First published on 6 Jun 2012.
Since Paul Watson founded Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 (after being ousted from Greenpeace for his confrontational tactics), he’s sunk whaling ships across the globe, by ramming or weaponry, with recent years spent embroiled in a highly publicised war with Japanese whalers. This approach has led to the activists being dubbed eco-terrorists and pirates – but to many, including a large celebrity factor, they’re the gung-ho saviours of the seas.
Paul, you forced whalers to withdraw earlier this year, but they’re returning with extra funding. Do you still predict this will be Sea Shepherd’s last related campaign?
We had reason to believe the last one would be, because it makes no economic or political sense for the whalers to return. We drove them into bankruptcy and saved 850 whales. But Japan has allocated $30m just to stop us. The only reason they’re doing it – according to the Japanese Prime Minister – is to not surrender to Sea Shepherd. It seems bizarre that an economic power like Japan would treat us like a nation they are at war with.
There’s a theory that it’s money donated to Japan by anti-whaling nations after the tsunami disaster.
Actually, the Japanese Fisheries Agency applied for those funds with the justification that many of the whalers come from communities that were impacted. I don’t think that people around the world who are sending money for the victims of the tsunami and the earthquake and the nuclear disaster were imagining for a moment that it would be going to fund whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
How do you feel before you set off on a campaign?
We feel confident that we can stop them. We don’t know what they’re spending their $30m on, but I have one thing the whalers don’t: a passionate and courageous bunch of volunteers from 24 nations – and they are all willing to risk everything just to stop the activity. We shut down the pilot whaler in the Sierra for good back in ’79. We shut down the Icelandic whaling activity for 17 years and destroyed half their fleet in ’86.
You had visa issues coming into Australia and were on Interpol’s watch list for a while. How have you been received by the locals while docked in Circular Quay, Fremantle and Hobart?
The people of Australia and New Zealand have been extremely supportive, generous and friendly, including bureaucrats and the police. The only hostility comes from the Federal Government.
You’ve had support from musicians like John Butler and Xavier Rudd. Have any other Australians in the public eye been vocal on your behalf?
Xavier Rudd was on board the ship when we moved it to Circular Quay, and former Environment Minister Ian Campbell is on our advisory board. Elle Macpherson and Mimi Macpherson are supporters here. Beyond Australia, last week Sean Connery joined our advisory board. Now we have two James Bonds, because Pierce Brosnan’s a member too.
Sea Shepherd’s a foundation that really inspires the imagination; it has that derring do, Bond-like, heroic appeal.
It does. I sort of joke that we can’t lose because we have William Shatner, Christian Bale, Pierce Brosnan and Richard Dean Anderson… so we have Captain Kirk, Batman, James Bond and MacGyver.
Do you think there are two kinds of activists: those who are born with that drive and those who have had some kind of epiphany later in life?
I don’t really know. I got my start because a family of beavers I spent so much time with were killed by trappers and I began to find trap lines, free the animals and destroy the traps. That was when I was 11, so I guess I never grew up.
You’ve had some support from the Dalai Lama… are you a Buddhist yourself?
No, I don’t have a religion, but I respect them. In 1985 a monk gave me this statue called Hayagriva, and the Dalai Lama explained that it meant you never want to hurt anybody, but sometimes when you’re trying to get them to see enlightenment you have to scare the hell out of them! So he understands our approach, which is aggressive nonviolence – that’s what I call it.
How many of your battles are heat of the moment? Do you have rules in place?
We have our rules of engagement: we don’t hurt anybody and we don’t operate outside the law. A few years ago I was giving a lecture at an FBI academy in Quantico and one of the agents said, “You know, Sea Shepherd walks a pretty damn fine line when it comes to the law,” and I said, “Who cares how fine it is as long as you don’t cross it?” There is this perception that we break the law, but we don’t, we just push it to the limit.
There have been docos made about you – Pirate for the Sea (2008), Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson (2011) and
a Discovery Channel series, Whale Wars – but it’s hard to believe Hollywood hasn’t made a feature.
I’ve sold movie rights every year for the past 30 years, so
I think we’ve made more money on
options than we will ever make from the actual making of a movie.
What have been your hairiest moments so far?
We got attacked by a mob of 300 sealers who smashed into our hotel room back in ’95 in the Magdalen Islands. We landed off the shores of Siberia and got into a confrontation with the Soviet Navy, but managed to get away as they were firing at us. We got into a showdown with the Norwegian Navy where they rammed us, dropped four depth charges underneath us and shot at us twice. We got shot at on the Japanese campaign; they threw grenades at us three years ago. But not only have we never injured anybody in 35 years of operation, we have never had anybody seriously injured. Our one message is this: we do what we do because our oceans are dying. If our oceans die then we die. We can’t live on this planet with a dead ocean.
Visit Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, and see what life is like on board and meet some of the vessel's international crew on the June long weekend.