Captain Paul Watson has been patrolling our seas for more than three decades in his bid to protect marine wildlife from the destruction of man. To some, he’s an environmental icon, a modern-day prophet sent to save our seas and the marine wildlife within them. To others, however, his irreverence for property means he’s something of an eco-terrorist. A man of contradictions, Watson is passionate, authoritative, self-congratulatory and proud. He’s also, as Lisa Louden reports, a fierce protector of an environment being plundered.
In an unpublished poem, Planet of Whales, Paul Watson wrote: ‘I am obsessed and driven mad with anger’. It’s an anger that’s been with him his whole life, which can be traced back to his childhood when he first experienced the injustice of cruelty. It’s an emotion that hasn’t dulled with age. He’s just as angry now as he was back then, when he first started saving animals in the fishing village in Canada where he was raised.
‘When I was nine years old, I spent the summer at a beaver pond, swimming with the beavers. One particular young beaver I spent almost every day playing with. And the next summer, I couldn’t find them, they were all gone. I made enquiries and found out a trapper had killed them all during the winter. And I became pretty angry and began at the age of 10 freeing the animals from the trap lines. I always found the animals very understanding of what I was trying to do. I only got bitten a couple of times – a seagull got me once when it had its leg caught. But even the coyotes wouldn’t bite if you tried to release their leg from a trap … and then I would destroy the traps.’
There was another scandal when he started blocking deer hunting, and then an incident with a BB gun. ‘I got in real trouble because I shot a kid in the arse with a BB gun because he was about to shoot a bird,’ says Watson.
He says this incident has sparked criticism of him throughout his life. A case in point is Washington’s governor from 1976 to 1980, Dixy Lee Ray, who said in her book Trashing the Planet the incident was ‘early evidence of Watson’s insanity’.
He laughs at this. ‘In my town, every kid shot every other kid with a BB gun, I just happened to have a practical reason to shoot the kid that I did.’
His early attempts to save animals may have set a precedent, but he claims it was another incident that changed him and confirmed his life’s purpose. The incident occurred in 1975, when he was with Greenpeace – he was Greenpeace’s youngest co-founding member – and onboard a Zodiac (an inflatable boat) aiming to get between a Soviet harpooner and a pod of whales. Also onboard was cameraman Fred Easton. A Sperm Whale, injured from the harpoon and with ‘an eye about the size of a dinner plate’, swam furiously in their direction and passed less than 10 feet away. He says the whale looked at them with some sort of compassion and that’s when his life changed, ‘when a wounded Sperm Whale could’ve killed me and chose not to do so’.
‘Chose not to’ is an interesting turn of phrase. For those who believe that an animal can make that choice, it’s perfectly acceptable. For cynics, though, this turn of phrase is fuel for condemnation. It’s also, his critics say, designed for the media ‘sound bite’ – a short impact statement, used in this day and age that requires easily digestible news, where often a few words sum up complex issues. However, one can hardly criticise Watson for mastering this – with a serious message to deliver, appeasing the world’s media is just clever management.
His use of the term ‘chose’ makes me think of a line in Edie Brickell’s song What I Am that says ‘Religion is the smile on a dog.’ The line, about believing what you choose to believe, is used in anthropomorphic terms; the attribution of uniquely human motivation, characteristics or behaviour to non-human beings. Whether or not, however, you believe that a dog can smile, and whether or not it was only circumstantial that the whale ‘spared him’, one thing’s for certain, the consequence of Watson feeling ‘sort of indebted to that whale’ has sparked a lifetime of commitment towards whales and other marine wildlife.
More than 30 years ago, Watson founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Both the organisation and its founder have been labelled vigilantes, pirates and terrorists. For Watson, who says his organisation operates in accordance with the law under the United Nations’ World Charter for Nature, his actions are justifiable and unambiguous.
‘Our organisation is not set up like a protest organisation and it’s not an animal aid organisation. We are a marine wildlife habitat conservation organisation and we don’t protest. We intervene against illegal fishing and illegal exploitation of the world’s oceans.’
Watson claims those interventions have sunk more than 10 pirate ships, all undertaking illegal activities. He’s paid heavily for his convictions, as you’ll later discover, but despite the setbacks to his cause – the indiscriminate killings, the destruction of the marine environment – in all these years he hasn’t lost his drive to protect and conserve. It’s a destruction he says would never happen on land.
‘I don’t understand the insanity of killing whales, it makes absolutely no sense. And what we do to animals in the ocean would just never, ever be acceptable to animals on land. I mean, can you imagine – a trap line out of indiscriminate traps for a hundred miles across the jungle to kill everything that comes in contact [with it]. It just would never be tolerated.’
Society has, according to Watson, one set of values for animals on land and another for marine life. ‘Africans go and kill mountain gorillas, giraffes and elephants and they call it bush meat and the world condemns it and rightfully so, but there’s no difference between a tuna, a shark or a whale and a mountain gorilla – these are large predators, they are bush meat, but somehow or other, aquatic bush meat is okay [to hunt until it is endangered] but jungle bush meat is not.’
He admits to feeling frustration, but it only serves to spur him on. And there’s an undeniable pleasure in the way he conducts his missions; he enjoys the battle. There’s a likeable cheekiness to him that many people miss. It’s probably best explained by something I witnessed while waiting to interview him onboard the Steve Irwin when it docked in Melbourne in February. Watson was on the phone to a journalist. It was the first time they’d docked since the incident involving Sea Shepherd volunteers Australian Ben Potts and Brit Giles Lane boarding a Japanese whaling ship. The journalist asked Watson if he would have any trouble finding the Japanese whaling ship again when the Steve Irwin headed back out to sea. Chuckling confidently with a broad smile he said, ‘I think we’ll find them without any problem.’ He of course knew what very few did then; while onboard the Japanese whaler, Potts and Lane planted a tracking device.
Watson claims he copes with man’s inability to fully grasp that something dramatic needs to be done to save the planet by ‘acknowledging the insanity of my species’ and ‘having a sense of humour’. It’s this sense of humour and irreverence for property that caused a judge to remark at Watson’s 1993 criminal trial in Canada, where Watson was charged with three counts of criminal mischief for destroying drag trawler nets and causing the loss of $35 million in revenue (he faced two prison life sentences), that ‘everyone was dressed up except the defendant who was appearing to have a good time’. The case was thrown out and Watson walked.
Others, however, view Watson as insane and without humour. Mainly it’s wrapped up in their criticisms of his tactics, or more succinctly, his violent tactics – the same tactics that saw him voted off the Greenpeace Board in 1977 (later that year he founded Sea Shepherd).
Watson was among the Greenpeace group protesting the seal hunt when he threw some seal pelts into the water and then pulled a seal club out of a hunter’s hands and threw that in too. Many applauded his actions. Greenpeace didn’t. He was voted off the board 12 to one.
‘And there was a vote,’ Watson says, ‘but I was never thrown out of Greenpeace. This is the fallacy. I was voted off the board. I could’ve still been the campaign leader for Greenpeace. I was the voted off the board.’
Today, Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace are at loggerheads (more on that later), and he admits the vote hurt him. ‘Well yes, it hurt. And it angered me so much I quit.’
And it must have done. Here was an organisation that he helped found – when he was only 18 – with all the youthful zeal of a committed conservationist, and they kicked him off the board. Since then the criticisms have kept coming, but he claims he doesn’t care. ‘Well that’s fine. I don’t care what people call us or me, as long as we scare the hell out of the people we go after, and you know we do. They don’t kill whales when we show up,’ he says.
‘People call us violent; we’re not violent, we’re completely non-violent. We’ve got an unblemished history of non-violence. We’ve never caused a single injury to a single person anywhere in 30 years of operations. But there’s a perception of violence because we attack property even though that property is used for illegal purposes, because we live in a culture where property takes precedence over life.’
Sea Shepherd’s recent actions, however, throw this into question. In 2007, two Japanese crewman claim they were injured from butyric acid thrown on their vessel by Sea Shepherd crew members. Sea Shepherd admitted to throwing onboard six one-litre bottles of butyric acid. The same tactic was employed again this year.
When in contact with the skin, butyric acid can cause pain, redness and blisters, and if it comes in contact with the eyes can cause loss of vision. More controversially, according to industrial safety sheets butyric acid should not be released into the environment, as it’s harmful to aquatic organisms.
It’s these contradictions that don’t sit well with Watson’s critics. Paul Watson has been beaten up, shot, vilified and widely condemned. He’s lost friendships, spent time in prison and been declared persona non grata in Iceland. Does he feel then that he’s sacrificed himself for his cause? … find out in Part 2