Paul Watson: Modern pirate seeks to protect world's sea life
Published Saturday, February 4, 2012 7:06PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, October 6, 2012 11:07PM EDT
The killing of the ocean's most graceful creatures -- dolphins, whales and seals -- motivates many animal lovers to object but few are willing to go to the lengths of Canadian environmentalist Paul Watson.
"You don't go down the street and watch a woman being attacked and raped and do nothing. You don't watch a child being molested and do nothing. And you don't stand there and watch whales die and hang a banner," said Watson.
For the past 40 years Watson has put himself in dangerous situations in an effort to stop what he calls a "senseless slaughter." He's rammed driftnet fishing boats, sunk whaling ships and stood between seal hunters and their prey.
"I like to tick them off. It makes people respond, gets people involved," said Watson from his home base in the San Juan Islands of Washington State.
His road to environmental activism started at age 11, in St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick, when he discovered the beavers he'd been swimming with the summer before had been killed by trappers.
"That winter I began to walk the trap lines, destroy the traps and freed any animals in them," recalled Watson.
At age 18 he joined the merchant marine and his hours on the ocean developed Watson's love of the sea and its creatures.
His experience as a sailor and dedication to the environmental movement led him to a new organization being founded in Vancouver in 1971: Greenpeace. Alongside the late Bob Hunter, Watson fought to bring attention to the seal hunt, one time inviting French actress Brigitte Bardot to witness the hunt on the ice floes.
A defining moment in his life came in 1975, when Greenpeace was trying to stop Russian whalers. He and Hunter decided to get between the harpoon and the whale that was being hunted, placing their inflatable Zodiac boat in the line of fire, believing the Russians wouldn't risk killing the protesters. They were wrong, as dramatic film of the encounter shows the Russians firing meters over their heads, to kill a whale.
According to Watson, the dying whale resurfaced and for a moment was eyeball to eyeball with him. The giant creature could have easily crushed Watson's boat but instead it simply slid back into the water, leaving Watson convinced the creature recognized he was a protector.
"It could have killed us and chose not to do so," he recalls.
Motivated by that experience, Watson hatched a new approach to environmental protest. Short of injuring people he would do anything -- regardless of how violent or destructive -- to save the world's ocean species. Watson's approach was too radical for Greenpeace, who threw him out of the organization.
So Watson founded his own environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Society in 1977, and became a self-styled pirate -- the enfante terrible -- of the environmental movement.
His first mission was to interfere with the annual seal hunt on Canada's east coast. Sea Shepherd activists sprayed dye on the seal pup's coats, making them commercially worthless. It was just the beginning of numerous confrontations Watson and his crew have had with angry sealers over the years.
"I've been beaten up by sealers in front of the Mounties while they watched," said Watson.
One such incident was so violent it landed Watson in hospital in Moncton, N.B. Confrontations have also led to his arrest and conviction for interfering with the seal hunt.
In 1979 Watson declared war against the Atlantic whalers by ramming them on the high seas. Sea Shepherd operatives snuck into port and scuttled one of the most infamous whaling ships on the ocean, Portugal's "The Sierra," putting her permanently out of business.
Since 2005, he's been in an ongoing battle against Japanese whalers. When most nations agreed to stop whaling, the Japanese argued that their hunt was for scientific purposes -- a hunt that continues to this day in waters off Antarctica. Sea Shepherd's aggressive tactics have included ramming Japanese ships, throwing stink bombs on board and preventing the Japanese sailors from loading their kill.
In the 2010-2011 campaign against the Japanese, those tactics led to the fleet ending their hunt early, after only killing 17 per cent of their quota.
"We chased them for 3,000 miles all the way to the tip of South America and then they went home," Watson boasted. But the Japanese are undeterred. In an attempt to counteract Sea Sheppard's campaign this year, they spent $27 million to provide a military escort for their whaling fleet.
Watson believes that with time and perseverance he will prevail and is not about to declare a truce in his 40-year battle for the world's endangered species.
"There are fewer seals being killed and there are fewer whales being killed. All of these campaigns we don't expect to win overnight."