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The Whale Warrior

 The Big Issue South Africa 24 October 2019

Whale warrior and South African Rosie Kunneke talks of her life on the high seas as a modern day privateer in the struggle to combat commercial whaling. (1210 Words) - By Leanne Farish

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BI SA_The Whale Warrior

 Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

Last year South African Rosie Kunneke packed in her successful financial 
operations management career, sold her car and said goodbye to her former life to become an animal rights activist. She later spent three months in the Southern Ocean as a crewmember on board the Bob Barker, one of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's anti-whaling vessels.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, made famous by the Animal Planet documentary series Whale Wars, is a controversial and aggressive conservation group which, when it comes to defending ocean wildlife, isn't afraid to get physical. Its message is clear: if you want to mess with the whales, you'll have to get past us first.

The Big Issue caught up with Kunneke during a brief visit to Cape Town to find out why she's put life and limb on the line to save sea life.

"I watched The Cove documentary almost two years ago. It changed my life. I've always been an animal lover and I thought I couldn't see this and not do anything about it. So the next day I started to research the relationship between humans and animals and I was really shocked at what I discovered about how humans exploit and abuse animals. That same day I turned vegan; I stopped eating any products that come from an animal.

"I wanted to do more for animals. I believe there's a place for protests and petitions and so on, but I was looking for an organisation that would allow me to get directly involved in saving animals. That's how I found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I decided to quit my job, sell my car and become a full-time animal rights activist.

"The first campaign I got involved in with Sea Shepherd was their campaign in Japan called The Cove Guardians. The campaign is in Taiji - that's the small town where the cove is - and they have activists on the ground for the entire slaughter season to document and to raise awareness for the world to see what the Japanese are doing. We follow them and we film what they do. We climb mountains and sit in trees just to get footage of what is going on.

"We received a lot of death threats and the police and the coastguard followed us everywhere because they were afraid that we'd cut the nets to release the dolphins. It's putting pressure on them to stop the slaughter."

Sea Shepherd is a marine conservation society. Captain Paul Watson, one of the original co-founders of Greenpeace, founded it in 1977. After a few years with Greenpeace he got a bit disillusioned and didn't agree with their passive method. He wanted to be more direct. He then decided to start his own conservation society.

"The Sea Shepherd takes existing marine conservation treaties, laws and conventions and enforces them on the high seas. Because if you look at all the treaties and conventions -the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on whaling, the Antarctic Treaty and the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary that is in Antarctica - these are existing regulations that are not being enforced by the countries that signed the treaties. Outside of their own 200-mile economic exclusive zones, nobody is patrolling the high seas to monitor what is happening.

"There was an international moratorium placed on commercial whaling in 1986. The International Whaling Commission said that nobody is allowed to commercially hunt whales. But they left a loophole and said that you are still allowed to kill whales for scientific research. So now Japan is using that loophole. Every year the Japanese have a self-imposed quota that says they're going to kill over a thousand whales for scientific research. But in the past 23 years they've never had a relevant peer-reviewed scientific report published. Sea Shepherd's view is that they're clearly not doing any scientific research.

"I got noticed by Sea Shepherd in Taiji and they asked me to join the campaign to Antarctica on the Bob Barker at the end of last November. I was a deckie on the Bob Barker. You sign a waiver saying that you're willing to die for the cause. But you rarely think of the dangers to yourself because everybody's convictions are so strong. My convictions are very strong. I believe that I stand for something and if you're not willing to die for something, you're going to die for nothing. But the captains are very experienced, so I always felt safe. They've got strict safety regulations, we get safety training and there's always a doctor on board."

"The main strategy of the campaign is to locate the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru. The harpoon ships in the Japanese whaling fleet go out and hunt the whales, then bring the whales back to the Nisshin Maru to its slipway where the whales are pulled up onto deck to be cut up. The Nisshin Maru is a huge ship and its crew is very efficient -within 45 minutes a 30-ton whale is cut up and packed into small boxes. Our strategy is to locate that factory ship and stay on the stern to make it impossible for them to transfer the whales. If they try, we literally push in between the harpoon ship and the factory ship so they can't get the whales onto the factory ship. If we don't let them get any whales onto the factory ship, it's totally useless for them to continue killing any whales.

"We're trying to make the whalers' lives as difficult as possible, so we use things like butyric acid, which smells extremely bad. If it hits their decks, they can't work in that smell because it's just that bad. The second thing we throw at them is cellulose powder, which is extremely slippery when it gets wet, so if you can get that onto their decks, it's impossible for them to work. All of these things are biodegradable so we don't use anything that will harm the ocean.

"Asking people nicely not to hurt animals never works. You must hurt them where it will hurt them the most. And that's in their pockets. We're trying to cost them as much money as possible, because as long as they're making money, the welfare of the animal will never come first. For a minke whale they can get up to US$250 000. For a big humpback they can get up to US$1million. So you can see that with every whale they don't kill it's a lot of money they lose.

"Campaign No Compromise was actually the most successful campaign to date because, out of the Japanese whalers' quota of around 1 000 whales, we stopped them at only 172. Then they called the fleet back and said it's pointless for them to hang around there because they're not going to be able to kill any more whales [because of Sea Shepherd's interference].

"I believe that every living being has the basic right of living its life free of pain and suffering and exploitation by another species. That's my bottom line. On the level of pain and suffering, we're all equal."

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