Saving the world, one whale at a time

For Heath Hanson, using a GW undergraduate degree means living on the ocean, combating Japanese hunting boats and trying to save the humpback whales. A 2002 graduate, Hanson majored in international affairs and interned on Capitol Hill – yet six years later he finds himself far from the desk of an average political junkie.

Hanson has spent the past three and a half months sailing 7,000 miles in the Antarctic as part of an ongoing anti-whaling expedition by the international environmental organization Greenpeace.

“We’re trying to protect the whales from the Japanese (whale hunters),” Hanson said in an interview over satellite phone while at sea. “But it’s also part of a larger campaign to help the overall health of the ocean.”

Hanson said he and 43 other crew members from around the world are chasing a Japanese fleet of hunting boats through the Southern Ocean, located off the coast of the Antarctica, in hopes of preventing further slaughter of a declining whale population. Hanson and his crew launch small inflatable boats between the hunters and the whales to try save the mammals, Hanson said.

“The Japanese whale program is killing over 1,000 whales per year,” he said. “They say it’s for science, but it’s such a sham.”

Before graduating from GW, Hanson spent time interning at both houses of Congress as well as several lobbying firms. Hanson said his time on Capitol Hill made him realize that a lot of issues can be solved through legislation – but there are some that need hands-on action instead of legislative logjam.

“I don’t have faith in the political system to act soon enough,” Hanson said. “So I feel obligated to come to the scene of the crime while the political wheels are in motion.”

Hanson credits the Elliott School of International Affairs for making him aware of global issues.

“There is the micro aspect of what I’m doing, the tangible benefits of preventing whales from being killed,” Hanson said. “But I can also see it on the international scope. This is an international affair.”

After graduating in 2002, Hanson became an active member of Greenpeace and also spent several years working as a private yacht driver and scuba instructor. Then in 2007 he was offered the opportunity to be a lead boat driver on one of the organization’s upcoming expeditions.

“Being able to go on an expedition had always been a dream of mine, especially in Antarctica,” Hanson said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

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