Whale Wars producer explains intense, life-threatening cliffhanger

If Whale Wars is in the middle of its final season, as Paul Watson predicted, it will go out as one of the best reality TV shows ever. The series continues to edit the real-life actions of the Sea Shepherds into consistently compelling and intense television, as next week’s resolution to last week’s cliffhanger will undoubtedly illustrate. (Because of the holiday weekend, there’s no new episode tonight, but Animal Planet will repeat this entire season so far starting at 7 p.m. ET, so catch up if you’ve missed it.)

That cliffhanger was intense–actually, intense doesn’t really begin to describe last week’s episode–and also controversial, generating discussion among fans of the show, and below, executive producer Liz Bronstein explains her choices to me.

But first, a brief recap: Anyone who continues to insist that the show is propoganda for Sea Shepherd has never actually watched the show. This season, the Sea Shepherd’s newest boat managed to successfully prop foul a boat–itself! Really! But that doesn’t even come close to the potential consequences of what happened next.

An elaborate plan to launch small boats that would hide behind an iceberg and then attach a tracking device to the back of one of the Japanese whaling vessels boats seemed, well, insane. But it went off flawlessly, which was a stunning achievement. (I was pretty much on the edge of my couch as they approached the ship and attached the device; it was like a freaking James Bond film.)

But then, while trying to deploy a prop fouling line, the inexperienced volunteer crew nearly sank one of the small boats and tore a hole in its hull, causing it to take on freezing water. Meanwhile, the ship they were going to rendezvous with, the Bob Barker, went much farther than it was supposed to, so rescue was a half-day away. Thus led to some agonizing television as they marked time and got colder and colder, and one crew member started to suffer from hypothermia. It was horrifying.

The episode ended with a Blair Witch-style shot of the inside of the raft, and the announcer saying, “After 10 hours in the negative 35 degree weather wind chill, these are the last images captured on either of the small boats.”

To me, that felt a little more sensational than it had to be: Although I interpreted that to mean that the cameras had to stop filming for some reason, and although there was obvious real-life consequence to the situation, it did seem to use the crew members’ (Sea Shepherd and camera operators) lives as a teaser. Had crew members actually died, we would have heard about it in the news, so I didn’t feel like that was a real possibility–though I have no doubt that someone could have died, and that this was an actually life-threatening situation for everyone involved, including the people who risk their lives to make this TV show possible.

I asked Whale Wars executive producer Liz Bronstein about that cliffhanger and why it was edited that way, and here’s what she told me:

“I’ll refrain from giving away what happens in next week’s episode but that was in fact the last bit of footage we had from the small boats that day. The ending is intended to convey the grave, life threatening situation they are in by showing that even the cameras are failing. (The cameras actually got wet and froze) Yes, we intended for the audience to wonder if the crew all make it back alive. In my 4 seasons of making Whale Wars, this event is by far the most dire.”

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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.