President, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
The year was 1975. And it was a drama seen round the world. A gigantic Russian whaling vessel, its explosive-tipped harpoons armed and at the ready, bore down upon an exhausted pod of sperm whales which was silently migrating toward its calving waters off the coast of Baja California. Although the whales, too, were gigantic, they were no match for a modern-day whaling fleet. They were — like all hunted whales — virtually defenseless. Defenseless, that is, except for one infinitesimal rubber dingy which was steering its way between the whalers' harpoon guns and the fleeing whales. Captain Paul Watson, as he had done many times before, placed his life between the killers and their hunted victims.
Watson, a seaman by trade, having spent his life working for both the Norwegian and Swedish Merchant Marines, was born in Toronto, Ontario, and raised in New Brunswick. Divorced and the father of one daughter, Watson is also a founding member of Greenpeace in 1970; he went on to found his own organization in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, because the former wasn't sufficiently "non-violently aggressive" for his tastes: Unlike Greenpeace, Watson says he didn't just jump onto whaling ships for publicity.
He sank them.
"Ecotage," Watson explains, "is, by definition, non-violent by nature because one life cannot be defended by the taking of another life. Never, in any of our direct actions, has a human been injured. But life can be defended," he adds, "by neutralizing the weapons of death." And that's exactly what Watson does. Aside from intervention, risking his life between the hunters and the hunted, Watson and his ship, Sea Shepherd, are well known for their actions involving the ramming and sinking of whaling ships. "The first vessel we sank was the notorious pirate whaling ship, Sierra," he says. "Sierra was ignoring all IWC [International Whaling Commission] guidelines and quotas. When we rammed her with our concrete bow, most of the world rejoiced for we had done our planet a great service."
And he'd pay any price to keep them sunk.
After the Portuguese government confiscated Sea Shepherd in late 1979, it made plans to turn it over to the Sierra Whaling Company as reparation for the sinking of its ship. Rather than allow Sea Shepherd to be converted into a whaling vessel, Watson — under the cover of darkness — boarded Sea Shepherd, sabotaged it, and sank it to the bottom of the harbor.
Asked if he believes his strategy of ecotage really is successful, Watson replies without a moment's hesitation. "I measure success by the number of animals we've saved. Sea Shepherd has saved tens of thousands of whales, hundreds of thousands of dolphins, and millions of seals. Successful? Yes. Beyond a doubt."
In 1986, Captain Watson's crew brought the illegal Icelandic whaling industry to a grinding halt. In port, his crew scuttled the unmanned pirate whaler Nybraena as a "Christmas gift to the whales" on December 26th, 1992. In July of 1994, Captain Watson and Lisa Distefano led a highly publicized campaign against the illegal pirate whaling operations of Norway. They sailed the vessel Whales Forever within 40 miles of the whaling fleets at work when they were suddenly attacked by the Norwegian Navy. The crew and the independent media aboard the Whales Forever survived the violent attack that included being rammed, depth-charged and fired upon by the Norwegian Navy that was protecting the whaling fleet. None of these carefully supervised law-enforcement actions for future generations have resulted in any injuries.
In enforcement of the United Nations Resolution 46/215 banning drift nets worldwide, Captain Watson has led four high seas expeditions against drift netting, in the process, stopping four ships from their activity and confiscating and destroying over a hundred miles of deadly and illegal monofilament drift net. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was instrumental in exposing and shutting down the U.S. tuna fleets' destructive and cruel practice of fishing on dolphins by obtaining the first videotaped evidence of this practice.
From 1984-87, Paul Watson also organized, founded and led Friends of the Wolf in a successful effort to shut down aerial wolf-hunting in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska.
Paul began an alliance with Native Americans when he served as a medic for the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973. In the same year, he was given the rare honor of being inducted into the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. In 1991, Captain Watson placed his ship and crew into the service of the Gitksan Wet'suwet'en nation. They symbolically reclaimed San Salvador Island in the Bahamas and then intercepted and boarded the Santa Maria off Puerto Rico. The Christopher Columbus reenactment voyage was successfully co-opted as an embarrassment to Spain and a victory for indigenous peoples worldwide.
For 20 years, Captain Paul Watson has been at the helm of the world's most active marine environmental organization. He is the author of
Seal Wars: Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines With the Harp Seals, Cry Wolf, Sea Shepherd: My Fight for Whales and Seals, Shepherds of the Sea and
Watson's work is not an activity for the faint of heart, and many who read of Watson's exploits marvel at his courage. For Watson, however, courage is not the issue. Working with the Souix at Wounded Knee, a medic amid the hail of bullets, he learned that, in the great scheme of things, what matters is not how long you live, but why you live, what you live for, stand for, and are willing to die for.
"If history has taught us anything," Watson explains, "it's that an action which is considered extreme by one generation is considered progressive and enlightened by the next. Ecotage is such an action, for the life of the sea is in imminent peril." He adds, "For the last 200 years, there has been a quickening of moral development. Today, animal rights is at its cutting edge, and I believe it will evolve into a planetary or earth-centered ethic in which people will live with respect for the earth and all of its inhabitants. Only then," he says, "can there be true peace on earth."
Watson believes, and perhaps rightly so, that we are the last generation in a position to save the planet, and although his actions may seem extreme by some, they are, in the end, desperate measures to prevent irreparable crimes. And as he might say: "Today's radicals are tomorrow's heroes."