After adventures including months at sea with Sea Shepherd in the Southern Ocean, attending the pivotal 2013 International Whaling Commission hearing and many conversations with people in Japan while researching Blood & Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars, author Sam Vincent reached a fairly startling conclusion – it’s not actually about the whales. It’s also not about money, and it’s not actually about any kind of centuries-old tradition.

His book is pure gonzo journalism in style, teasing out the personal characteristics of everyone he meets in sometimes unflattering ways, narrating episodes of heavy beer drinking in pursuit of rapport with reluctant interview subjects, wandering the back streets of small Japanese whaling towns being suspected of being an eco-terrorist and even tasting that most un-PC of meats.

He also interviewed numerous academics, spoke at length with members of the IWC and really, really did not like Paul Watson, one of the founders of Sea Shepherd and currently subject to an international arrest warrant. The notion a Sea Shepherd voyage involves a collection of bright, committed activists who genuinely care for whales going up against the might of the Japanese whalers is not the experience he reports having.

Vincent’s verbatim reportage of conversations and extensive anecdotes, woven through with extensive historical, political and ethnographical research shows that whaling as it is currently carried out is not about science, and nor does it have any kind of solid business case, instead costing the Japanese government millions of dollars annually. It’s not even about a market for whale meat in Japan, where the younger generation by and large would rather eat other things, and so would many of the older generation, unless it is at a cultural festival.

In many ways, he argues, the whaling debate between Australia and Japan is actually about identity, self-determination, and a fair degree of rewriting or conveniently ignoring history. For the Japanese, Vincent says, they are not so much pro-whaling as they are “anti-anti-whaling”, and the Australians are quite possibly actually motivated by deeper-seated historical xenophobia.

As he points out, the Australian government has never taken Iceland or Norway to task at the IWC or the international court of justice for their whaling, which maintains an Indigenous tradition, possibly because they “look like us”. Japan’s whaling tradition, on the other hand, is far more recent, especially in the Antarctic territory, but has been constructed by the country’s leaders as core to the national identity.

One interesting point he does make is that whales have become a totemic species for Australians in terms of the environment, while the distinctions between different cetacean species and their level of endangerment has been lost in the construction of the whale as icon. In this form, however, it has also become proof to Australians concerned about the environment that concerted campaigning and effort can achieve a change for the better – as the book points out, the baleen-bearing species are coming back from the brink of extinction, and whale watching has become a lucrative industry in its own right.

He also points out, however, that it is interesting how few people have transferred the same level of activism to the imminent disappearance of other marine species like the Yellow Fin Tuna, or protecting the Barrier Reef from the impacts of oil tanker movements, or turning the focus on protecting old growth forests.

Vincent interviewed Malcolm Fraser, who banned whaling while Prime Minister, and Fraser pointed out that Australians appear to care more about whales than refugees or asylum seekers, and that this is “not necessarily a distinction with want to be proud of”.

In reporting a conversation with Tim Flannery, the day after the March 2014 IWC ruling, Vincent quotes Flannery as saying: “I think it’s human nature that you’re not going to find a concordance between what people care about and what perhaps most needs our attention.

“So people are always going to care about whales and dolphins more than they care about krill and climate change.”

Peter Bridegwater, a member of the IWC Secretariat, said to Vincent that when the IWC approached Greenpeace and WWF to gauge their reactions to a possible resumption of limited commercial whaling, their view was, “Actually, there are so many more important issues than whaling [that] we’d really like to spend less resources and effort on it, but at the moment we can’t because the public attention is focused on it.”

Does the climate movement need a Sea Shepherd?, I wondered, because for all Vincent’s doubts about the organisation’s people, tactics and motivations, the reality is they have succeeded in highlighting the issue and gaining wide-based (and monetised) support for the protection of whales. Vincent does, however, wonder if this might not have occurred in any case.

At many moments throughout the book, irresistible comparisons came to mind between the whaling industry and the coal industry – both hiding behind a mask of scientific obfuscation, and supported by governments determined to cling to something that isn’t really working for them in the face of growing international condemnation.

Vincent finishes his tour of duty on the ”whale wars” still neither utterly and implacably opposed to all whaling, nor in favour of the resumption of commercial-scale kills.

He writes, “I don’t seem to be allowed a nuanced view: it’s one or the other, you’re one of them or one of us. Whaling divides and unites: a demarcation, a fracture, a border between peoples. It’s akin to the pattern on your kilt, the style of your handshake, the name of your tribe – and the colour of your ship. And it’s been that way for more than 200 years.”

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  1. Fascinating! Thanks so much for reviewing the book – it sounds like the most interesting and insightful thing to have come out of the whole whaling battle. The parallels with climate change are really interesting: once you dig below the surface the debate isn’t about whether or not it’s happening or how serious it is but about the same types of identity markers, the pattern on your kilt and the name of your tribe.