Eco-warrior Paul Watson prepares for his next battle for nature Print E-mail
Monday, 13 December 2004 00:00

Eco-warrior Paul Watson prepares for his next battle for nature

By Sarah Titterton, Royal Gazette, 13 Dec 2004

The image of the peaceful shepherd quietly tending his flock has been forever laid to rest. Captain Paul Watson sank it in the name of environmentalism.

Sea Shepherd, the environmental organisation viewed in many circles as an eco-terrorist group, is in Bermuda for some recovery time before setting sail on their next turbulent campaign to help save the world's marine environment.

Unlike other environmental organisations, Sea Shepherd does not bother with educational awareness or politics. A ruthless defender of the environment, it simply blocks the path of would-be attackers on marine life. Literally.


If that strategy results in international arrests, the sinking of ships, and the labels of terrorism and piracy - well, so be it.

Whether you agree with their cause - and, especially, their controversial and dramatic tactics - or not, both the organisation and its head are undeniably fascinating.

Originally one of the co-founders of Greenpeace in the 1970s, Capt. Watson split off from the group once it became weighed down with paperwork and bureaucracy.

Sea Shepherd, formed in 1977, is his response to the slow, political and paper-clogged machinery of Greenpeace. “We can make decisions immediately,” he explained.

At Sea Shepherd, there are only two rules: never compromise and never cause injury to anyone - human or animal. “We act in accordance with the United Nations World Charter for Nature - that any individual, organisation or state is authorised to uphold international conservation law.”

So far, despite the stormy record, no one has been injured, the Captain added - leading him to wonder at being labelled an eco-terrorist.

After all, he said, it's hard to be considered a terrorist when one's organisation has charitable status in the United States.

The small Buddhist statue displayed in the bridge of the Farley Mowat, the Sea Shepherd vessel currently docked in St. George's, seems to represent Capt. Watson's view of his organisation's tactics. Casually mentioning that the figure was given to him by the Dalai Lama in the early 1980s, the Captain said it represented the compassionate side of Buddha's wrath.

Sometimes, he added, you just have to scare them a little.

Pirates are another example the Captain appeared to embrace. In the 1700s, he explained, the British Government was helpless to tackle the problem of pirates, bogged down as it was by politics. So the pirate Henry Morgan - captured and pardoned by the British Government - was charged with the task instead. “If you want to stop piracy, you need pirates to do it,” Capt. Watson said.

Sea Shepherd flies the skull-and-crossbones, even developing its own logo based on the traditional pirate flag. Piracy is also embraced in the decor of the Farley Mowat - a ship well worth visiting.

Though the line between pirate and terrorist appears thin, Sea Shepherd does have its supporters. As already mentioned, the organisation is registered as a charity in the United States, and the president of Senegal has invited Sea Shepherd there in the near future to help in the battle against poachers off the country's west coast.

With ships stationed regularly off the coasts of Colombia and the Galapagos Islands, the organisation has much support from those countries also.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sea Shepherd has some serious Hollywood star power behind it. A letter encouraging people to join the organisation was signed by none other than Richard Dean Anderson - otherwise known as MacGyver.

“He's actually an excellent diver,” the Captain confided.

Of course he is. He's MacGyver.

Pierce Brosnan - aka James Bond - also signed the letter - as did actors Sean Penn and Martin Sheen. Author Farley Mowat, naturally, is another ardent supporter of the group.

There are many who think Capt. Watson and Sea Shepherd have sailed merrily across the line into terrorism, however. The organisation's existence has been shrouded in controversy ever since its stormy conception in the wake of the Captain's departure from Greenpeace.

Certain factions in Canada and Japan have good reason to view Capt. Watson as an “eco-terrorist” in view of his relentless attacks against the killing of seals and dolphins in those countries.

In fact, Capt. Watson's wife was arrested recently in Japan for setting 15 dolphins free in Taiji, Japan during a slaughter which turned the waters of the bay red with blood. A total of some 23,000 dolphins died. Sea Shepherd intends to send a crew back to Japan in October of this year.

The crews of the ten whaling ships Capt. Watson sank over a 20-year period could also have reason to view his tactics as somewhat overboard - depending on whose perspective you take.

Terrorist or no, with the dubious distinction of being known as “the world's most experienced rammer of vessels”, the Captain's exploits have ensured he will go down in history.

One incident became so infamous that Phil Kauffman - director of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Quills” - will be directing a movie about it next year.

In this particular incident in 1979, the Sea Shepherd waged battle against the pirate whaler Sierra. Unconnected with any country and with crew members of all nations, the Sierra would bribe port officials in Portugal and Spain to unload the meat of illegally slaughtered whales. Though condemned by international organisations, nobody was taking action - such a thing is often difficult to enforce, Capt. Watson explained.

“So,” he continued, “we did.”

Two hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, the Sea Shepherd rammed the Sierra - twice - and chased the disabled ship into port.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Capt. Watson was then chased in turn by the Portuguese Navy. Captured, he was arrested and charged with gross negligence.

“I said, ‘There's nothing negligent about it',” the Captain declared. “‘I hit him exactly where I intended.'”

The naval officer reportedly laughed - and, unable to find an owner of the Sierra, set Capt. Watson free. By this time, the Sierra had been repaired, and set sail again from Portugal - right into the path of Sea Shepherd, lying in wait.

“Well, we knew where they were,” Capt. Watson explained. The Sea Shepherd promptly rammed the Sierra once more - this time sinking it in Lisbon Harbour.

Sean Penn is set to play Capt. Watson. Leonardo DiCaprio, the Captain confided, had been tipped for the role.

“I said, you can't be serious. I mean, he's prettier - but (the acting) is no contest.”

With such a fearsome reputation behind him, Capt. Watson was surprisingly welcoming. Despite being unannounced, The Royal Gazette was welcomed onboard last Thursday evening for a spontaneous interview.

Over the course of the next hour and a half the Captain shared story after jaw-dropping story of his life: from the details of the three times he has been arrested, to setting legal precedents in Canada and thumbing his nose at the Canadian Navy, to shutting down the Makah whale hunt in Washington state, and many more.

Antarctica, he said, is “the most beautiful place in the world”, where icebergs larger than Bermuda abound and French scientists drink and eat in high style.

“We were drinking champagne with French scientists in the middle of a penguin flock,” he said. “If you're going to visit a research station, visit the French one. They have a fully-equipped bar.”

When the Farley Mowat leaves Bermuda it will go on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to stand once again against the murder of 350,000 seals at the hands of Canadian authorities. Bob Talbot, the world's most foremost photographer of marine mammals, will be on board, along with documentary film crews filming the battle.

Sea Shepherd has fought that good fight before, even shutting the operation down in 1984 for ten years.

“It's always a temporary victory,” the Captain admitted, however. “I don't get discouraged. We do the best we can do and that's all.”

The Farley Mowat is expected to be in Bermuda for the next few weeks before the next campaign to save the seals begins. “Just show up if you want a tour of the boat,” Capt. Watson said.

For more on Sea Shepherd or Capt. Watson, visit the Farley Mowat or the organisation's website,

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