Saving whales; saving the planet

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Peter Heller chronicled his two-month journey on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's ship, Farley Mowat, in his book "The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals." He will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore Sunday to sign copies.

Adventure journalist’s gripping account of his voyage with a radical environmental group connects the dots among illegal commercial whaling, destruction of marine life and implications for the planet.

By Vicky Shere / Special to the Malibu Times

A meeting between eco-vigilante Paul Watson took adventure journalist Peter Heller on a voyage he never expected: crusader to protect ocean life.

Watson, one of the founders and first board members of environmental watchdog Greenpeace, broke away in 1977 to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society because he wanted to specialize in direct interventions against illegal exploitation of the ocean.

Malibu residents Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen and John Paul DeJoria, CEO of the Paul Mitchell hair products company, are generous supporters of Sea Shepherd.

Heller is an award-winning adventure travel writer and a contributing editor to National Geographic Adventure magazine.

A friend recommended that he hear Watson speak at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival.

After hearing Watson describe how a mortally wounded whale saved his life and about Sea Shepherd’s almost continuous campaigns at sea to stop illegal whaling, drift-netting, long-lining, dolphin slaughter and sealing, Heller accepted Watson’s invitation to crew on board Sea Shepherd’s ship Farley Mowat for the 2005-2006 Antarctic campaign.

Heller’s eye-opening book “The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals,” is both a riveting account of Heller’s two months aboard the small, dilapidated trawler with a ragtag group of volunteers risking their lives to incapacitate a six-boat fleet of Japanese whalers and an explanation of the politics that keep commercial whalers operating.

As he signals by prefacing the book with lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, Heller’s sea journey was also a spiritual journey.

“I’ve always been drawn to the ocean but the experience kindled a fire in me to protect marine mammals,” Heller, a 30-year outdoorsman and whitewater kayaker, said in a telephone interview.

“The ocean is so much a part of the web of life, so much of the engine driving what we depend on as a species. If the ocean dies, we die too.”

Heller will be on hand Sunday at Diesel, A Bookstore to read from “The Whale Warriors,” and he plans more public speaking on the crisis in the oceans.

In the November 2006 issue of Science, Heller writes, a report by an international team of scientists studying data over 58 years declared that if current trends of fishing and pollution continue, every fishery across the planet will be totally destroyed by 2048.

The oceans as an ecosystem would completely collapse.

“Jacques Cousteau said 30 years ago that the oceans are dying in our lifetime,” Heller noted. “Half the coral reef is dead or dying. People don’t pay attention because they’re under the surface.”

Famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle, the subject of the current issue of the Malibu Times Magazine, makes the connection between the extinction of animal, plant and human species.

“Without the ocean our planet doesn’t work. In the past 50 years we have seen a 90 percent decline in big fish. We have lost half of the coral reefs around the world,” she told the magazine.

Marine algae create the majority of oxygen in our atmosphere, Heller learned from Earle. “If the oceans die, it could create havoc. It’s in our own self-interest to take action right now,” Heller said.

Heller quotes Earle saying that whales should never be hunted because they are long living, slow-growing wildlife.

“No matter how you crunch the numbers-biologically, ecologically, economically, logically, morally, ethically, realistically-dining on carnivorous animals that may be older than your parents is not commercially sustainable,” Heller writes.

Commercial fishing is also to blame for the imminent demise of the oceans.

As Heller describes through the voice of Farley Mowat cook Casson Trenor, who holds a master’s degree in international environmental policy, “much of the ocean destruction is caused by bottom trawlers, the industrial dragnets that scour and scrape wide swaths of sea floor, taking everything-the octopuses, the sea turtles, the mammals, the crabs, the urchins-and damaging the reefs.

“Longlining [some lines can be as long as 100 km, with thousands of baited hooks] isn’t much better. It’s indiscriminate,” Trenor continued. “Tens of thousands of sea turtles are killed and thrown overboard as “bycatch” [20 to 80 percent of the catch that is not targeted species] each year. Seabirds, especially albatross, dive on the baited hooks and get dragged under and drowned. It’d be like going onto the African savanna and shooting every living thing, mammal, bird, that you see.”

The most compelling argument for stopping the abuses, though, is the contrast Heller paints of the “humanity” of the targeted species (whales, seals, and dolphins) and the graphic portrayal of their slaughter.

Describing the carnage in killing a pregnant whale videotaped by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research, Heller wrote he wanted to vomit.

Echoing another poem in his preface, the 17th century The Church Porch, is an admonition to virtue, Heller said.

“If the oceans are dying in our time and we kill them, which is what we are doing, we shall have committed a crime so heinous we shall never be redeemed.

“Man has a capacity for cruelty but we’re not just that,” Heller added. “We have the capacity for love and compassion. We need to exercise that.”

Heller and Watson will be at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society star-studded fundraiser “Breaking the Ice” co-chaired by Pierce Brosnan and Mick Jagger Saturday, at 4:30 p.m. in Santa Monica. Tickets: Info@feteafit.net or www.seashepherdbenefit.com.

Heller will read from “The Whale Warriors” Sunday, 3 p.m., at Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Rd.; 310.456.9961, info@dieselbookstore. om