“Save the Whales” 35th Anniversary

by Sebastian Stelios

April 27, 2010

On April 27, 1975, Greenpeace launched the world’s first anti-whaling campaign from the docks of Vancouver.  The mission would become the spark that ignited a global “Save the Whales” movement and eventually helped secure an international ban on commercial whaling.  

Sadly, on the 35th anniversary of Greenpeace’s first voyage to save the whales, an American president threatens to undo decades of hard work for whale conservation.  President Obama’s representatives are now supporting a proposal to overturn the international ban on commercial whaling and legitimize Japan’s “scientific” slaughter in the Southern Ocean.

Bob HunterAs Greenpeace gears up for one of the biggest battles that the war against whaling has ever seen, we look back on the story of our first anti-whaling mission with the hope that it will inspire President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of “strengthening the international moratorium on commercial whaling” – not overturning it… 

Following Greenpeace’s historic maiden voyage to protest the nuclear destruction of Amchitka Island, the U.S. nuclear testing program was shut down, Amchitka was designated as a wildlife sanctuary, and Bob Hunter, Greenpeace’s founder and first president, was hailed as the new leader of the environmental movement.  

It was at this critical turning point in Greenpeace’s history that Bob Hunter met Dr. Paul Spong.  Dr. Spong had recently been dismissed from the Vancouver Aquarium where he was studying their first captive orca whale, Skana.  His groundbreaking research with Skana proved for the first time that orcas are highly intelligent, emotional, and social creatures that should not be held in captivity.  The aquarium directors were not pleased when Spong stated publicly that the orca wanted to be free.  

Dr. Spong spoke with Hunter and the rest of Greenpeace about Skana’s plight and the plight of other great whales around the world.  He told the members about the great, stinking death ships in the Pacific which were massacring these gentle giants with factory-like efficiency.  

Dr. Spong & SkanaThe Greenpeace team was appalled.  Something had to be done to stop the slaughter.

So on April 27, 1975, Bob Hunter, Dr. Spong, and a brave team of activists hoisted a new sail on the little Greenpeace ship and set out to confront the Pacific whaling fleets head-on.  “If Russia and Japan decide to whale any longer, they will have to do it over our dead bodies,” Hunter proclaimed, as a crowd of 30,000 supporters gathered at the Vancouver docks to see the Greenpeace crew off.  

In late June, the team picked up their first radio transmission from a Soviet whaling ship.  As they drew closer to the coordinates, the sea turned red and the enormous corpses of harpooned sperm whales floated all around them.  The Greenpeace crew immediately lowered several of their high-speed inflatable rafts and zoomed towards the Soviet harpoon boat.  The inflatables chased down the whaling ships and positioned themselves between the harpoons and the whales.  

At one point, a harpoon was fired just over Bob Hunter’s head, nearly killing him.  But the inflatable rafts continued to defend the whales from the whalers and countless were saved.  Eventually, the Soviet ships retreated for fear of killing the humans and creating a major incident.   

The mission was a success.  “For the first time in the history of whaling,” reported The New York Times, “human beings had put their lives on the line for whales.”

Activists place themselves between a harpoon ship and a pod of whalesThe pictures and video that the Greenpeace crew brought back shocked the world and sparked an international outcry.  After several more confrontations and nearly a decade of intense lobbying, the International Whaling Commission finally accepted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.  

Greenpeace paid for the commercial whaling moratorium with our blood, sweat, and tears.  As a result, many whale species once on the verge of extinction are beginning to recover, slowly but steadily. Despite Japan’s continued violation of the moratorium through a loophole that allows for "lethal science," just a few decades of protection has done wonders for the whales:

* Blue whales are increasing by 8.2% a year.
* Southern right whales are increasing by 7% a year.
* Humpback whales are increasing 3.1% a year in the Northwest Atlantic, 11-12% a year in the Southern hemisphere, and 7% a year in the Northeast Pacific.
* Eastern gray whales have increased from only a few hundred in the early 1900’s to more than 20,000 today.
* Fin whales, which Japan continues to hunt, are not increasing in population but their rapid decline towards extinction has been halted.

This is the whales’ most desperate hour.  Please rush your most generous support to help us tackle this new threat head-on and take action by signing our petition and telling President Obama how you feel about his plan to reinstate commercial whaling.

On this 35th anniversary of Greenpeace’s first mission to save the whales, I leave you with the words of Dr. Paul Spong and pray that President Obama will heed his warning:

"The whales, the cetacea: creatures of light, monsters of the deep, fuel for ancient lamps, aquatic acrobats, food for empty bellies, the biggest brains on the planet, twenty million years in the making, now on the anvil under the hammer of fate.  Going, going, gone…nearly gone.  It is one of the ironies of our time that, just as we are beginning to marvel at the complexity of the nature of whales, we are on the verge of destroying them forever." 

all photos are (c)Rex Weyler/Greenpeace


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