Viking Shores: Whale Wars goes into Sea Shepherd’s mind, and it’s a scary place

After a ridiculously fast season, six hours over four weeks, Whale Wars: Viking Shores concludes tonight with two back-to-back episodes, having taken us into the minds of Sea Shepherd’s activists to find its drama. (Alas, Sea Shepherd founder and captain Paul Watson won’t be able to watch, as he’s in a German jail facing extradition to Costa Rica.)

Animal Planet’s spin-off of one of its most-popular series has been fascinating, but it’s not at all as dramatic or tense as the original Whale Wars. While it has all of the strong technical work of the original–gorgeous photography, a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel, dramatic cliffhangers (watch for free)–its subject matter prevents it from being as exceptional as the original series, as it lacks the drama of the hunt and confrontations that are part of the Southern Ocean campaigns.

What has been most interesting about this season for me is that it has derived nearly all of its drama from Sea Shepherd’s paranoia, and that’s often made for frightening moments. The tension comes from what Sea Shepherd crew members think might happen rather than what actually does happen, because with the exception of some annoyed and/or drunk people, nearly everyone they interact with is pleasant and gracious.

The activists haven’t faced a single actual threat–or, it’s worth noting, a single whale, though I suspect tonight’s finale will show them encountering a pod of whales way offshore. Instead, they’re constantly imagining threats, like when the Brigitte Bardot crew went diving, and panicked about a group of people watching from a nearby bridge. At least in the edited version of the series, Sea Shepherds always consider the worst (they could kill us by throwing things into the water!) than the most likely (they’re curious about this strange-looking boat and camera crews). Meanwhile, it’s grating and awkward to watch Sea Shepherd’s attempts to communicate with the Faroese, like interrupting a celebration to just randomly ask about whaling.

The net result of that drama-from-paranoia alongside the Sea Shepherd land crew’s less-than-smart attempts to engage the Faroese is a series that takes the moral authority away from Sea Shepherd and actually invites sympathy for people who kill non-endangered whales, as they have for centuries, using methods that are brutal to watch but probably better than what we do to the animals we kill for food in the United States.

My major complaint with the series is that, despite the very welcome attention to the Faroese point of view–cameras have spent considerable time with a whaling foreman and his family–it hasn’t explored the complexity of whaling in the Faroes. Its time limitations and need to build a visual narrative and drama probably make that challenging, but still, it’s necessary to make this stand as a clear picture of what’s happening there.

For one, not everyone in the Faroes supports or cares about whaling, though perhaps those who don’t were unlikely to be interviewed on camera, making including that challenging to include on a TV series. Also, as I wrote about in Playboy, whale meat isn’t the only source of food in the Faroes, and the government actually has guidelines restricting its consumption because of toxins. They don’t subsist on it, basically, but I’m not sure viewers would know that after watching the series, which tends to feature Faroese people defending whale meat as both tradition and necessity.

While Sea Shepherd definitely brought attention and a spotlight to the Faroe Islands, if their goal was to stop whaling, I’m not sure they succeeded, because they never saw any whales or stopped any grinds, although several happened right after they left. (Last year, a not-atypical number of whales were killed.) If their goal was to win over the Faroese and viewers, it definitely seems like they also didn’t succeed.

But Whale Wars: Viking Shores did succeed, in the sense that it gave us a more thorough look at Sea Shepherd’s work and its consequences, good and bad.

Whale Wars: Viking Shores: B+

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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.