepherds' boats, including its flagship, the Steve Irwin, named after the Crocodile Hunter star. Its volunteer crew are amateurs, and their inexperience often leads to dramatic moments.

It is not always a flattering portrayal of the activists. Staffed with a mostly volunteer crew, much of the drama—and entertainment—comes from their incompetence. Watson is unconcerned with criticism of their missteps and said, "I couldn't pay people to take the kind of risks that these volunteers take. It's the passion and courage that the volunteers bring to the table that really makes a big difference."

Watson said that the Animal Planet series has had "enormous impact on Sea Shepherd and on increasing international public awareness," and that includes increasing crew applications, which has given him a "much more dedicated, much more passionate crew." And the cameras don't get in the way. "For the most part, crews are oblivious to the fact that they're there," Watson said. "Sometimes, we're a little too used to it," and people "say things they probably shouldn't."

Fiona McCuaig, a crew member on her second tour, echoed non-activist reality stars' experience in front of cameras, she said, "For the first couple of weeks, you are a bit conscious of it," but that fades. McCuaig, who served as a rescue swimmer and quartermaster on the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker (named for its game show host benefactor, who gave $5 million for its purchase), said, "We're down here to save the whales, not to make a television show."

Although she's watched only five episodes, and knows that the show compresses time—Bronstein points out that there are 2,000 hours of footage to make 10 episodes of television, each about 43 minutes—McCuaig said, "It is a very, very good portrayal of what happens down there."

There's another crew on board who are subject to the Sea Shepherds' vegan meals and sometimes dangerous decisions about confronting the whalers: the TV crew. A total of 14 crew members—camera operators, sound engineers, and producers—were aboard the three vessels this season. Whale Wars has sometimes broken the fourth wall to illustrate the challenges they face to film the series. When the Steve Irwin was caught in ice, a camera operator who was capturing unbelievable footage of a flexing hull from inside the ship eventually put down his camera and said, " This is where my commitment ends." 

Even while crews are filming, Bronstein and her team actually begin to shape real-life events into episodes. "The challenge every year is figuring out how to take what happened and turning that into a season of television," Bronstein said. Editors get initial footage when the Steve Irwin refuels, but she notes that, "We don't know what else is going to happen. Maybe nothing else happens. Maybe unbelievable things happen."

Unlike soft-scripted reality-TV series that plan out their scenes and events in advance, Whale Wars is subject to real events. Another harsh truth it faces this year is potential backlash because of the tsunami and devastation in Japan, which happened after the entire season was filmed.

Animal Planet's president, Marjorie Kaplan, told me that the network is "extremely concerned about what happened in Japan." She credits some of the show's success to the fact that producers don't vilify Japanese whalers and have "tried very hard to balance [the Sea Shepherd] point of view" using news footage, statements, and other information.

With the possible end of whaling, Kaplan is facing the potential conclusion of a popular series. " Whale Wars helped us to redefine what we stood for," she said, and that includes both their focus on humans as they relate to animals and what she calls "muscular conservation."

Kaplan said the show "put us creatively on the map" and "helped us transform how the creative community saw us," because it "is every bit as good and every bit as powerful as every cop show on television." The show has "grown double-digits every subsequent season," and is "pretty much dead even" with the network's highest-performing show, River Monsters.

If the whale wars and Whale Wars are finished, Kaplan notes that "the work of the Sea Shepherds is not done," and "there will be many more opportunities for us to partner with them on other shows."

But they still have the fourth season. "We have the show that may be the closing note on whaling in the Southern Ocean," she said. “All the drama that happened this year, and then that result is just stunning and makes for incredible television."

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.