Whale Wars is epic, must-watch reality TV; cameras were “targeted” by Japanese whalers

Whale Wars ends its second season tonight after transitioning from a great show its first season to a truly excellent one this season. It reminds me of everything I love about reality TV, starting with how completely real it actually is: just cameras filming environmentalists battling whalers just as they’d be doing if cameras weren’t there. I would resort to insults (if you’re not watching, you’re an idiot) or desperate pleas (support this kind of reality TV so we get more of this and less VH1 nonsense), but if you have Animal Planet, you need to be watching this show.

Before the 9 p.m. finale, Animal Planet re-airs the last two episodes starting at 7, and while they have been the most dramatic, they are such great TV largely because of everything that’s come before them. Luckily for those who haven’t yet seen the show, season one is on DVD and season two is on Amazon and iTunes.

Last week’s episode, which is on Animal Planet’s web site, included footage of a Japanese vessel harpooning a whale, shooting it, and eventually processing its meat. It was graphic and horrifying and impossible to look away, and the episode was shot and edited in such a way that the sequence became epic television. While the whale was killed, the Sea Shepherds looked on in horror, unable to do the only thing they’re in the Antarctic to do–stop whaling–because the Japanese whalers have not only adapted to their methods, but escalated their tactics so that they have the upper hand. Fascinating.

One of the best things about the series is how it doesn’t take sides, regardless of what the whalers say; watching whales be killed unnecessarily leads one to be sympathetic toward Sea Shepherds’ cause, except they’re so frequently incompetent that they’re frequently hard to sympathize with. This season, especially, they’ve put themselves–and the TV show’s crew–at risk more than once.

I talked to one of the camera operators, Ashley Dunn, about this, from his home in Australia. He’s worked on both seasons, and was on board the Steve Irwin for about 13 weeks each time. The second season had a film crew of eight people–five camera, an audio director, a producer, and an assistant producer–who “were all put into positions that they were uncomfortable with, there’s no doubt about that,” he told me. But he said, “We’re paid to do the job and we’re all professionals … and luckily everything worked out okay.”

During our conversation, I asked if he’d do season three, if there is a season three, and he said that if asked, “I’d have to consider just the safety … because season two certainly escalated from season one, and I’d imagine that season three would also escalate from both sides.”

Dunn added that “they certainly don’t take in any consideration for the cameraman, either side. The Japanese whalers would actually target the cameras with their equipment to try to stop us filming.” Comparing it to filming other conflicts, he said, “normally media are off-limits in war zones, but down there, the Japanese would definitely try to target the camera first, which I was pretty upset about.”

When they were engaged in conflict, he told me that he “had a lot of confidence in the people” who essentially had his life in their hands: the small boat operators and the helicopter pilot. “I had time in the small boats where we were hit with water cannons fairly heavily. I was in the helicopter when we were hit with the LRAD, as well,” he said.

Still, there was a point at which Dunn’s confidence in the crew wavered, primarily when the Steve Irwin got caught in an ice field. “Being in the ice was probably my worst experience. I was okay when we had ship-to-ship contact, but when we were in the ice, we had no idea where our nearest ship was that would come and rescue us,” he said. “For me, personally, the ice was the most traumatic experience; there’s no doubt about that.” Dunn actually left the rope locker a half-hour before director of photography John Mans left his camera behind.

“It was only in the extremely tense moments for me personally, when I’d say to one of the deckhands, this isn’t good, the whole hull starting to flex; I think I’m going to get out of here,” Dunn told me, and the show has included footage of the TV show’s crew communicating with the boat crew. “We’re definitely trying to be fly on the wall, but there were points–for instance, in the ice–when we would communicate with them,” and including that on TV illustrates that “there’s a human side to it, the guys who are filming,” he said. “You just want to get home at the end of it, you just want to get home in one piece. And you hope that emotions don’t blur the good judgment. Even for us cameramen, it was pretty emotional for us–we were working around the clock with no sleep. The adrenaline’s pumping. … It’s a very highly emotional environment that you’re in.”

As to the subject matter he was documenting for more than three months this year, which he has previously written about for The Huffington Post, Dunn told me, “Most Australians are very aware of what’s happening down there,” and “most Australians are pretty upset that the whaling’s still taking place down there,” so taking the job “was double-sided for me: I was interested for the job, but I was also interested to see for myself what was happening there.”

“I, too, am sympathetic to their cause,” Dunn said, adding that “it would be good for the Sea Shepherd to have some professional people,” since the crew is all-volunteer. “The fact that they are volunteers and there are times when they stuff things up makes it good for the program and makes it interesting for people to watch, but for them to be successful at their cause, they certainly need to have some professionally trained staff.”

Watching Whale Wars, “I hope people get to understand what is happening down there … it’s certainly not a game,” Dunn said. “They’re the only organization that’s trying to do anything about it, whether people see them as politically incorrect or not, they seem to me to be having an effect on the number of whales that are taken, and I suppose that’s a good thing.”

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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.