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‘Whale warrior’ Bethune back in front of cameras in role he prefers

Sep 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, News

LOW KEY: Pete Bethune, the conservationist. PHOTO: Fairfax

PETE Bethune is happy to be back in front of cameras in less sensational circumstances than last year.

The man called a “whale warrior”, “environmental pirate”, even a “terrorist”, is working on a TV series based on marine conservation in Latin America.

The role takes him back to the Discovery Channel programmes which have given him a big following in the US.

One thing he has no intention of doing is playing a role in New Zealand’s approaching election.

“I steer clear of politics,” he says, despite the fact he felt abandoned by the current government during his imprisonment in Japan in February last year after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 whaling vessel in the Southern Ocean.

 “The activist term sits uneasily with me,” he says. “I don’t really consider myself as activist, but certainly I am a conservationist.

Bethune is at his house in Auckland’s Torbay. The leafy, middle –class suburb on the North Shore is hardly the kind a place one would first imagine an activist to live.

Thye 45-year-old is shorter than his TV image, with a shaved head and has those gaunt looking features, often synonymous with a vegan lifestyle.

“I guess I see myself as a conservationist first and foremost,” says Bethune, recently returned from filming in Latin America.

After the boarding incident last year, he was arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard and charged with trespassing, assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property and obstruction of business.

A month before he was arrested, Bethune’s vessel Ady Gill collided with the Shonan Maru 2, causing the sinking of the vessel on which he had spent seven years fundraising and building.

An investigation by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority was inconclusive, not helped by the fact the Japanese government refused to take part. It seemed this was the last straw for Bethune, the catalyst for his decision to board the whaler to make a citizen’s arrest.

ON CAMERA: Pete Bethune fronts media on his release. PHOTO: TV3

 “They sunk my boat under maritime law,” he says. ”There are many obligations placed on a skipper that they haven’t followed through.”

 He took a jet ski and a camera man from Animal Planet and after two attempts managed to get on board.

“The whole objective was to get to Japan and have a trial. That was the objective all along.”

What Bethune did not expect was the media frenzy his arrest would cause.

The day he was handcuffed and escorted by a group of Japanese policemen, it made national headlines on major networks in Australia, America and New Zealand.

However, Japan ensured there was no frenzy there.

“The news there is totally biased against the anti-whaling movement. It never made TV, it was page 5,” says Bethune.

During the trial, journalists could not get into the courtroom. There was ballot system for seats and the majority went to Japanese media.

“There were about 500 people going into the trial, and that was to stop any Sea Shepherd people getting in there, and foreign journalists.”

The trials also drew large, organised Japanese protesters in support of whaling killing. For a time, he was Japan’s most hated man.

Despite the Japanese actions, anti-whaling received unprecedented global attention during the trial.

For assaulting a whaler by hurling a rancid butter stink bomb during a high-seas confrontation, he received two years’ jail, suspended for five years.

Bethune gave environmental activism, and anti-whaling, a “normal” face, especially in Japan where there is a perception of anti-whaling people as a bunch of crack pots throwing butter bombs.

He was raised in Hamilton by a working class parents.  He has a twin brother and one other brother who is a year younger. He was one of the mischievous kids: once, his brothers built a raft and floated down Waikato River.

“Our parents worked during the day, so we did what we wanted making shenanigans,” he says. 

With his adventures and outdoorsy childhood, did he know he was going to be a conservationist?

“I was never an environmentalist as a kid, but it doesn’t surprise me it came along later on.”

What he never imagined he would have as a kid was a criminal conviction: “I would never have considered myself as a criminal in any way. I’ve got five convictions now.”

After university, Bethune worked in the oil industry for many years and it left him feeling uneasy about dependence on fossil foil.

“I became interested in renewable fuels and biodiesel fuels. At the time, there was very little recognition, so I decided to build this biodiesel boat.”

 He made his first attempt in 2007, but “failed miserably”, then a second attempt in 2008. “We were successful second time round.”

While he has admirers, Bethune’s protesting means he also has a lot of critics and, if one was to go by media reports, not many supporters.  He says his critics tend to be right wing types, who are given a lot of air time.

“A big chunk of that was talkback radio, influenced by the National Party, who I was very critical of. It’s the first time I had people criticise me personally.

As you would expect, Bethune gets a bundle of hate mail.  ”Jared”, an electrician from Albany, calling him a low-life scumbag best sums up the abusive emails he receives.

Online anonymity is a safe haven for critics, but what do people say to his face?

“If I was to walk down Browns Bay, for sure people will come up to me and say I respect what you do,” he says.

There was a strong backlash, which he says has a lot to with the New Zealand media habit of polarising issues.

Outside New Zealand, the response was positive, partly to do with Wale Wars, a popular TV show on the Discovery channel. It has a strong American following and Bethune’s profile is positive on the show.

“It converts a lot of people to anti-whaling.”

On the day of the collision, New Zealand Foreign Minster Murray McCully put out a statement that was less sympathetic to Bethune’s situation.

“He’s immediately gone in and said ‘what did we expect?’, almost like we got what we deserved.” 

A while later, Prime Minister John Key equated his situation with Taiwanese drug traffickers standing trial in New Zealand

”In my mind, I am quite different to a bloody drug trafficker.”

New Zealand embassy representatives in Japan visited him about four times in prison, sat in the trial and allowed him correspondence with his family.

“I got no problem with the embassy people,” he says.  However, he had far greater support from the Australian government.

“They really stuck it to Japan and IWC.

The problem with the [NZ] government was how they ditched me.”

He is adamant there is nothing wrong with what he did. In his eyes, he did what he believed in.

If he has any regrets, one is he would be better prepared next time he takes on John Key: “When you take them on, with so many spin people, you’re going to take a hit,” he says with a slight smirk.

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is a Whitireia journalism student.
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  1. This is a nice story. It is good for people to see activists as people with principles rather than just crack pots.

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