A former Scottish Fisheries Protection vessel, built by Ferguson Brothers, leaves Hull on Monday to fight whaling in Iceland – where the ship, according to its operations director, will put itself “in harm’s way” to prevent fin whale death.

The John Paul Dejoria, which has been repurposed by the Captain Paul Watson Foundation, is bound first for the waters around Shetland and New York, but ultimately to sail the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland tracking fin-whale hunters.

From New York, the ship will be captained by Captain Paul Watson, a former founder of both Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – and its crew is made up of international volunteers from Canada, USA, Russia, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, UK, South Africa, Sweden, Chile and Mexico.

Mr Watson has said that the mission will "harass, block and do absolutely everything to prevent "illegal fishing," but that the operations will "oppose criminal operations, not legitimate companies".

The John Paul Dejoria's goal, said the ship’s operations director, Captain Lockhart Maclean, is “to reduce the number of whales harpooned and slaughtered and uphold international conservation law.”

Lockhart Maclean on board the John Paul Dejoria, filmed by activist Don Staniford

Whales are protected under a global moratorium, but Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt them commercially, defying the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling - even though it is a member.  In 2006 the country began setting whaling quotas for hunts in its waters and, though it paused for four years, partly due to the pandemic. The hunt resumed and its current quota is over 160 whales.

“Fin whales,” Mr Maclean said, “are highly intelligent, threatened mammals, protected by international treaties including a global ban on commercial whaling, their benefit to ocean ecosystems and biodiversity far outweighs the limited and subsidized economic activity generated in Iceland.” 

"The Icelandic whaling company Hvalur HF harpooned what may have been a blue whale or fin/blue hybrid a few years ago, and does not seem to care that these, the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet, are protected under a global moratorium.

“It cannot be overstated how important the protection of whales and dolphins throughout their migratory ranges is for the health of our planet and for the hope of humankind to slow species loss and extinction and turn the tide on the Anthropocene era.”

READ MORE: Faroes dolphin hunt. Scottish fisheries kill dolphins too

Mr Maclean described the work that the John Paul Dejoria is doing to protect fin whales near European waters as a “back to basics campaign”. “We are fighting for biodiversity in our oceans, and against man-made destruction of biodiversity. It’s a simple case of doing the right thing. 169 Fin Whales could die under the harpoon this summer if we don’t intervene.”

The Herald: Captain Lockhart Maclean at the great Pacific garbage patch clean-up

Mr Maclean has been involved in marine conservation for over two decades. At 20 years old joined Paul Watson to protect sea turtles in the Caribbean and sharks in the Galapagos, starting as a cook and working up to captain. He recalled: “Paul believed passion made up for lack of experience and gave myself and other crew a tremendous amount of responsibility.”

"Since then I have been fortunate enough to be able to protect sharks in the Eastern Pacific, bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, Minke whales in the Antarctic, carry out aid missions to hurricane-affected islands and help set a record in the Pacific for Largest Plastic ocean clean up in History as captain on board a traditional sailing cargo vessel.”

He described the work that the John Paul Dejoria is doing to protect fin whales bear European waters as a “back to basics campaign”. “We are fighting for biodiversity in our oceans, and against man-made destruction of biodiversity. It’s a simple case of doing the right thing. 169 fin whales could die under the harpoon this summer if we don’t intervene.”

The Herald: The John Paul Dejoria, former Scottish fisheries protection vessel, in Hull

Work being done on the John Paul Dejoria

Mr Maclean’s family is originally from Scotland. “We left," he said, "for Japan in the 1820s, setting up lighthouses and shipyards for an Aberdeen-based engineering company during the Tokugawa shogunate, thence to the west coast of North America and eventually Vancouver.

Iceland is one of the last remaining practitioners of a hunt that has been carried out globally, and hunted the animals to Hull, where the ship has been based, has a long history of whaling, and for many years whaling was an important part of the Scottish economy.

Evidence suggests that subsistence-whaling dates back to Neolithic times, and was practiced in the Viking period in Scotland. By the mid-eighteenth century there was a whaling outfit out of almost every Scottish port and it accelerated throughout the industrial period.

READ MORE: New exhibition explores the brutal and bloody work of Scotland's whale hunters

READ MORE: ‘Challenging operation’ removing dead fin whale from beach, says council

The reduction in whaling in Scottish waters began with the 1922 Whale Fisheries (Amendment) Act, after which no further licenses were issued to new companies – though a clause was inserted to ensure that future whaling licenses could be granted to the Hebrides. The last company involved in the industry, Christian Salvesen, stopped hunting in 1963. Whaling off Scotland in the 1920s contributed to the likely extinction of right whales in the eastern North Atlantic.

Nowadays the major threats to whales in Scotland’s waters include entanglement, ship-strike and displacement owing to the effects of climate change.

Meanwhile, Iceland’s whaling industry is likely to come to an end this year. In 2022, the Icelandic fisheries minister announced that the government licences for whaling would likely not be issued when the existing quotas expire in 2023 due to missing economic justifications.

According to a recent survey conducted by pollsters Maskína, two-thirds of Icelanders believe that whaling harms Iceland's reputation.

The man behind this mission, Paul Watson, has been a controversial figure in the ocean conservation world due to his confrontational tactics – which have included using emergency flares as smoke bombs, boarding ships and ramming ships. Most controversial, was Sea Shepherd’s sinking of two unmanned whaling boats in an Icelandic harbour.

In 1977, he was ousted from the board of Greenpeace because of his advocacy of direct action. Last year, he resigned from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society he founded, when he was put under pressure to accept the organisations change in direction away from confrontational campaigns and towards research and negotiation.

In February 2013, a US court of appeal declared Sea Shepherd to be a “without a doubt, a pirate” organisation following attempts by the Japanese whaling industry to bring an injunction against the group.

In an interview last year, he said he did not intend to tone down his tactics.

“Why would I consider doing that?” he said. “I established the approach of aggressive non-violence and that continues to be my primary strategy because it is effective. I have not changed my approach for over half a century.”

He did not eliminate the possibility of ramming whaling ships. He said: “That depends on the situation, i.e. legal status, location and logistics. I have not rammed a ship since 2013 but it’s always a possibility.”

The Herald: The John Paul Dejoria, former Scottish fisheries protection vessel, in Hull

The John Paul Dejoria, which has now been painted in camouflage colours with shark-like teeth, is one ship in Paul Watson’s newly launched Neptune’s Navy. The 72m long, twin-engine vessel was formerly called the Vigilant. Built on the Clyde in 1982, it is, said Mr Maclean, “a very well-built ship, purpose-built for fisheries protection which is exactly what we intend to use her for – for marine conservation and essentially fisheries protection”.

Fin whales, nicknamed ‘the greyhounds of the sea’, are the second largest mammal in the world – after the blue whale. Listed as endangered, they were severely impacted worldwide by commercial whaling.

It has been estimated that there are around 80,000 of these giant animals in the North Atlantic, but in the Southern Hemisphere, where around 750,000 of the species were killed between 1904 and 1979, they are now rarely seen.

An estimated 2.9 million whales were killed during the 20th century, leaving global whale populations decimated and some species close to extinction. According to Whale and Conservation, around 40,000 large whales have been killed globally since the 1986 moratorium.