Defender of the Seas Captain Paul Watson Travels the World to Challenge Illegal Whaling & Fishing

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A few years ago, National Geographic Traveler ranked Denmark’s Faroe Islands first among unspoiled island destinations. The landscape there is breathtakingly dramatic—impossibly sheer green cliffs dropping into blue harbors, cascading waterfalls, white shaggy sheep, coastal towns with buildings in bright, primary colors and grass-roofed cottages that look like storybook pictures come to life. Situated between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes have a very distinct cultural identity drawn from their original Viking ancestry, with their own language (Faroese), a circular “chain dance” that consists of dancers holding hands and stomping feet along to Faroese ballads, and the annual grindadráp, or “grind,” dating back to the 16th century. During the grindadráp, hundreds of pilot whales are rounded into a bay with a semicircle of boats, forcing the animals to shallow water where they become stranded. Then, as community onlookers, including children, look on, Faroese men kill the whales with knives, hacking into the whales’ spinal cords. The many online photos and videos of these whale hunts show the men’s faces splattered with blood as they set about their grim task, the bay running red from boats to shore. Gruesome as it sounds, the grindadráp is considered a celebratory festival by locals.

Captain Paul Watson, defender of the seas' width=It is this last cultural tradition that brought Captain Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to the Faroe Islands this past summer in a mission dubbed “Operation Ferocious Isles.” The Animal Planet show Whale Wars follows Watson and his crew as they challenge whalers in remote corners of the world, and the show’s notoriety ensured that his arrival would be noticed. Worried about the potential negative exposure, the Faroese police allowed no whale hunts while the Sea Shepherd boats—the Steve Irwin and the Brigitte Bardot—were on patrol. “They feel that if they don’t give us a whale hunt than we won’t have a show,” Watson says. “But we’re here to save whales, not to film whales being killed, so we’re quite happy with that.”

The Sea Shepherd’s patrol lasted from June to August, the whales’ peak migration months, and ended without a single pilot whale killed. But a report from the Faroe Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs later noted that as of September 2011 “there have been five whale drives, with a total catch of 406 pilot whales.” The average annual catch, according to the report, is 800 whales, a number it calls “fully sustainable.”

What Watson has witnessed in the Faroes in past years, he says, is nothing short of a “blood orgy” with no commercial or practical purpose. “They say it’s been done for hundreds of years, it’s a tradition. God gave them this gift from the sea. These guys get all worked up, they get drunk, they go down and they kill things. They kill everything—males, females, calves. They even rip the fetuses out of the bodies.”

For Watson, a staunch vegan and animal rights supporter, no amount of whale slaughter is justified. But the senselessness of such mass killings in light of the meat that cannot and will not be used—high mercury and PCB content means that blubber and whale meat, while part of the traditional Faroe diet, should not be eaten more than once or twice a month by adults, and not at all by pregnant women or children—and the fragile existence of whales across the globe, make such blood celebrations even more heinous.

Whales In Crisis

Paul Watson

The killing of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is something of a sideshow in the global story of threatened whales, since that species is not thought to endangered. The American Cetacean Society estimates that there are about a million long-finned pilot whales and at least 200,000 short-finned pilot whales across the globe, adding that these numbers are decreasing and that hard figures are difficult to come by. It is their very social nature, notes the society, that makes pilot whales such easy prey for humans seeking to round them up—and so prone to mass strandings (they tend to stick together). Like the killer whale, pilot whales belong to the dolphin family and display dolphin-like intelligence and trainability

But even when whales are far from civilization—in the vast reaches of the Southern Ocean with its perilous storms, massive swells and ice floes—they are not safe from human predators. It is there, in dramatic, cinematic fashion that Watson and his mostly volunteer crew could be found on Season 4 of Whale Wars that aired this past summer, tracking Japanese whaling boats—particularly one whaling boat, the Nisshin Maru. Dubbed a scientific research vessel, the Nisshin Maru is permitted to kill 1,000 whales in the Southern Ocean each year thanks to a research loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1986 ban on commercial whaling. This, despite the fact that the Southern Ocean contains a whale sanctuary also established by the IWC to allow diminishing whale stocks to recover, to assess the impact of zero catch limits on whale stocks and to research the impacts of environmental changes such as warming waters and pollution on whale numbers. And despite the fact that no one believes the Japanese are harpooning and butchering so many whales for research purposes.

Paul Watson

Adventure journalist Peter Heller, who traveled with Watson and his crew in the Southern Ocean in a 2005-2006 campaign and wrote the book The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals (Free Press) based on the experience, says the ruse of killing whales for research is a flimsy one that no one has the political will to challenge. “It’s clearly a commercial operation,” Heller says. “It’s horrifying that they can tell these lies with such a straight face to the international community, and it’s horrifying that the rest of the world doesn’t care enough to enforce the international law.” Also horrifying, he notes, is the drawn-out process by which these intelligent mammals are killed. “These explosive harpoons are supposed to kill them instantly—they never do,” he says. “They hit them in the wrong place, the whales are too tough. So they just thrash around on the ends of these harpoons, and they start drowning in their own hemorrhage and they’re crying out. Their babies, if they are mothers, swimming around. They reel the whales into the ship and they jab them with these electric probes. They run thousands of volts through them to try to kill them and that doesn’t really work. And it takes 20 minutes for them to die.

The Japanese fleet’s expected whale kill for 2011 was to be 900 minke and 50 fin whales. The naturally curious minke whale, which lives in every climate from tropical to frigid, is the smallest baleen whale and known for its series of vocalizations, including grunts, thumps and “boings.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the population of minkes appears to be stable, but acknowledges that “Minke whale populations in the western North Pacific and the northeastern North Atlantic may have been reduced by as much as half due to commercial whaling practices.” When it comes to the magnificent fin whale, a sleek, swift creature that can reach up to 160,000 pounds and live 80-90 years, there is no question as to its threatened status. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the fin whale as an endangered species—meaning it faces a very high risk of extinction—since the inception of the U.S. Endangered Species Protection Act in 1970. The fin whale is one of a host of whales on the endangered list, a list that includes the northern right whale, the bowhead whale, the blue whale, the humpback whale and the sperm whale. Endangered status may mean anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple hundred thousand of any one species are known to exist. For many species on the list, population numbers are simply listed “unknown.”

Thanks to Sea Shepherd’s vigilance in tracking the Japanese whaling ships, blocking the ability of the harpoon boats to unload catches, and making whale hunts impossible or frustrating them to such a degree that the ships turn home, Japanese whale hauls have declined dramatically in recent years

“We see real results,” Watson says. “Our last [2011] campaign to the Southern Ocean, the Japanese left a month and a half early after only taking 17% of their quota, so we saved 858 whales. Last year [in 2010], we saved 528 whales. We cut the kill quota of dolphins in Japan over the last year by half—and not a single pilot whale has been killed here in the Faroe Islands [at least, not while Watson was present]. So I think that our approach is effective. People call us violent but I don’t think we’re violent at all. I call it aggressive nonviolence, but as Mr. King once said, you can’t commit an act of violence against a non-sentient object and that’s our philosophy, too. We don’t injure people, but we will destroy equipment used to take lives.”

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Watson’s World

Watson’s role has expanded with the growth of his activist organization, his public exposure via Whale Wars and the ongoing collapse of ocean species, from whales, to bluefin tuna to dolphins and seals. Really, he’s out to stop slaughter on the waters wherever he can find it. He was born in 1950 in Toronto, Canada, the eldest of seven children. His love for animals and the sea have been a constant from the earliest years. At nine, he removed leg-hold traps that were killing beavers. Ten years later, he joined the merchant marines and traveled through typhoons in the South China Sea and into the war zones of the Persian Gulf. Most famously, Watson co-founded Greenpeace with the initial intent of protesting nuclear testing on the U.S.-Canadian border. His main concern with the testing was that it might harm marine life. He would later organize the first Greenpeace campaign against whaling in the 1970s, and credits the experience of looking into a dying whale’s eye—a whale that had been harpooned and killed by a Russian whaler—with changing the course of his life. But Watson’s passion was too intense for the structured organization that Greenpeace would become. He saw only a need for confrontation, stopping ships and sealers by becoming marine life’s sole line of defense. It was a single-mindedness that couldn’t function within a bureaucracy. Watson broke off from Greenpeace and formed Sea Shepherd in 1977.

When Animal Planet was scouting for a conservation outfit to feature in a new documentary-style reality series four years ago, it was Greenpeace they considered first. “But very quickly as we started to do research it was easy to recognize that Sea Shepherd was the most dynamic conservation outfit out there,” says Jason Carey, executive producer and vice president of production for the show. “The fact that they are active in their conservation procedures, it made us feel like that would be the story to tell.”

Those who know him say Watson, with his wild white hair, off-color jokes and oversized personality, is a far cry from the typical dour environmentalist. “To me this is the wonder about Paul Watson,” says Heller. “Here’s a guy who feels not only the extinction—the thousands and thousands of species that go into the dark every year—feels it personally, [but] at the same time with that vulnerability is this advanced sense of fun. This great commitment to doing what we can, devil take the consequences, let the chips fall where they may, we’re going to do the right thing and try and mitigate the destruction to save these species—and let’s have fun while we’re doing it. It’s remarkable, actually.”

Paul Watson

Heller’s experience aboard Watson’s former flagship the Farley Mowat (a boat the author describes as “an old rust buc-ket North Sea trawler that had the hull recently patched and only went nine knots”) let him see firsthand the intensity emanating from Watson and driving the organization despite the rundown boat, the horrendous storms, the 40-foot swells and the unseasoned crew. It was, he says, as though “there was some sort of divine force at work.” “The level of incompetence on the boat was kind of astounding,” Heller recalls of Watson’s nearly all-volunteer crew. “The level of commitment was equally astounding. And they made up for their incompetence with dedication and panache and esprit de corps. I think it’s remarkable that nobody got killed, actually.”

With the exception of a few onboard positions where experience is mandatory—helicopter pilot, helicopter mechanic, chief engineer and doctor—Watson crews his boats entirely with volunteers. “The key question,” says Watson, “is ‘Are you willing to risk your life for a whale?’ If they say ‘No,’ we don’t take them. Some people say that’s asking an awful lot, but I don’t think it’s asking a lot at all. We ask young people to risk their lives and die for oil wells and real estate and we think that’s OK. I think it’s a far more noble endeavor to protect an endangered species than to protect some oil company’s interests in the Middle East.” Thanks to the show, filling available slots has been easy—he has some 2,000 crew applications on file.

While Watson says no one has been seriously injured aboard his boats, they face constant risk, both from whalers who turn aggressive and the perilous conditions of the Antarctic waters. “We get shot at, we get rammed, we get death-charged,” Watson says. “[But] in the Southern Ocean our biggest concern is not people but the weather. We’re going down into one of the most remote and hostile environments on the planet.”

Battle on the Seas

Paul Watson

Thanks to high-profile supporters like actor Martin Sheen, Hollywood businessman Ady Gil and former The Price Is Right host Bob Barker, along with the public exposure afforded by Whale Wars, Sea Shepherd is at least much better outfitted. It now has a futuristic-looking stealth boat in its fleet dubbed Gojira—Japanese for “Godzilla”—that’s black, low to the water, moving on what look to be two octopus-like tentacles with a green, fierce Godzilla creature snapping a harpoon in its claws painted on each side. The Gojira is fast, and it’s a focus of Whale Wars’ fourth season, acting in the oceanic battlefield as the first line of attack. In episode one, Watson uses Gojira to cut off one of the Japanese whaling ships trailing them so that his boat—the Steve Irwin—can slip outside its radar range. The Gojira crew, wearing black helmets adorned with Sea Shepherd’s signature Jolly Roger logo—a skull with a harpoon and trident crossed underneath—use a potato launcher to fire bottles of butyric acid (stink bombs) and red paint onto the harpoon boat, forcing it to change course.

Watson insists that he keeps no guns or weapons on board, but relies only on defensive measures, from stink bombs and water cannons to simply blocking ships’ ability to load whales. He also adamantly denies that he is an “eco terrorist” but has gladly taken up the mantle of “eco pirate,” as reflected in Sea Shepherd’s logo, found on everything from the ships’ black flags to the coffee mugs and T-shirts sold online. “It turned out to be a good marketing move,” Watson says of all the pirate imagery, “because all the kids love it and it helps to sell merchandise. I think we raise $2 million a year for campaigns just on pirate merchandise.” Watson also knows his history and admits a certain affinity with pirates of old. He says: “If you want to get things done you get a pirate to do it, because pirates aren’t encumbered by bureaucracy. If you look throughout history, the only evil pirate I know of other than Blackbeard is Long John Silver, who didn’t exist. Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, the founder of the U.S. Navy John Paul Jones, Jean Lafitte—all heroes, all pirates.”

It’s a role that Watson now fills for the many volunteers who have joined his cause. His last Antarctic campaign featured 88 crew from 23 countries on three different ships. There’s no doubt who is inspiring these volunteers to risk their lives for whales. “The majority of those in Sea Shepherd who go out to Antarctica to fight the Japanese whalers are volunteers,” says Carey, Whale Wars’ executive producer. “Across the board, almost 100% of them say the reason they joined Sea Shepherd is because they heard Paul Watson speak somewhere and he’s the one that turned them onto it. He’s inspiring to young people who are of the mindset of trying to save the world. I think in 100 years, people are going to look back and say ‘He was a seminal person in the conservation leadership movement.’”

And the show fills a vital role in conveying Watson’s message to a worldwide audience otherwise disconnected from the realities of illegal fishing and whaling in the world’s remote seas. The idea of saving whales is nothing new—the challenge is getting new generations to care about saving whales. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is constantly finding ways to sell the same messages (factory farms are cruel, fur is cruel) and capture people’s attention, and their respect for Watson runs deep. While Sea Shepherd captures footage of Canadian seal clubbings, PETA is “publicizing and marketing and doing everything we can to get the footage viral so that people can see exactly what’s going on,” says Lisa Lange, PETA’s vice president of communications. While PETA may be best known for naked celebrities posing in protest of fur, their end mission is the same—to get people to pay attention.

“It’s tough in this day and age of a 24-hour news cycle and tabloid television, getting our little tiny slice of that pie so that people can pay attention to these very life and death issues that affect animals,” Lange says. “You have to be creative. You have to keep coming up with new ways of approaching issues that have been going on for a while. That’s something that Paul’s very good at and that PETA’s very good at. We work with celebrities, we do undercover investigations, we do protests and occasionally direct action or civil disobedience. It takes all those things to awaken a sleeping public, but once they’re awake, they’re the ones winning the campaign.”

An Ever-Shifting Enemy

Considering the scope of the ocean crisis—the whales facing extinction, the wholesale depletion of fish, the growing islands of floating pollution, the dying corals and warming waters—Watson’s mission is a lonely one, passionate crews notwithstanding. He can send a helicopter pilot out to scan for whaling ships, but his adversaries are many and the battlefield is vast. Last July, Watson turned his attention to bluefin tuna—massive, predatory fish that can travel 60-mile distances across the Atlantic at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Bluefin are prized by sushi restaurants and one fish can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Atlantic bluefin tuna is also on the verge of extinction, its population down more than 80% due to over-fishing. And both Atlantic and Southern bluefins are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list” for imperiled species

“I call it the economics of extinction,” Watson says. “These people want to wipe out the tuna, the reason being that the diminishment of tuna in the ocean results in higher prices for the ones they’ve packed into their warehouses in Japan. The fewer the tuna, the higher the price. The ones in the warehouses can eventually be worth half a million dollars.”

Sea Shepherd’s campaign “Operation Blue Rage” involves patrolling the Mediterranean Sea on the lookout for illegal bluefin fishing, a campaign that has been frustrated both by the difficulty of identifying illegal boats and the 2011 Libyan civil war. Without inspectors onboard fishing vessels or updated information regarding licenses and quotas, it’s nearly impossible to enforce anti-poaching regulations. But when Watson knows he’s stumbled onto an illegal fishing operation, he doesn’t hesitate to act. That happened in 2010, when he sent divers to cut 800 bluefin free of their nets off the Libyan coast. As Watson explains: “They [the fishing boat] didn’t have an ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] inspector on board, they didn’t have paperwork, they refused to cooperate and they were belligerent. So then we went and checked the nets and saw that there were a lot of undersized tuna in there, so we simply cut the nets and released the tuna.” In response, the Maltese company Fish and Fish that had netted the fish sued for $1.4 million in damages in July 2011 and impounded Watson’s flagship boat, the Steve Irwin. Thanks to a rapidly executed Twitter campaign and an appeal to his high-profile supporters, Watson was able to raise the more than $800,000 bond in 10 days to secure the boat’s release and continue on to his next campaign in the Faroe Islands.

He’s always moving from one battle to the next. “Every single fishery in the world is in a state of collapse,” he says. “We’re literally fishing out our oceans.” That’s not hyperbole. A report published in the journal Science in 2006 found that there could be a 100% global collapse of all species fished or harvested from the oceans by 2048. And back in 2003, the science journal Nature reported that since 1950, we have lost 90% of all large fish across the globe. That includes tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod and flounder, among others. “These are the megafauna, the big predators of the sea, and the species we most value,” study coauthor Boris Worm of Dalhousie University told National Geographic at the time. “Their depletion not only threatens the future of these fish and the fishers that depend on them, it could also bring about a complete reorganization of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences.”

And these concerns are only the beginning. In addition to disappearing fish, Watson rattles off a list of other current ocean threats: “Plastic pollution, heavy metal pollution, acidification. At a conference on coral reef systems the conclusion was that by 2022 there will be no coral reef systems, they’ll all be dead. Now they’re out there harvesting plankton. We’ve lost 30% of our phytoplankton since 1950. And nobody pays too much attention because it’s all out of sight, out of mind. I don’t think people really fathom how serious this situation is, and you’re not going to solve it by doing green marketing.”

When considering the magnitude of the ocean threats and the immediacy of the concerns, it’s hard to believe that Watson is so alone in his determination to tackle the problem head-on—the “anti-Ahab,” as Heller described him in The Whale Warriors, his ship “a jaunty, compact, black shadow on the taut blue sea…completely self-sufficient and alone.” By now, one would think Watson would have spawned an army of imitators. Instead, he and his crew went alone to the Galapagos last fall to help set up strategically placed “repeater stations” that pick up radio signals from boats to help find poachers. Watson considers the Galapagos protection efforts his organization’s flagship campaign, saying “If we can’t save the Galapagos, we’re not going to save anything.” Sea Shepherd has provided the Galapagos with a patrol boat and surveillance barge and set up a canine unit, working alongside park rangers and the Ecuadorian police. “What’s happening in the Galapagos is what’s happening in the world overall,” Watson says. “Ecotourism is destroying the place, poachers are destroying the place, and overpopulation is destroying the place.”

In 2011, Watson spent just five days at his home in Friday Harbor, Washington. The rest of the year he was navigating the ocean, fulfilling the silent promise he made to that dying whale so many years ago. One man, out to save the sea.

Animal Rights National Conference 2018