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.
Barbara 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.
Glenn 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.
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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