Camera operator bails as Whale Wars ship gets caught in ice

In the 16 years I’ve been watching reality television, I can never remember a camera operator putting down his or her camera and leaving because the cast’s actions threatened their lives. But that’s pretty much what happened on last week’s Whale Wars, when the bumbling crew got themselves caught in a pack of ice in a ship that wasn’t designed to handle ice.

“This is where my commitment ends. I am not drowning in the ropes,” John Mans said after his camera captured the hull of the boat flexing inward as it rubbed up against chunks of ice. Although the narrator identified Mans as a “camera operator,” he’s credited as the director of photography on the series. “Camera’s on. Good luck, and don’t risk your life. Seriously. We’re gonna need to abandon this ship,” he told the crew member as he left his camera behind.

Of course, since there was footage of this, the crew didn’t drown nor abandon the ship; eventually, they found a way out, but not before they donned their survival suits and walked around the ship looking horrified. Watching “graphic raw footage” of a whale harpooning like this, it’s easy to sympathize with the volunteer crew’s cause, but you can’t help but wish they weren’t as, well, frequently stupid. Anyone who thinks this is pro-Sea Shepherd propaganda hasn’t watched an episode.

Their commitment and passion is admirable, but their utter incompetence is overwhelming–particularly that of the people who are allegedly the leaders, like the first mate who dismisses a younger crew member’s smart plan to safely load crews onto the smaller boats that chase after the whalers, or who ignored ice charts and thus missed a passage to get them to safety. The bumbling idiocy would be comic if it didn’t have such potentially deadly consequences, like when they got caught in ice in a ship not rated for ice. Captain Paul Watson doesn’t seem to do much more than talk a big game and walk around with his mouth open. Perhaps that’s editing, and the crew is certainly committed to him, but he doesn’t seem like much of a leader.

But his actions and inaction, which ultimately led the show’s director of photography to leave his camera behind, are just further evidence as to why the series is so engrossing and great. There’s a lot of drama in this documentary. Here’s footage, minus the narrator, of the flexing hull and camera operator’s decision to not drown:

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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.