‘Whale Wars’ series includes Bainbridge woman

Izumi Stephens of Bainbridge Island, now a full-fledged crew member with Sea Shepherd, is looking forward to watching the fourth season of “Whale Wars,” which begins Friday.

Izumi Stephens

A preview for the program shows Izumi standing on the deck of a ship, gazing into the ocean with tears in her eyes. The clip is so short that even she can’t recall when that emotional moment was caught on film.

“It was probably when I saw a whale,” she said — though it could have been during other events, such as when the Sea Shepherd crew searched for a private yacht that had gone missing. Only an empty lifeboat was found.

Izumi, who has not seen any of the final footage, said she remained in an emotional state during much of the voyage through the Southern Ocean, where Sea Shepherd did its best to disrupt the operations of the Japanese whaling fleet.

Many crew members cried tears of happiness when they learned that the Japanese whalers were packing up and leaving the Antarctic a month earlier than normal, their efforts to catch whales confounded by the anti-whaling group. The whaling would stop — at least for this year — and Sea Shepherd crew members would return home to their families.

Izumi, who is a native of Japan, served as a translator for Sea Shepherd. Unlike previous translators, Izumi put her identity on the line rather than wearing a mask and staying in the background. Promoters of “Whale Wars” told me that Izumi will be seen frequently in later episodes in the series, which continues into August.

For previous reports on Izumi, check out my original story in the Kitsap Sun on Oct. 31, and in Water Ways Nov. 1, Jan. 14 and Feb. 22.

Three days after Izumi returned to her son and daughter on Bainbridge Island, she was shaken to her core by the earthquake that struck Japan, followed by the tsunami and nuclear disaster. Most of her family lives in Tokyo.

She could not believe reports that placed the earthquake at magnitude 9.0, and she could never imagine a wave large enough to overtop the massive seawall designed to protect against tsunamis.

Izumi, who had come to the United States in 1993 to attend college, returned for awhile in 1995 to help victims of the Hanshin, or Kobe, earthquake, which was listed at magnitude 7.2. So she had a personal perspective when she heard about the March 11 earthquake.

“At first, I was speechless,” she said. “It was a nightmare. They said it was over 9. I thought that was not possible.”

Her family was OK, but her aunt with her two children recently left Japan for Thailand out of concern for radiation following leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

“My heart was broken for the loss of life in the Tōhoku area,” Izumi told me. “And the Japanese people are quite upset right now, because their government has been hiding information (about the nuclear risks),” she said.

The government’s failure to fully inform the people has been a tough awakening, Izumi said, because Japanese citizens want to believe their government. For her, the awakening came when she learned how far the government would go to support whaling.

“In Sea Shepherd, I realized that the government hid many truths,” she explained.

Izumi’s son, who recently graduated from Washington State University, will fly to Japan this week to take a job on the docks before he begins graduate school this fall at the University of Washington. Izumi is not keen on the trip, but the rebuilding effort in Japan has made jobs more plentiful than here.

Izumi’s love of animals also led to her involvement in an effort to save pets left behind following the earthquake in Japan, where communities were evacuated because of the radiation threat.

“People had to leave, but they couldn’t take their animals,” she told me. “It is horrible. Most of them left lots of food and water, and some people are going back into the evacuation zone. But the government prohibits people from going in. Right now I don’t know what has happened.”

She said she is upset that the Japanese government appears to have no concern for thousands of dogs and other stranded animals left to starve unless someone helps. For information, she refers people to the website of the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS).

Meanwhile, Izumi has volunteered to go back to her homeland as one of Sea Shepherd’s “Cove Guardians,” a group involved in documenting the annual dolphin roundup and slaughter in Taiji, Japan. If she goes, Izumi realizes that she faces a far more uncomfortable and risky situation than she ever did aboard ship, because of the potential for direct confrontation with Japanese dolphin hunters.

Izumi has returned to her former job as a massage therapist on Bainbridge Island. Compared to her exciting high-seas adventures, massage is an unexciting, low-key occupation. Yet she said she appreciates the words of support she has received from her clients and other local residents, as she waits for her next assignment.

The new 10-episode season of “Whale Wars” is launched Friday at 9 p.m. on Animal Planet network.

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