A legendary activist known as 'The Phantom' is back in Australia to save the whales, again

Off Albany, Western Australia, in 1977. Jean Paul Gouin. In the background is the Cheynes II, one of three whale chaser ships. Image from The Last Whale: Copyright Jonny Lewis. All Rights Reserved
  • An international movement is growing to ban whaling on ethical grounds.
  • A key activist from the 1970s Save the Whales campaign says Australia should take the lead.
  • Australia killed its last whale almost 40 years ago, on November 20, 1978.

The phantom, the international activist who was a key player in ending whaling in Australia, has quietly slipped back into the country to put together a new team for the old cause.

Jean Paul Gouin, who conceived, financed and executed a direct action campaign against Australia’s last whaling station, at Albany, Western Australia, in 1977, has launched one last campaign.

The Frenchman has re-surfaced in Australia because he sees a parallel between the politics of the late 1970s and the federal election coming by May next year.

An inquiry into whaling was promised by the Liberal Party at a federal election four decades ago after the Labor Party in opposition had promised to close the last Australian whaling station.

The political parties were then forced to act by a grassroots campaign, winning community support against whaling, by many environment groups, including the Friends of the Earth offshoot Project Jonah.

The inquiry, by judge Sir Sydney Frost, recommended that Australia not only end whaling but also actively pursue an end to whaling worldwide.

Australia killed its last whale almost 40 years ago, on November 20, 1978.

But whaling has not quite been outlawed in the world.

Gouin now wants a global ethical ban on whaling, on the grounds that whales have extraordinarily complex brains, that they belong to all humans and not just the whalers, that their deaths diminish humanity, not enhance it, that their deaths heighten the risk of extinction, and that whaling is cruel not only for those harpooned but also for their kin who survive in broken family groups.

“Many man-made threats such as overfishing, pollution, ship collisions and net entanglement imperil the future of many whales species,” he says. “The ethical decision is to ban commercial whaling.”

Since that 1970s inquiry, science has come a long way in understanding the intellect of whales, their problem-solving, language comprehension, and complex social behaviour.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest professional scientific society in the world, at its annual meeting in 2012 ran a symposium: “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Ethical and Policy Implications of Intelligence.”

The symposium was told: ” … these cetaceans are far more intellectually and emotionally sophisticated than previously thought.”

Gouin says what is needed to get the ball rolling is one country officially proposing an ethical ban to the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

That country could be Australia or New Zealand, he says.

He had met Australian MP Josh Frydneberg, now Australia’s Treasurer, at an IWC meeting in Slovenia in 2016, and had hoped to meet with the then environment minister in person in Australia but the leadership challenge in the parliamentary Liberal party got in the way.

“It could be a repeat of the elections in 1977, with Labor in the opposition including an ethical ban on their platform, and the Liberals promising an inquiry,” says Gouin, now aged 74.

“Then the whales would win no matter who gets elected. I want to see commercial whaling stopped before I die.”

Gouin was also a driver behind the official whaling moratorium, the issuing of zero catch quotas, in 1982. At that time, he was a commissioner to the IWC, representing Panama, and he convinced several small countries in the Caribbean to join and vote for the moratorium.

A Minke whale on the flensing deck of the Japan whale factory ship, Nisshin Maru. Image: Sea Shepherd

“Norway is the only country today which whales commercially legally because they filed an objection within 60 days of the moratorium vote,” he says.

“Japan did not object, but continued whaling under the fake pretense of scientific research.”

Australia took Japan to the ICJ (International Court of Justice) and won in 2014. But Japan continues to harpoon Minke whales in the Antarctic.

Iceland did not file an objection to the moratorium and it left the IWC for a few years. Then it rejoined with a fresh objection which is in violation of the IWC’s convention and was protested by many other countries.

Gouin was also instrumental, with the late Greenpeace President David McTaggart, in getting France to propose a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a 50 million square kilometres no whaling zone around Antarctica.

The vote on the Southern Ocean Sanctuary went through 25 to one, with only Japan abstaining.

“The idea for an ethical ban isn’t new, and a large majority of the scientific community agree that some species of whales have extraordinarily complex neocortexes by any measure,” Gouin says.

An ethical ban proposal by a member country in the IWC would oblige each country to vote yes or no.

Gouin believes that if there was a vote today there would be at least a simple majority at the IWC in favour of an ethical ban.

Getting the necessary three-quarters majority would take some more work, but once in place, it could never be reversed.

“I think it will shut down what is left of commercial whaling,” says Gouin. “Also it will discourage Japan’s dreams of resuming commercial whaling one day.”


The Phantom, a kind of Captain Ahab in reverse, wanting to save Moby Dick from harpoons, causes ripples when he turns up in Australia.

A whispered phone call from Mick McIntyre, the documentary maker (Kangaroo) and head of the NGO Whales Alive. He has met Jean Paul at the last two IWC meetings in Slovenia.

“I have The Phantom here in my studio, working away. The Phantom!” says McIntyre from his studio in Sydney. “He has such amazing ideas.”

Jean Paul Gouin in Sydney. Image: Chris Pash

In Sydney, Gouin also met with Alex Tibbits of Wilderness Society and David Ritter from Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

And Gouin caught up with photographer Jonny Lewis, the Australian spokesman for the direct action in 1977.

It was Lewis who, seeing Gouin in action at an IWC meeting in Canberra in 1977, nicknamed him the Phantom after the comic book hero because he appeared out of nowhere to fight the bad guys.

Lewis and Gouin that year shared an inflatable Zodiac boat to chase Australia’s last whalers across the Southern Ocean, running interference to put the harpooners off their aim.

Gouin is disappointed that their 1970s headquarters in Sydney’s Edgecliff, which he fondly refers to as a “rat hole”, has been knocked down.

He was last in Australia in 2007 when he and his fellow activists were recognised as founders of Greenpeace Australia.

The Australian arm of that international environment group traces its start to August 1977 when the Phantom and his friends, including Canadian Bob Hunter, the first president of Greenpeace, took to small open boats to use themselves as human shields between sperm whales and harpoons.

Gouin paid for the whole action himself, bringing Hunter and his wife, Bobbi, the first treasurer of Greenpeace, from North America, to Australia.

He estimates he spent about $US1 million in the 1980s and ’70s, and enormous sum then, saving the whales. Some of it was spent organising a language learning experiment with bottlenose dolphins in Florida.

“Technology has advanced enormously,” he says. “We need an X-Prize (an open international reward) for the team with the best results studying communications with any of the 80 plus species of whales and dolphins.”

The source of his wealth has been a subject of curiosity in the global environmental movement. He talks of property deals in the Bahamas and in Panama.

“I am a graduate of the best business school in France, HEC de Paris,” he says.

“My last business was a big waterfront (land) subdivision called Venice Bay in the Bahamas, of which I sold my shares in 2004.”

He is working on his next business: a new way to teach arithmetic to pre-school children from the age of four.

“Telling a child to learn by rote a list of meaningless words is one of the many pedagogical errors of the traditional method,” he says. “That is why something like 40% fail at math or hate math.”

And he’s looking for a country to propose an ethical ban on whaling.

“If not Australia, then it could be New Zealand, or France,” he says.

“The country does not even have to be one of the 88 IWC member countries right now, but it has to join the IWC to propose the ethical ban, and get in the history books.

“There are about 200 sovereign countries on this earth. The odds are on my side.”

(Disclosure: Chris Pash is writing the biography of Jean Paul Gouin. The 1977 campaign against the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company is described in Pash’s book, The Last Whale, Fremantle Press, 2008.)

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