Whale Watcher

There are few people who approach life with the singular conviction of Paul Watson. His life’s mission is no less than to rescue the endangered creatures of the sea from those who would do them harm. Certain threats to whales, dolphins and predator fish are too large in scope for one man to tackle: like plastic pollution, warming waters and ocean acidification. But Watson has set his sights on a target he can track down and stop: the whaling and fishing boats acting in violation of international treaties meant to protect endangered marine life.

His enforcement efforts send him to some of the world’s most remote regions: from the Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway, to the Galapagos Islands off the Ecuadorian coast, to the frigid, stormy seas of the Southern Ocean. With a crew of equally dedicated—though mostly untrained—volunteers, a few boats and a helicopter for scouting ahead, Watson challenges commercial Japanese whalers and others in dangerous at-sea battles that can involve rammings, entanglements and equally terrifying swells.

This high adventure and high controversy have brought Watson serious notoriety thanks particularly to the Animal Planet show Whale Wars, now in its fifth season, a documentary-style series that follows Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as they confront whalers out on the high seas. Sometimes the very presence of the Sea Shepherd’s ships prevent killings—as happened in the Faroe Islands this past summer, where the rounding up and killing of pilot whales is a yearly tradition. Other times the boats form a blockade, preventing whaling ships from loading their hauls aboard or frustrating them enough to induce them to turn home. One thing’s for sure: Watson’s reputation precedes him.

The plight of whales will get big screen treatment this February with the release of the movie Big Miracle (previously named Everybody Loves Whales). Starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, the movie is based on the true story of three gray whales that were discovered trapped in ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1988 and became a worldwide media sensation. Actress Kristen Bell plays a fame-seeking TV reporter. In this issue’s Behind the Greens (page 52), Bell tells E that she now sees the way whale protection efforts, media sensationalism and cultural traditions can collide without clear winners or losers. For his part, Watson may wonder where all that frenzied interest in the plight of whales has gone.