Japan cancels whaling expedition: go celebrate!


IWC Brighton
July, 1982. Sidney Holt, David McTaggart, and Iain MacPhail celebrate the passage of the moratorium on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission.

To: David McTaggart
Hon. Chairman, Greenpeace International

Dear David,

About half an hour ago, I heard that Japan cancelled its 2014/2015 voyage to the Southern Ocean to kill whales for “Scientific Research,” an announcement which would have sent you over the moon with jubilation.

The first image that flashed into my head was the picture at right from July of 1982. You were celebrating the hard-won victory in the International Whaling Commission, when they declared a moratorium on commercial whaling — the culmination of years of work that you, Greenpeace, and dozens of other groups and individuals had done in public, as well as behind the scenes, below the decks, and under the table. At the time, you thought that was it, that you’d won, and that Japan’s whaling programme was over.

It wasn’t, of course. Japan would simply disguise their programme as science. You and Greenpeace would fight on — you to the end of your days, Greenpeace for decades after you passed, along with an entire movement that sprung up from those first mist-shrouded voyages to save the whales.

Today’s announcement means that whales in the Southern Ocean won’t be hunted for the first time in 110 years. We don’t know for sure that Japan has given up entirely. They’ve said they’ll “comply” with the International Court of Justice ruling which declared their current programme, in effect, a sham which contributed nothing to science and killed more whales than science would need. The Japanese Fisheries Agency could still, as they did in 1982, find a loophole big enough to fire a harpoon through, but not this year. The harpoons will stay hooded, the factory ship Nisshin Maru will remain moored, and thousands … tens of thousands… millions of people who worked for this day will celebrate.

If you were alive, I can only imagine how many rum and cokes and bottles of champagne you’d power through tonight. But I know right now you’d be on the phone, and writing letters, and crowing to the press, and saying thank yous. You’d be thanking Paul Spong for convincing Greenpeace to launch a Save the Whales campaign in 1973, Bob Hunter for coming up with the idea of maneuvering tiny boats between the whales and the whalers and so launching the issue as a global “mind bomb” across television sets the world over. You’d thank Paul Watson for the audacious courage he showed with Greenpeace and with Sea Shepherd to end the hunt (yes, you’d have swallowed a lot of pride, but you’d have done that), and while you were clenching your teeth you’d thank Pete Wilkinson and Alan Thornton who were great generals in the war for the whales even if you fell out over their resistance to your command. You’d have thanked Rex Weyler and Fred Easton whose lenses caught those first images of whales dying at sea and the heroics of those who sought to spare them. You’d have remembered how you and Bryan Adams leafleted an entire theatre in Japan when he was playing a concert there, urging the young people of Japan to speak out against the whalers.

You’d have thanked other musicians, from Leonard Bernstein to Paul McCartney to Peter Gabriel to the Waterboys to Midnight Oil to U2 to Steve van Zandt. You’d have appreciated how support for this cause had cut across society, from the people in the streets to royalty like Prince Charles and Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan, adventurers like Jacques Cousteau and Sir Peter Scott. You’d have thanked Kieran Mulvaney and Sara Holden and Dave Walsh and John Bowler and Karli Thomas and Frank Kamp and Irene Berg and Grace O’Sullivan and Andrew Davies and Black Bob and Heath Hanson and Pete Bouquet and everyone who ever sailed aboard a Greenpeace vessel into those cold Antarctic waters to play cat and mouse with the catcher ships, everyone who ever signed a petition or sent a postcard or donated to IFAW or WWF or Friends of the Earth or Earth Island or the Cetacean Society or Greenpeace or any of the NGOs that worked the trenches to Save the Whales. You’d have told people to raise a glass to Sidney Holt and Campbell Plowden and Michael Nielsen and Leslie Busby and Remi Parmentier and John Frizell, who dedicated most of their lives to this cause and spent endless hours in horrible meeting rooms counting votes and lining up political support for various parliamentary judo moves in attempt to counter the bribery and pork projects that the Japanese Fisheries agency brought to bear to buy votes they couldn’t win. You’d have tipped your hat to Steve Sawyer, Kelly Rigg, Patti Forkan, Cassandra Phillips, Domitilla Senni, Michi Mathias, Anne Dingwall, Elaine Lawrence, Cornelia Durrant, Lyall Watson, to Bill de la Mare and Justin Cooke, to the scientists who modelled whale populations, the politicians who had won easy points and made tough stands, the filmmakers who had made films and the writers who had written books and the artists who had created art. You’d have covered your ass about all the names you forgot or left out by mentioning the fact that you’d need an encyclopedia to fit all the names of everyone who did their part, and everyone who walked for whales, fasted for whales, went to jail for whales, baked for whales, did Karaōke for whales, swam for whales, or ran for whales.

You’d have a special place for praise for the dedication and sacrifice of Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan who endured arrest, ostracization, and ridicule in their own country for exposing the theft of subsidized whale meat to line the pockets of corrupt officials, only to have themselves accused of theft for presenting the evidence. And you’d have thanked Peter Garrett and the Australian government of Mark Rudd for having the balls to go to court against Japan and the legal smarts to actually win that high-stakes gamble.

And finally, you’d have told them all to do exactly what you scrawled across that 1982 picture: “Celebrate.”

Celebrate a victory for a threatened planet, and the hope it suggests that if we can save the whales, we can save the world. Celebrate the power of global movements, and the patience and persistence it takes to see the arc of history bend toward justice. Celebrate activism, disobedience, speaking up and acting out. Celebrate courage, and creativity, poetry and song.

That would have been roughly the letter you’d have written, or dictated to me to write for you.

Rest easy, David, and let’s just say you wrote it. Now, let’s you and me go get a drink, knowing there’s a bunch of people out there raising a glass in return to you, and to the cussed dedication with which you worked for this day.

Cheers, you old goat. We won.




38 thoughts on “Japan cancels whaling expedition: go celebrate!”

  1. I am as happy as anyone about the World Court’s decision banning Japan’s ‘research’ whaling in the Southern Ocean. However, Greenpeace should temper its self-congratulatory statements.

    Greenpeace put whaling on the public radar with its spectacular confrontations in the late ‘70s. These galvanized world opinion and contributed substantially to the 1986 moratorium. Credit should go to: Paul Spong, who initiated the whale campaign (who even remembers him: a quiet, effective man among all the loud egos); Bob Hunter, early Greenpeace’s spiritual guru; and the original Vancouver tribe. 

    Since then Greenpeace has not lived up to the promise of its brilliant start. Indeed, a strong case can be made that Greenpeace has betrayed its original ideals and the expectations of its members. Two examples:

    1. In 2010 Greenpeace co-sponsored the ‘whaling peace plan’ at the IWC. This would have legitimized commercial whaling. Had it passed the recent court decision could never have happened. Luckily the national delegations defeated this sorry capitulation to the whalers.

    2. ‘Greenpeace is not opposed to whaling in principle.’
    — John Frizell, from the Greenpeace Policy Paper 1994

    In other words, its ok so long as it is done ‘responsibly’ in a way that does not diminish whale ‘stocks’ or unduly disrupt the marine ecosystem. 

    Whaling is not a resource management issue. Whales are not just endangered animals, or merely a component of oceanic ecology. They also have a unique intelligence potential and may embody a ‘mind in the waters’ of our 70% ocean world.

    All whales have bigger brains than ours (six times larger in the case of sperm whales). In some species the cerebral cortex, site of abstract thought and higher emotions, is more complexly convoluted than ours. Some also possess special ‘spindle’ neurons, a trait otherwise found only in the great apes and human beings.

    Brains are metabolically very expensive. The three-pound human brain constitutes 2% of our (average) body mass, but consumes 20% of its blood sugar and oxygen. It seems unlikely that such an energy-intensive organ would evolve in the whales and have no purpose or value.

    All of this is circumstantial evidence, inadmissible in any court of law. But it is suggestive. It seems plausible that an advanced awareness could have evolved in the oceans over the last thirty million years. Obviously it would differ from ours. Perhaps these ‘armless Buddhas’ have developed a telepathic rather than a technological form of intelligence. We don’t understand the nature of cetacean consciousness, but should respect the likelihood that it is highly evolved. We certainly should not be killing them for lunch, or any other reason, as long as we remain ignorant of their true evolutionary status.

    Greenpeace has rushed to judgment on the intelligence question before the evidence is in. It has thus lost any claim to scientific objectivity and ethically disgraced itself.

    Whatever its past glories, Greenpeace had little to do with the recent decision. It was the Sea Shepherd’s courageous campaigns that electrified Australian public opinion, which in turn prompted its government to take Japan to court. 

    Greenpeacers past and present should celebrate this victory but not try to grab credit for it. It is enough that this crime has been stopped. It should not become an occasion for unwarranted ego inflation.

  2. right on. and to the millions of people worldwide who marched, signed pledges, wrote letters, and never gave up the fight.

    1. I’ve only just found this article, Brian, being old and not used to Facebook. I want to join others in expressing my deep appreciation to you for writing it. It is a spectacularly fine ‘memorial’. . Inevitably a few missing names but even you can’t be perfect! Very best to you, and thank you. Sidney Holt

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