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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2010 > Conversation

Conversation

Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson

Paul Watson doesn’t care what you think. The captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been putting himself between whales and harpoon ships for more than 30 years, preventing the killing of countless cetaceans. He’s been called a terrorist, a greater threat than Al-Qaeda, a liar. None of it bothers him.

“I am here to say things people do not want to hear and do things people do not want to see. I am here to piss people off – that is my job,” the 59-year-old Watson says in Ron Colby’s 2008 documentary Pirate for the Sea.

photo of a bearded man with the sea in the backgroundBarbara Veiga / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

A Canadian, Watson was a co-founder of Greenpeace and instrumental in the campaign to ban the clubbing of Arctic fur seals. He has gained wider notoriety as a central character on the Animal Planet show Whale Wars, which chronicles Sea Shepherd’s skirmishes with Japanese whalers. He was also spoofed last year in a South Park episode called “Whale Whores.”

“Being lampooned on South Park is hardly something to complain about,” he says. “They brought the issue of the dolphin and whale slaughter by the Japanese to a very large audience. I could not really care less how I was portrayed.”

So where are you coming back from?

We got back from Antarctica about the seventh of March. We’re heading to the Mediterranean now to go against bluefin poachers. We took three ships down to Antarctica and lost one. For the first time we managed to save more whales than were killed, so that was a successful campaign. They have a quota of 935 minke whales, and they have 50 humpbacks on their permits. So 520 whales were saved, and 507 killed.

Let’s go back to your early days of eco-activism.

I was raised in an eastern Canadian fishing village right on the Maine border, called St. Andrews. I used to swim with these beavers in a beaver pond when I was 10. I went back when I was 11 and found there were no more beavers. I found that trappers had taken them all so I became quite angry and that winter I began to walk the trap lines and free animals from the traps and destroy the traps. So that was really my first venture into activism.

You’ve talked about a whale you made eye contact with as it bled to death after being harpooned. Tell me about the connection you felt with that whale.

That was in June of 1975. I was with Greenpeace and we had found the Soviet whaling fleet about 60 miles off the coast of Eureka, California. We came up with this idea to put our bodies between the harpoon and the whale to prevent them from killing the whale. I was reading a lot of Gandhi at the time. Bob Hunter [a Greenpeace founder] and I found ourselves in a small boat and behind us was a 150-foot Soviet harpoon vessel bearing down on us. In front of us were eight sperm whales that were fleeing for their lives. Every time they would try to get a shot we would block the harpoon and then the captain of the whaling vessel came down the catwalk and screamed into the ear of the harpooner, then looked at us, smiled, and brought his finger across his throat.

A few moments later there was an incredible explosion. The harpoon flew over our heads – the line from the harpoon slashed down on the water right beside us, just nearly missed us. Then the harpoon struck one of the whales in the back. She screamed and rolled over in a fountain of blood. Suddenly the largest whale in the pod hit the water with his tail and disappeared and swam right underneath us and threw himself out of the water straight at the harpooner.

But they were waiting for him and with an unattached harpoon at point-blank range he fired and that whale screamed, fell back on the water and was rolling in agony on the surface when I caught his eye. Suddenly I saw him dive and a trail of bloody bubbles coming towards us real fast. He came up and out of the water at an angle so that the next move was that he would fall right down on top of us and crush us. As I looked into that eye, I saw something which really changed my life. That whale had the power to kill us right there and I could see understanding. I could see the whale really understood what we were trying to do. I could see him pull himself back and his muscles move and instead of coming forward he fell back and I saw his eye slip beneath the surface and he died. He could have killed us but he chose not to do so, so I feel personally indebted to that whale. That’s one of the reasons I’ve dedicated my life to protecting whales.

Do you feel that the whale consciously put itself in front of the harpoon to protect the other whales?

I think he was defending his pod and allowing the pod to get away. The pod of course did get away. I don’t know what a whale thinks. But what I saw in the eye was pity – pity for us, that we could take life so ruthlessly and mercilessly. I began to think: Why are the Russians killing these whales? They were using sperm whales for spermacetti oil, a high-heat resistant lubricating oil. One of the things that they were making with them was intercontinental ballistic missiles. So here we are destroying this incredibly beautiful, intelligent, magnificent creature for the purpose of making a weapon meant for the mass extermination of human beings. That’s when it occurred to me that we as humans are insane.

photo of two ships at sea, spraying water cannons between themGlenn Lockitch / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

From that moment on, the change in my life was that I never did anything again for people – I did it for whales and other creatures of the sea. So that pretty much puts us beyond criticism from people – because when people disagree with what we’re doing, I say: I don’t care. Our clients are the whales, sharks, seals, fish, whatever. We don’t give a damn what you think. Find me one whale that disagrees with what we do and maybe we might reconsider, but until then we’re going to do what we do. And I think we do it responsibly; we’ve never injured anybody. I find it interesting that some of the larger organizations condemn us for being violent but we’ve never injured anybody. We’ve never had anybody seriously injured, we’ve never been convicted of a felony, and we’ve never been sued. And we get criticized by organizations that have been sued, have had people killed, and have had people convicted of felonies. I just find it a little bizarre.

Hypocritical?

Completely. I was doing a talk show in Vancouver and somebody called in a bomb threat to protest my violence, which I thought was pretty strange. We had to evacuate. A reporter threw a microphone in my face and said, ‘Greenpeace has condemned you as an eco-terrorist. What’s your response?’ I said, ‘What would you expect from the Avon ladies of the environmental movement?’ They’ve never forgiven me for that. But they called me an eco-terrorist. I was just responding.

Do you think the attitude of “I don’t care – I work for the whales” possibly makes your work less effective?

I think it’s irrelevant. I don’t care if I put people off. After we sank those whaling ships in Iceland, half their fleet, John Frizell from Greenpeace came up and told me that what I did was reprehensible and irresponsible and an embarrassment to the movement. And I said, ‘Well you know John – So?’

And he said, ‘I think you should know what people in this movement think about you.’ I said, ‘Really John, I don’t give a crap. We didn’t sink those whaling ships for you or Greenpeace or anybody else. We sank them for the whales.’ The whales are dying – they’re being slaughtered in horrific ways, so I don’t have time for people to say, well that’s not the way to go about it. All I know is that there are 528 whales that are swimming in the ocean right now that would be dead if we had not gone down there and intervened. That’s the only thing that really matters to me. That and the fact that we did it without injuring anybody.

In terms of your relationship with the Japanese, not just the whalers but the people, do you think there’s something in their culture that says, “We will determine our culture, our actions. We will do what we want to do and the more that people try to stop us, the more we want to do it.” That might be human nature.

Even if the majority of Japanese people were opposed to whaling, that doesn’t mean it’s going to end. The majority of Canadians are against sealing but [the clubbing] keeps going on. I don’t think governments really give a damn what their people think – it’s all corporate interests.

We decided to speak the language they understand, profit and loss. It’s economics, all of it comes down to economics. The fact is that they’ve lost money for five years – how long can they continue to do that? That’s the key. Every year a whaling ship gets sunk in Norway. Why? To keep the insurance premiums high – we have to make them pay.

My editor wanted me to ask you: Why is killing a whale worse than killing a pig, for example, when a pig is intelligent, too?

I get this question from the Japanese a lot, and I find it offensive. How can anybody compare the killing of a pig to the killing of a whale? First of all, our ships are vegan. Forty percent of the fish caught from the oceans is fed to livestock – pigs and chickens are becoming major aquatic predators. The livestock industry is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions ever. The eating of meat is an ecological disaster.

Are you a vegetarian or vegan?

Yes, a vegan, but we’re promoting veganism not for animal-rights reasons but for environmental conservation reasons.

You cannot compare the killing of animals in a domestic slaughterhouse to the killing of a whale. What goes on with those whales – or dolphins, say, in Taiji – would never be tolerated in a slaughterhouse. Those slaughterhouses would be shut down. It takes from 10 to 45 minutes to kill a whale and they die in horrific agony. That would be completely intolerable and illegal in any slaughterhouse in the world.

Also they’re an endangered and protected species – pigs and cows are not. They’re part of an ecosystem, which pigs and cows are not. It always bothers me that that comparison is brought up. And especially when it’s brought up by the Japanese, who eat more pigs, cows, and chickens than all people of Australia and New Zealand combined. Only one percent of the Japanese people eat whales; for the most part they eat cows and pigs and chickens. It’s a ridiculous analogy.

How do you view protest versus intervention?

A couple of years ago 60 Minutes Australia did a piece in which a Greenpeace spokesperson said he was opposed to Sea Shepherd because we were violent and that Greenpeace’s approach was to bear witness. I was just appalled. Bearing witness – you know, you don’t walk down the street and see a woman being raped and do nothing. You don’t walk down the street and see a kitten or a puppy being stomped to death and do nothing. You don’t walk down the street and see a child being molested and do nothing. And you don’t go down there and watch whales die and hold signs and do nothing. I just find this bearing witness another word for cowardice. So that really offended me that they would say that.

We’re an interventionist organization, not a protest organization. Protest is very submissive – it’s like saying, “please please, please, don’t kill the whales.” Then they go and kill them anyway – nobody cares. The fact is, you gotta stop them – you’re dealing with ruthless people, and you have to stop them. But you have to do it in a responsible way, which just means you don’t hurt them.

Do you see any situation where it’s okay to hunt a whale, say Indigenous people who have for centuries been living off whale meat and blubber?

You know, everything has changed because we have a population of seven billion people on the planet right now, and the oceans are dying. The oceans have been so severely diminished that there’s a good chance we could kill them. And if the oceans die, we die. In light of that prospect I find it very difficult to be sympathetic to any cultural needs in order to destroy endangered species. Yeah, sure, it isn’t the Inuit’s fault that the whales have been diminished, but they can finish the job. When you get right down to it, it’s all about human beings. I don’t divide them into groups – the human species has been an extremely destructive species and has the potential to destroy the life support system for humanity. So this traditional stuff really gets to me – anything that involves killing an endangered species or destroying a habitat, if that involves tradition, I say ecology comes before tradition. I’d rather be ecologically correct than politically correct.

What can people do to support your work?

Stop eating the ocean. Don’t eat anything out of the ocean – there is no such thing as a sustainable fishery. If people eat meat, make sure it’s organic and isn’t contributing to the destruction of the ocean because 40 percent of all the fish that’s caught out of the ocean is fed to livestock – chickens on factory farms are fed fish meal. And be cognizant of the fact that if the oceans die, we die. Therefore our ultimate responsibility is to protect biodiversity in our world’s oceans.

So do you have any quiet time?

I do what I want to do. I don’t really understand this quiet time thing. Every time I see a movie, I see people sitting on the beach with a drink – to me that seems like one of the most boring things to do. The perfect job is a job where you’d do it whether you’re getting paid or not and you’ll never retire from it. That’s what I have.

You can contribute to Sea Shepherd here. Michael Shapiro’s last interview in Earth Island Journal was with Jane Goodall. You can read his work at www.michaelshapiro.net.

   

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Comments

Thank you for all your years of hard work for a fantastic cause…💜💜👍👍🙏⚓️⚓️

By Crystal Gudenau on Sat, August 09, 2014 at 2:49 pm

THANKYOU SO MUCH FOR ALL YOU DO! THANK-YOU. FOR CARING AND ALL YOUR HARD WORK.MAY GOD RICHLY BLESS YOU FOR SAVING HIS AND OURS- CREATURES OF THE WATER! ALL MY LOVE. smile

By TAMMY on Fri, August 08, 2014 at 12:20 am

Stop being such cowards and sink their bloody ships already. You’re already branded as pirates, and if you have to sacrafice yourself in ending whaling so be it. If you actually care about the whales and don’t care about your publicity, it’s what you would do. It seems you care more about the fame you are getting than actually saving the whales.

By Whaling Hater on Fri, April 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm

We can all be Arm-chair critics of issues we don’t understand and can’t find time to research. Perhaps the uninformed should join these saviours of the sea and join the dedicated band of people who devote their lives to saving God’s sea creatures from certain eradication through senseless slaughter. If there were more Captain Paul Watson in this world it would be a better place for all God’s creatures great and small.

By Edith on Thu, March 27, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Paul Watson, thank you for everything you do. There is no time for us to care about what humans think, or whether you are taking the right approach or not….you are saving the lives of these beautiful, gentle, intelligent and amazing beings.  I can’t thank you enouogh.  I would not care anything that humans.

By Anne Dominguez on Mon, January 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm

I have alot of respect for Paul Watson and the work he does. This cull in Japan not to mention the seal cull in Canada every year really cracks me up. It’s depressing to see this happen in this day and age and all for economic purposes. Why can’t the world intervene? The Japanese don’t own these Dolphins or Whales so why is it that we only watch this happen. More needs to be done and if it means nobody purchasing anymore Sony products or Japanese cars then great. People need to stop visiting these aquariums. Consumers can stop this. Keep up the good work sea shepards and don’t ever give up on this.

By Jennifer McCullough on Mon, January 20, 2014 at 1:08 pm

It would be awesome and smart if you got a submarine

By Justin on Fri, June 08, 2012 at 7:09 pm

can you please let paul watson go,all he has done is helped out endangered animals and stop japan from killing animals he didnt even do anything he is a good person so if can please let him go

By joseph rains on Fri, May 18, 2012 at 9:00 am

Paul Watson wants to kill 9 out of ten humans on the planet. He said so himself during an interview where he stated that the world should not have more than 1 billion people and preferably 500 million in accordance with the Georgian Guidestones. [go look it up] I say let him set an example of this extreme Malthusianism and do himself in first. This man wants to return the earth to a wilderness akin to the Agenda 21 program of the U.N. excluding mankind from nature. This is Eugenics masquerading as environmentalism…and whos behind the environmentalists? the Socialists and behind them the international bankers.

By jason on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 11:51 am

Go to CNN.com and nominate Captain Watson for CNN Hero of the Year.

Flood their bloody offices with email.

By Rick on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 4:47 am

I’m a Sea Shepherd supporter and I agree with Paul Watson on many issues. One comment I take some exception to is the one about pigs. I’ve read Upton Sinclair and some of Gail Eisnitz (she wrote “Slaughterhouse,” just FYI). Pigs bound for slaughter endure horriple cruelties—getting bullhooks shoved in their faces and rectums to force them onto the truck, being insufficiently stunned prior to slaughter, kill lines moving so quickly that workers can’t keep up and end up boiling hogs alive…the list of atrocities goes on and on. I think it would be fairer to say that the Taiji dolphin slaughter and Smithfield’s hog slaughter practices are equally cruel, albeit not exactly the same.

The point is, I would have simply told the Japanese that two wrongs do not make a right.

(I know some smart alec is going to leave a reply post sneering, “Well, why don’t YOU go vegetarian?” Guess what—I did.)

By GDiFonzo on Tue, October 26, 2010 at 11:09 pm

God bless you Paul Watson. I will be joining you on one of your missions soon. We must defend the defenseless!

By George Kelly on Fri, October 01, 2010 at 9:58 am

As an Ex Combat United States Marine, I wish I could join you Paul in the Southern Ocean, I would want to bring more destruction to bare on this Murdering Japan Whaling Fleet, but sense I cannot join you I can only help by donating and passing the word. In the last 6 years, I have not bought anything made by the Japanese and I remind people everyday do not buy Japanese products, As far as I’m concerned these are the same people that my father fought in World War II, that killed and murder many of his friends.
Paul keep up the good fight.

Semper Fi;

Mike

By Mike Sprinkle on Sat, September 04, 2010 at 11:26 am

According to a December 2009 Worldwatch Institute report and the latest U.N. study, all animal agriculture isn’t a feasible practice for the earth. It causes 51% of all greenhouse emissions. To put that in perspective, all transportation vehicles combined in the world cause 11%. So organic meat is really not an option. The U.N. recently urged adopting a tasty, nutritious vegan way of eating.

Thanks, Captain Watson, for protecting the oceans and all who dwell there. May you and your crew sail strong for another 30 years.

By Mae on Fri, September 03, 2010 at 6:28 am

A real hero in my eyes. I will keep sending $$ whenever possible! THANKS PAUL

By Tim on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 2:39 pm

You walk the path of the true warrior. Thanks for everything you continue to do. Rock on, Paul.

By sundog on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 10:52 am

Captain Paul Watson U truely are my hero.This planet needs more human beings like U sir

By Julia on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 8:39 am

candy leone, Japan is not a third world country, it’s probably far more advanced than where most of us are from. The problem is not “evolved spirituality” or whatever you want to call it but corporate interest. As said in this article, 99% of Japanese don’t even eat whale meat. Please don’t make your comments so condescending.

By Durand on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 7:12 am

Question….what is an “Arctic fur seal” and what ban are you referring to?

By Felix on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 6:40 am

I can only help with my donations. Just sent ya some more money. Keep up the good work!!!

By Sea Lover on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 5:44 am

I have to agree, gotta admire Paul Watson - NO BS, that’s the way to go. As Paul says “I’d rather be ecologically correct than politically correct.”
I’ll second you too Constantine… Give the Man a Noble Peace Prize, then some MORE!!!!!

By Rebecca on Thu, September 02, 2010 at 2:18 am

Keep up the good work.  The world would be a better place with more men like you!!!!!  My heart bleeds for kind caring creatures of God that are slaughtered every day.  I am ashamed to be of the same human race as people that can do this kind of thing with no consionce!

By Douglas Harling on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I agree with everything that Constantine said except for Greenpeace having to suck his ball’s! Greenpeace is ACTUALLY doing it Brother! Why don’t you check their website’s?! See for yourself! We love you ‘Sea Shepherd’! We are behind you 100%!

By Ivar C. Fossen on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 10:05 pm

ny of us wish we could do more to help end the killing of these defensless animals but Paul and his crew are doing everything possible to bring this to an end. Third world countries, like Japan have not evolved spirituality enough to appreciate that we are all God’s children

By candy leone on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 4:56 pm

If I was physically capable of being a member of the Sea Shepherds Organization I would.. Being that I cannot, and being that I am in no position to support them financially all I can do I support them in my heart and pray for them all.. for their safety.. I can only hope that more and more people will join in the fight to end the senseless slaughtering of all the whales, dolphins (which by the way I just saw The Cove and I was just sick at what I was watching) and the rest of the marine life out there..  I’m shocked there are not twice the vessels out there doing exactly what Paul and his crew are doing.. To Paul and all the Sea Shepherds… Hats off to you all !! Keep on keepin on !!  I love you guys/gals !!!!

By Cathy on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I love Paul Watson, honesty, courage, no bull shit.   
An endangered species himself.  Maybe that’s why he is so compassionate.  He is a beacon of hope in this apathetic, cruel and cowardly world.
May the Gods be with him

By Barbara on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Give this man the Noble Peace Prize. We all know what he is doing is the right thing. Greenpeace can suck my balls! Cpt. Paul Watson has the balls to stand up for what he believes in and is doing something about it. He even did something about it when he was 10yrs old. Most humans won’t go to the extreme to do save the lives of the beautiful sea creatures, but Cpt. Paul Watson and his team of volunteers are doing something about it! Finally a reality show that truly has some substance! My hats off to you Cpt. Paul Watson!!!

By Constantine on Wed, September 01, 2010 at 3:59 pm

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