In the grand tradition of ineffectual U.N. resolutions, a 1986 ban on whaling, adopted to staunch the slaughter of mammals edging perilously close to extinction, hasn’t been adequately enforced. Three nations in particular—Norway, Iceland, and Japan—have continued the hunt, the latter using a loophole on killing whales for “research” purposes to mask its true mercenary intentions. Save-the-whales activists are divided into two camps: Greenpeace merely “bears witness” to the whaling practice as a way of convincing international bodies to enforce the law. But an eco-radical splinter group called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, spearheaded by Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson, believes in intervention, which involves actively disrupting whaling fleets. Sea Shepherd volunteers are modern-day pirates, operating without a national flag and thus subject to arrest for tactics that the organization’s critics liken to terrorism.
Dan Stone’s gripping documentary At The Edge Of The World tags along on a 2006 Sea Shepherd voyage to stop a Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic Ocean, and in doing so, sacrifices politics for immediacy. There are serious questions about the group’s effectiveness in advancing its cause, but Stone elides them in favor of a David vs. Goliath battle on the high seas. Facing a fleet that’s faster, better equipped, and more capable of tracking its adversaries on radar, the Sea Shepherd crew are dogged in their pursuit and crafty in their low-tech methods, which range from “stink bomb” canisters that pollute enemy decks to frayed rope skeins intended to gum up propellers to a “can opener” that tears holes in ships’ hulls.
At The Edge Of The World plays like an extended episode of Deadliest Catch with eco-warriors as the stars—in fact, the Animal Planet show Whale Wars, now in its second season, follows Sea Shepherd’s exploits—and it’s frequently a rousing adventure. Particularly exciting is an episode where two Sea Shepherd members go missing, and the adversaries become temporary allies in helping track them down. But Stone misses the political consequences of even a successful mission: The short-term victory of saving whales one season yields the long-term problem of whaling fleets gaining stronger military and diplomatic support. Either way, it’s an important debate in which Stone’s film refuses to participate.