Whale Wars: Viking Shores

Whale Wars: Viking Shores

Last time on Whale Wars, maritime crusader Paul Watson and the plucky volunteers who make up his organization Sea Shepherd had run the Japanese Whaling Fleet out of the Southern Ocean. Despite some doubt as to whether this truly meant the end for Antarctic whaling, Sea Shepherd celebrated, then cast about for another place where they could apply their high profile obstructionist tactics while being filmed for television consumption. Their new target would be the Faroe Islands off the coast of Denmark, where the natives observe an ancient whaling tradition called the grindadrĂ¡p. Seems like the perfect cocktail of ingredients. The grind is a notoriously bloody spectacle and already the subject of considerable negative attention from several environmental groups. Sea Shepherd is already infamous for skirting the line between fervent activism and moronically executed violence. The setup looks like it would make for an explosive showdown. What we get instead for five episodes of Whale Wars: Viking Shores is an awkward social experiment were Sea Shepherd plays the role of general nuisance to the Faroese while psyching themselves up for a confrontation that never takes place.

Even Paul will admit that local attitudes towards the grind aren't uniform. And for reasons that have nothing to do with him. There are legitimate concerns about the rising toxicity levels found in whale meat. There's a growing generation gap between the old who see it as integral to their cultural identity and the young who find it a Medieval anachronism. And there's also a growing gender gap as young women are more likely to express ambivalence towards this traditionally male dominated activity. Only a few of those voices get to have their say, mainly a local doctor who's worried about the health effects of consuming whale meat. For their part, Sea Shepherd seems more interested in picking a fight than in fostering constructive dialogue. A group of volunteers disrupt a festival by playing whale songs over a loudspeaker until they're told to move their vehicle. I'm not sure if this behavior is the product of genuine obtuseness or a shameless ploy to drum-up some excitement for the camera. But it's almost cartoonish how the volunteers react with surprise and dismay when their activities predictably evoke a belligerent response from the locals. My guess is if anyone wanted to express doubts about the grind to the film crew, they would have been intimidated rather than empowered by the fear of an angry mob possibly forming around Sea Shepherd's finest.

Naturally, some low-level hostility accompanies Sea Shepherd's interactions with the Faroese wherever they go. Some of the locals even play-up their dislike for Paul to the camera. The irony of being the ones on the receiving end of such verbal harassment seems to be lost on the volunteers, and after awhile, they become a little paranoid. But the threat is overstated and there's no breakout of actual violence. And while that's a good thing, it also highlights the problematic nature of the series. In the past, the Japanese Whalers could be counted on to function as convenient antagonists who Sea Shepherd generally avoided confronting face-to-face. This made them far easier to demonize for the TV audience, not to mention exoticize for being the inscrutably foreign "other". Not so with the Faroese, who are even more whitebread than the activists themselves and eager to defend their views to the camera. They provide a counter-narrative missing in past seasons of the show. While they mostly come across as old-fashioned and even a little insular, the Sea Shepherd crew doesn't exactly help their own cause when some of them label the locals "ignorant" and "violent" during their own confessionals.

Given that Viking Shores substitutes the usual high seas adventure with a lot of pointless intrigue and onshore bickering, the series odd payoff only occurs when after six weeks the campaign ends a little prematurely so that Sea Shepherd can resume their war with the Japanese Whalers. Not that anyone is pleased to hear that the Japanese have begun whaling again, but at least with them Sea Shepherd is on more familiar footing. As they're making their way out of Faroese waters, the crew finally spots their first pod of pilot whales. After herding them away from the Islands, Paul declares the entire campaign a resounding success because of course he does. Perhaps the series producers weren't so impressed with his glowing assessment or the decision to take off and leave behind one subset of whales just to go rescue another subset, as it's noted in the show credits that 109 pilot whales were killed in a grind that took place exactly a week later.