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Originally published Friday, June 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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A "Whale Wars" warrior from Port Townsend

Port Townsend resident Luke Van Horn volunteers on the anti-whaling ship Steve Irwin — featured on the Animal Planet TV show "Whale Wars." The second season of the series sets sail on Friday, June 5.

Special to The Seattle Times


"Whale Wars"

Season 2 premiere, 9 p.m. Friday on Animal Planet.

Tonight in Prime Time

There is a moment in tonight's Season 2 premiere of the eco-friendly reality series "Whale Wars" when it appears that Port Townsend resident Luke Van Horn has saved the lives of everyone aboard the anti-whaling ship Steve Irwin. By improvising repairs to a broken gyroscope, the 32-year-old communications officer spares the ship, himself and 35 crewmates from a potentially tragic fate at sea.

You can't fake the palpable relief that accompanies Van Horn's on-the-spot electronics repair. As the gyro stabilizes the ship on punishing ocean swells, it's obvious that a genuine disaster has been averted.

"It was pretty tense" said Van Horn, a newcomer to the show this season, during a recent phone interview. "I was focusing on the task at hand and trying not to think about what might happen if I didn't fix the gyro. I had to take it step-by-step and try not to think about failure."

Named after the late Australian naturalist and "Crocodile Hunter" TV host, the Brisbane-based Steve Irwin is headquarters for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an all-volunteer organization that chases and thwarts Japanese whale-poaching ships in icy Antarctic waters. "Whale Wars" gains much of its excitement from group founder and captain Paul Watson's controversial methods of save-the-whale advocacy — a confrontational philosophy that previously got him ousted from Greenpeace, the group he co-founded in 1972.

Born and raised in Michigan, Van Horn settled in Port Townsend with his girlfriend after buying a boat in Marysville. He was working as a software engineer and Web developer there when he heard about the Sea Shepherds from a cousin who urged him to volunteer. Between campaigns aboard the Steve Irwin, he still works for Solar Motive, a Port Townsend company specializing in green-energy products.

"It's a great career," Van Horn says of his tech jobs, "but it keeps you behind a computer, and I was ready to get out and do some honest physical labor and explore the world a bit."

Van Horn wanted excitement at sea and he got it, along with a hint of the personality friction that reality-show producers pray for. Van Horn favored new technology (overlaying "Google Earth" images with ice-flow charts, for example), while the Steve Irwin's cocky first mate, Peter Brown, embraced a more old-school (and in this case reckless) approach to navigating through ice.

"There was some tension," Van Horn admits, "and certainly some contrast in our ways of thinking. But [captain] Paul Watson comes from the same era as Peter, and he had a balanced view of the old and new technology."

As for the Steve Irwin's nonviolent yet still dangerous mission, Van Horn remains committed.

"What the Japanese are doing is wrong," he says, "and I think people will see it as a good thing that we're willing to go out and put a stop to this activity."

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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