Judge Victor Valdivia is a staunch environmentalist. He always separates his recyclables before throwing them out of his car window.
You haven't lived until you've found something worth dying for.
That is true. However, as Whale Wars inadvertently demonstrates, dying for no good reason is no great shakes either. This is an immensely entertaining and compelling show but not for the reasons it's supposed to be. It's meant to be a reality show about noble environmental activists putting their lives on the line to stop Japanese whalers. However, what it really becomes is a look at a blowhard wackjob who is an incompetent captain, a miserable leader, and a poor judge of character and his inability to lead his hopelessly inept and undisciplined crew who are a bigger danger to themselves than to the whaling industry. True, it's nowhere near as inspiring and provocative as it's intended to be but it sure is morbidly fascinating nonetheless. It's probably the only TV show in history where the ragtag band of plucky environmentalists isn't any less detestable than the evil industrialized animal butchers.
Whale Wars, which originally aired on Animal Planet, follows the crew of the ship Steve Irwin (yes, named after the Crocodile Hunter) as they launch nuisance attacks on Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean. The ship's captain, Paul Watson, founded the Sea Shepherd Society in 1977 after being thrown out of Greenpeace for being too violent. Along with the ship's crew of mostly volunteers, including First Mate Peter Brown and Cook Benjamin "Pottsy" Potts, Watson embarks on missions to harass the whalers and keep his ship afloat. This two-disc set contains all seven episodes.
To be fair, the issue of international whaling is one that the show is right to address. Laws governing whaling are fuzzy and unenforceable, so it's all but impossible to distinguish between legitimate research and poaching. The show does a pretty good job of explaining the legal inconsistencies that make whaling so controversial and it also explains the basics of how the Japanese whaling industry works. In that regard, Whale Wars does get the story right and tell it reasonably. In fact, the storytelling of both the generals of whaling and the particulars of Watson and his crew is impressive, laying out each character and relating each occurrence lucidly while also making the entire story arresting. You'll eagerly watch each episode wondering what happens next, confident that you're getting a clear retelling of the story.
That clarity, however, isn't going to please Watson or his partisans. It's hilarious to read online criticisms that this show "glamorizes eco-terrorists!" because if there are actually any sympathetic characters here, it's the poor whales. As depicted, Watson is an abysmal leader. For most of the show, he shuts himself off in his cabin for hours to pen astonishingly bad poetry, leaving his untrained and fractious underlings to do most of the actual work. When he does emerge, it's either to ensure he gets full credit in the press for his crew's efforts or to mercilessly berate and browbeat them to perform some poorly planned activity that he just came up with off the top of his head. Inspiring leadership? Meticulous planning? Intellectual foresight? Watson doesn't appear to understand what these terms mean. Clearly, the only reason he's the leader is that it's his boat and he can yell louder and longer than anyone else.
If Watson is a terrible leader, his crew alternates between incompetent and deluded. Brown was apparently given the high rank of First Mate purely because he's Watson's best friend, judging by his appalling inability to make crucial decisions and his arrogant refusal to let others make crucial decisions in his place. Whenever he's not needlessly injuring himself, he's perpetually risking serious injury to the other crew members. The rest of the crew, particularly Pottsie, are all wonderfully naïve and eager but are all so poorly trained and disciplined that they frequently make disastrous mistakes, resulting in serious injuries and expensive damage to the ship and its equipment. For instance, Pottsie, who has had no aviation or military training whatsoever, is assigned the critical task of caring for the ship's helicopter. He then quickly botches the job so badly that he essentially renders the chopper useless for the rest of the season. That's not even to mention the show's jaw-dropping (but undeniably gripping) climax: in the last episode, Watson actually fakes getting shot by a Japanese crewman! He pulls out a slug from his bulletproof vest that he clearly planted there himself, but somehow manages to convince his crew, who demonstrate just how easily gulled they are, that his life is in extreme danger. By that point, Whale Wars has about as much to do with wildlife conservation as an episode of The Apprentice does, but as an example of train-wreck reality TV, it just doesn't get much more entertaining than this.
It would have been useful for the show to provide a little more context on just how Watson could bamboozle so many others into following him despite his enormously unappealing personality but the show doesn't really delve too much into his history and the DVD set doesn't come with any extras that would help. The New Yorker ran an excellent profile of Watson (see Accomplices section) that helps explain his past even better than the show does, and viewers are advised to keep it in mind when watching the show. As for Whale Wars itself, it's definitely not guilty, but not because it's as moving and noble as it was intended. Instead, it's really a gripping sociological study of how the well-meaning and naïve can be easily manipulated by the selfish and egotistical. Also, it's a dandy primer in leadership: every episode is a crystal-clear example of what not to do. Check it out if you're interested in wildly amusing reality TV, but if you actually care about saving the whales, you'd be better advised to send a donation to Greenpeace instead.
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