Japanese whalers say Animal Planet staged Whale Wars shooting

Animal Planet’s Whale Wars concluded its first season Friday night (it’s been renewed), and that episode included a dramatic confrontation between the Sea Shepherds and the Nisshin Maru, a boat that processes whale meat but says “research” on its side. Among the things written on the side of the Nisshin Maru and clearly visible in the episode was a URL on it: icrwhale.org, the web site of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which lists the ICR’s research activities and says it is “a Japanese scientific body that studies whales.” Also on the site are two press releases from earlier this fall, both of which accuse Animal Planet of faking an incident in the finale.

After the Sea Shepherds hurled foul-smelling and slippery substances onto the Nisshin Maru’s deck, the boat’s crew threw flash bangs back at them, and then captain Paul Watson said he’d been shot. A crew member later dug a bullet out of his Kevlar vest (no one else, it seemed, was wearing a bulletproof vest), and the actual shooting wasn’t captured on film, so the whole thing was intriguing, at the very least.

Whale Wars itself has been pretty even-handed, as the Sea Shepherds often come across as bumbling, incompetent, and irrational (I climbed aboard your boat and you kidnapped me!), however committed they are to stopping the actions of whalers that seems pretty damning, questionable, and horrifying. That was true of the finale, as the narration during Friday’s episode made it clear that it’s possible the incident was faked, but not by the network or the filmmakers. “But what actually happened is the subject of much dispute,” the narrator says, adding that “the Japanese whalers say no shots were fired” and alter calling it the “alleged shooting.”

It’s an odd choice, then, for the ICR to attack the network, since Animal Planet’s series isn’t exactly Sea Shepherd PR, but that’s what the ICR does. In a Nov. 6 press release titled Animal Planet Deceives its Audience with Whale Wars [PDF], the ICR says the series “purports to be a reality TV program, but instead it shows staged events directed by the Animal Planet filmmakers themselves.” It says the final episode included “an elaborate fake incident in which Animal Planet choreographed a supposed shooting of the leader of the ecoterrorist group Sea Shepherd.”

Still, it runs down a number of points arguing why it would have been impossible for Watson to have been shot, including that “No gunshot can be heard on the footage” and “a real shot will knock a victim backwards and cause bruising.” Instead, as a Japanese statement that the narrator read during the broadcast said, “as in western movies, the claim that he was miraculously saved by a badge,” as Watson was hit exactly where he was wearing a cop-like shield that split in two. The only damage to his skin was apparently from that badge.

The Sea Shepherds, no strangers to issuing press releases to support their cause, issued a line-by-line response to that press release, issued several releases last March about the shooting that address those claims and others: Japanese Open Fire on Sea Shepherd Crew: Three Injured, Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson Survives Shooting Attempt in Antarctica, and Japanese Scramble to Spin Shooting Story. Their web site also has photographs of the bullet and badge.

In any case, the ICR’s attempt to blame Animal Planet is probably the wrong way to go, considering how the series makes their arguments for them frequently, pointing out that the Japanese are acting appropriately under international law. Whatever actually happened with the shooting, the controversy only adds to the real-life drama that made the series so compelling and popular.

The Institute of Cetacean Research
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.