While living in Australia in 2010, I heard a good deal about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — a group of marine-wildlife activists who were going up against Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic seas (www.seashepherd.org). They made the news night after night, and the U.S. cable-television channel Animal Planet was filming a series called Whale Wars about the group’s activities. The wind-whipped people on my TV screen looked cold, strong, and resolute as they deliberately went in harm’s way to save whales. I’d sit on the couch eating dinner and cheer them on, wondering if I could ever be so brave.
Sea Shepherd’s founder, Paul Watson, believes in taking direct action to save marine wildlife — very direct. With more than two hundred sea voyages undertaken since 1977, the group claims to have saved many thousands of whales, seals, and other sea creatures. In some cases Sea Shepherd has shut down a country’s entire whaling operation. Its small fleet travels the globe with limited funding, no weapons, and no naval or coast-guard protection to stop illegal whaling and fishing. Watson has become notorious for confrontations that result in destruction of property, but he maintains that he is upholding international law, not violating it. His detractors have said that he has no authority on the seas and denounced him as a “pirate.” Sea Shepherd has embraced the label in its fundraising, using a Jolly Roger–style logo and selling T-shirts and hoodies that list the names of the whaling ships it has sunk or put out of commission.
Watson was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1950 and spent most of his childhood in the fishing town of Saint Andrews in New Brunswick. At the age of nine he began removing beaver leg traps from the woods to foil hunters. At eighteen he joined the Canadian Coast Guard and a year later began traveling the world on board merchant ships. After returning, he helped organize a protest against U.S. underground nuclear testing at Amchitka Island in southern Alaska. He was a member of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee and a crewman on board the committee’s vessel the Greenpeace Too, which traveled to Amchitka in a failed attempt to disrupt the tests. A year later the committee renamed itself the Greenpeace Foundation, and Watson was the eighth official member.
Watson took part in Greenpeace’s efforts to oppose whaling and was first officer on board the Greenpeace V when it took on the Soviet whaling fleet in 1976. After that he and fellow Greenpeace member David Garrick organized a campaign against seal hunting in Canada, during which Watson chained himself to a pile of seal pelts. The seal hunters lifted the pelts into the ship anyway, and Watson was slammed against the hull and dunked in the frigid water until he lost consciousness. When other members of Greenpeace felt Watson was going too far, he left in 1977 to found the Earth Force Society, which soon changed its name to Sea Shepherd.
Watson claims that Sea Shepherd is the only organization attempting to enforce the international moratorium on whaling that has been in place since 1986. (The International Whaling Commission [IWC], which declared the ban, does not have the resources to enforce it.) Sea Shepherd also opposes the illegal hunting of sharks for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China, and such widely banned fishing practices as bottom trawling, in which nets are dragged along the ocean floor, destroying habitat and killing many animals that are not consumed by humans.
Watson cofounded Friends of the Wolf to stop wolf hunting in British Columbia, ran for office in the Canadian parliament on the Green Party ticket, and served for three years on the national board of the Sierra Club. He has published six books, including Earthforce!, Ocean Warrior, and Seal Wars, and was named by Time as one of its environmental heroes of the twentieth century. When not actively involved in an ocean campaign with Sea Shepherd, he makes public-speaking appearances to raise awareness of and funding for his cause.
The Sea Shepherd campaign that brought Watson to my attention was called Operation Waltzing Matilda and was aimed at preventing Japanese whaling ships — which the Japanese government calls “research vessels” — from killing endangered whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an area designated for conservation by the IWC in 1994. As well as using two large ships to hamper the movements of the main whaling vessels, Sea Shepherd also deployed the fast, small Ady Gil to stop the harpoon boats. The Ady Gil was used for only one day before it was rammed by the Japanese ship Shōnan Maru 2. No lives were lost, but the Ady Gil, named for the U.S. businessman who had donated the funds for its purchase, was unsalvageable; it sank. Nevertheless Sea Shepherd reports that Operation Waltzing Matilda stopped the Japanese whalers for at least three weeks, preventing the deaths of hundreds of whales and costing the Japanese whaling industry tens of millions of dollars.
In the most recent whaling season Sea Shepherd was able to obstruct the Japanese whalers even further. After taking less than 10 percent of its expected catch, the entire fleet was recalled by the Japanese government, ending the hunt for that year and possibly for the foreseeable future.
I spoke to Watson in Australia when he was between campaigns. In person he is audacious and imposing. A great storyteller, he projects bold confidence and a low tolerance for manners and diplomacy. Though some critics might accuse him of self-mythologizing, none questions his courage and ferocious commitment to protecting marine life.
Kendall: What’s the primary goal of Sea Shepherd?
Watson: I set it up to be an antipoaching organization. We are not a protest group. What we do is intervene against illegal activities. Whenever a vessel or a person is in violation of an international conservation regulation, treaty, or law, we step in.
Kendall: How do you stop whalers from killing whales?
Watson: We block the harpoon boats’ access to the factory ship. If you kill a whale, you have to process the body within twelve hours. Otherwise the meat is no good. We make it impossible for them to do that by staying right on the tail of the whaling ship. Harpoon boats have tried to push in between us and the whaling ship, but I’ve always stood my ground, even when it caused a collision.
Kendall: How did you become involved in this work?
Watson: In June 1975 I was part of the first Greenpeace campaign to protect whales. [Greenpeace cofounder] Robert Hunter and I had come up with the idea to get in small, mobile boats and put ourselves between the whales and the harpooners, so they couldn’t harpoon the whales.
We tracked down a Russian whaling ship that was chasing eight sperm whales about six miles off Cape Mendocino, California. We immediately got in front so that every time the harpooner tried to get a shot, we would block his aim. This worked until the captain came down the catwalk of the whaling vessel and screamed into the ear of the harpooner. Then he looked at us, smiled, and slid his finger across his throat.
A few minutes later the harpoon flew over our bow and just missed our boat. It rammed into the back of one of the female whales in the pod in front of us. She screamed, and it sounded like a woman screaming. It was really quite shocking. Then she rolled over on her side in a fountain of blood, dying.
Suddenly the largest whale in the pod disappeared. He swam straight down, right underneath us, and back up so fast that he came out of the water and threw his full body weight onto the harpoon vessel, to protect his pod. They got another harpoon and shot him in the head at point-blank range. He fell back into the water and was rolling in agony on the surface. Then he dove in a trail of bloody bubbles and came up again, fast. He lifted out of the water at such an angle that he was about to fall straight down on top of us and crush us.
As his head rose up out of the water, I looked into his eye, which was the size of my fist, and what I saw there changed my life: I saw understanding. I think the whale understood what we were trying to do, because, with great effort, he pulled himself back so that he would not fall on top of us. He slid slowly backward, and his eye disappeared beneath the surface, and he died. He could have taken our lives but chose not to.
I thought about how we’d been waging this war of extinction on the whales for centuries, for all sorts of ridiculous things — oil and umbrellas and skirt hoops. The Russians were using whale oil for high-heat-resistant machine lubricant on intercontinental ballistic missiles. I thought: Here we are destroying this beautiful, intelligent, complex creature for the purpose of making a weapon designed for the annihilation of human beings.
That very day I stopped being concerned about working for humanity. My clients are now whales and sharks and seals and other creatures that live in the sea. I don’t give a damn what people have to say about that, because I don’t work for them anymore.
As his head rose up out of the water, I looked into his eye, which was the size of my fist, and what I saw there changed my life: I saw understanding. I think the whale understood what we were trying to do.
Kendall: What’s happening in the Antarctic with the Japanese whalers?
Watson: A moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect in 1986. In 1987 Japan set up the Institute of Cetacean Research to continue whaling under the guise of scientific research. That is what we are opposing today.
The Japanese are targeting protected and endangered whales, such as humpbacks and fins, in an established international whale sanctuary, in violation of the global moratorium and the Antarctic Treaty. There is no difference between these Japanese whalers and elephant poachers in east Africa, except that poachers are poor and often get shot and the whalers are businessmen and operate with impunity.
Kendall: Tell me about your engagement with the Japanese whaling vessel Shōnan Maru 2 and the loss of Sea Shepherd’s Ady Gil.
Watson: In 2010 we sent three vessels down to the Antarctic to protect the whales: the Steve Irwin, out of Australia; the Bob Barker, which left from Africa; and the Ady Gil, which came out of New Zealand. The Ady Gil was our fast interceptor vessel, the first one we had that could keep up with the harpoon boats. The other two vessels had to concentrate on stopping the larger factory ship. The Ady Gil proved very effective in stopping the harpoon boats. Then it came back to the Bob Barker and waited to be refueled. The entire crew was on deck when the Shōnan Maru 2 went steaming by. It’s a “security vessel” — a harpoon boat manned by security personnel. The Shōnan Maru 2 made an abrupt turn right into the Ady Gil, which was unable to get out of the way. It cut the Ady Gil nearly in half and totally destroyed it. There was no way to salvage the boat, though we tried. The crew did manage to remove all the oil. Not a drop spilled. The crash had ripped open the fuel tanks, but fortunately those were empty.
We tried to tow the wrecked vessel to the French base on the coast, but it was like towing a bucket through the water: it just kept filling up. So we contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which advised us to give them the location and let it sink.
Afterward the Japanese whaling operation put out a press release accusing us of polluting the pristine waters of Antarctica with our abandoned vessel and diesel fuel. It was just propaganda. We didn’t release any fuel, and even if we had, they were the ones who’d cut our boat in half. Our crew did everything it could.
Kendall: You referred to the Japanese whaler “ramming” the Ady Gil. I saw the video footage on television, and to my untrained eye it looked as if the Ady Gil had drifted into the side of the whaler.
Watson: The Ady Gil was drifting, but the Shōnan Maru 2 was moving at twenty knots and made an abrupt turn into the boat. Pete [the captain of the Ady Gil] was able to start the engine, but he had hardly begun to move before they were hit. It would have been very easy for the Ady Gil to have avoided the collision if it had been moving. You can see on the video that the Shōnan Maru 2 also hit the crew of the Ady Gil with water cannons and sonic weapons called “LRADs” [long-range acoustic devices] that are used for crowd dispersal.
Kendall: Was the Ady Gil insured?
Watson: No, we can’t insure any of our vessels, because what we do is too dangerous. This was a $2 million ship that was deliberately rammed and sunk by Japanese whalers without any repercussions. I mean, if I had sunk a Japanese ship down there, I guarantee the Australian Navy would have had me under arrest. But these poachers get away with anything they want. The Ady Gil was sunk inside the waters of the Australian Antarctic Territory. There is an ongoing investigation by Maritime New Zealand and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, but Japan refuses to cooperate, so nothing can be done.
Kendall: Can you not go to Japan and file charges against the whaling company?
Watson: [Laughs.] I guess in theory we could, but the chances we would win are pretty remote. The Japanese protect their own.
Kendall: The Australian federal police boarded the Bob Barker and the Steve Irwin when the ships got back to Australia, apparently to comply with a request from the Japanese government to investigate whether Sea Shepherd had breached maritime law.
Watson: Yes, they came on board, even though [Australian prime minister] Kevin Rudd said he had not sent them. They came at the request of the Japanese. When did the Australian police start taking orders from the Japanese?
They accused us of criminal activity, and I asked why they said nothing about the sinking and destruction of the Ady Gil and the attempted murder of six of our crew members. They said we would have to take that up with the Japanese authorities.
We won’t hear from them again. I think they were just doing it to show the Japanese they were living up to whatever agreement they have. But I wish they would put us under arrest and charge us in an Australian court. It would be a wonderful opportunity to get this whole matter aired out in public, in a country where 94 percent of the population is against whaling. I think it would expose Japan’s ongoing illegal activities to the world. We have unbelievable support from the people of Australia, but the government is more interested in appeasing the Japanese, as is the New Zealand government, and everybody else, really. Japan is an economic bully and gets what it wants.
Kendall: The International Whaling Commission recently proposed a plan whereby Iceland, Norway, and Japan would be allowed to hunt whales for meat, with a reduction in the numbers allowed over the next ten years. Do you oppose that plan?
Watson: That’s sort of like saying to a bunch of bank robbers, “We’ll let you rob banks on Mondays if you take only so much money.” You don’t compromise with criminals or poachers. I think that proposal has been rejected anyway.
This area where the Japanese are whale hunting is called the “Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.” What is it about the word sanctuary they don’t seem to understand? In a sanctuary you have zero quota, so any hunting is unacceptable. As long as this area is designated under law as a sanctuary, we are going to protect it.
Kendall: Do you ever see killing whales for meat as justifiable?
Watson: I don’t, personally. I think it is an abomination. But the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not opposed to whaling. It is opposed to illegal whaling.
Kendall: Why is it your job to enforce the laws of the oceans?
Watson: That’s a good question. I wish the countries that are signatories to the laws would enforce them, but they don’t seem to have the political or economic will to do so. The United Nations World Charter for Nature states in section 21(e) that nongovernmental organizations and individuals are empowered to uphold international conservation law “in areas beyond national jurisdiction.” So we actually have a legal right to intervene.
Kendall: Is Sea Shepherd the only enforcer of marine-protection laws?
Watson: On the international waters, yes, as far as I know. I haven’t come across any other groups doing what we do.
Kendall: Do most governments view your actions as legal?
Watson: The only government that has put me on trial is Canada’s. Back in 1993 I chased Cuban and Spanish drag trawlers off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. This was outside the two-hundred-mile limit of Canadian jurisdiction, but I was arrested by Canadian authorities anyway and charged with criminal mischief and endangering life and property. It was a four-week trial and cost the government millions of dollars.
There were forty-five government witnesses against me. I was the only witness in my defense, but I was still acquitted. My defense was the UN World Charter for Nature and what is called “color of rights,” meaning that I had the right to intervene, or it was my understanding that I had the right to intervene. The only country that would not allow this defense is the United States, because the U.S. did not sign the UN World Charter for Nature.
Sea Shepherd answers to only one country, the Netherlands, because we fly the Dutch flag. Japan has made plenty of complaints to the Dutch registry, but there hasn’t been a single investigation, and no violations have been filed against us. The Dutch foreign minister was pressured by Japan to remove our flag, but they could not because we were compliant with all Dutch regulations. So the Dutch tried to introduce special legislation to remove our flag for any action that would upset diplomatic relationships between the Netherlands and another country. It was outrageous, and the Dutch public objected strongly to it. Even if the legislation is eventually proposed, we estimate it will take three to four years for it to pass. In the meantime we have not been charged with a single violation.
Kendall: So everything you do is legal according to Dutch law?
Watson: I believe it is. In thirty-two years of operations, nobody in Sea Shepherd has been convicted of a felony. We have never been sued, and we have never injured anybody. But still people call us “ecoterrorists,” “pirates,” and so on.
When people began calling us “pirates,” we designed our own pirate flag, and it’s proven to be our most successful marketing logo. Of course the whalers are the real outlaws, but sometimes it takes a pirate to stop a pirate. Back in the seventeenth century, when piracy was out of control in the Caribbean, it wasn’t the British Navy that shut it down. In fact, British military officers, merchants, and politicians were all taking bribes from the pirates. Piracy was shut down by the actions of one man, Henry Morgan, a pirate. The British government had to reward him for his success, so it knighted him and made him the deputy governor of Jamaica.
In Sea Shepherd we like to look on ourselves as compassionate pirates, not pirates in pursuit of profit. It’s quite a noble legacy. Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Jean Lafitte, and John Paul Jones, the founder of the U.S. Navy, were all pirates.
Kendall: So the actions that you take — such as throwing sour milk onto the decks of whaling ships — are legal actions?
Watson: They are not illegal. I consider our attacks a nontoxic, biodegradable, organic form of chemical warfare. The Japanese news says that we throw acid at whalers. Rotten butter is an acid, but it’s less acidic than beer. It’s noncorrosive, nonirritating, and nontoxic. But it stinks like you wouldn’t believe.
Kendall: And it’s slippery.
Watson: We make it slippery by adding methyl cellulose to it. That’s a food-grade product used to coat pills and make them easier to swallow. When mixed with water, it becomes super slippery. It’s pretty hard to go about your work when you can’t stand up and everything stinks to high heaven.
For this the former premier of Newfoundland called me an “ecoterrorist” and said I wasn’t welcome in Newfoundland. But I am a Canadian and will go any damn place in Newfoundland I choose to go. If the premier thinks I am a criminal, then he can bloody well arrest me.
Kendall: You say that Sea Shepherd “adheres to the utilization of nonviolent principles in the course of all actions.” What’s your definition of violence?
Watson: My definition is the same as Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Mahatma Gandhi’s, and Nelson Mandela’s. King said you cannot commit an act of violence against a nonsentient object, only against a living being. We have never injured a single person in our entire history, and we are proud of that record. I spent six months in Africa in 1978, tracking elephant poachers with park rangers. The rangers were killing the poachers, but I would not do that. I did destroy their vehicles and their weapons. If you damage property in order to prevent the death of a sentient being — that is, if you damage a harpoon or a gun or a rifle — it’s an act of nonviolence.
There is a difference between nonviolence and pacifism. Mahatma Gandhi once said, when somebody called him a pacifist, “I’ve never advocated passive anything.” Pacifism is the act of doing nothing. Nonviolence is a tactic. Clearly it worked against the British, but many have wondered if it would have been as effective against the likes of Hitler or Stalin. You have to choose your strategies according to your enemies.
I think nonviolence has been turned into some kind of sacred cause, but people have to use a little common sense in its application. In 1986 I was running for member of parliament with the Green Party of Canada, and they wanted to kick me out of the party for being violent — i.e., sinking ships. So we had a big debate on it at Green Party headquarters. I pointed out that the Green Party is pro-choice, and so am I, but you cannot argue that abortion is not violent; you’re destroying living tissue. They were telling me it’s nonviolent to destroy an unborn baby, but it’s violent to destroy two pieces of metal. Humans are really good at justifying violence when we want to use it.
Kendall: You’ve taken responsibility for sinking a great many ships.
Watson: Yes, I hunted down the pirate whaler the Sierra in 1979. It had killed thousands of whales illegally and was wanted in numerous countries. It was operating out of Portugal by passing bribes to officials, but we were able to track it down. I rammed it twice and disabled it and didn’t injure anybody. Then, after it was repaired, we sank it in Lisbon Harbor and ended its career.
To put the pirate whaler Astrid out of commission, we put posters all over the Canary Islands offering twenty-five thousand dollars to anybody who could sink it. The captains didn’t even trust their own crew with that kind of price on the ship’s head, so they retired the vessel.
We had the whaling ships Susan and Theresa seized by the South African government because they were linked to the Sierra. It was not contested. The boats were taken out and sunk by the South African Navy.
The Spanish ships Ibsa 1 and Ibsa 2 had exceeded their kill quota on fin whales out of Vigo, Spain, so we simply enforced the IWC regulations by sinking them in harbor, and that pretty much ended Spanish whaling operations. So between 1980 and 1986 we shut down basically all the whaling activities in the North Atlantic. In 1986 we sank half of Iceland’s whaling fleet. People said we didn’t accomplish much because the whalers raised those boats, but they’ve never been used again. They are rusted inside and out.
In the 1990s we sank a total of four Norwegian whaling vessels. Since Norway had about sixty-five small whaling ships, we couldn’t knock them all out, so our tactic was to sink a boat a year to keep their insurance premiums at an all-time high: a 3,000 percent increase. They also had to pay for twenty-four-hour security. So it was no longer profitable for them to continue what they were doing.
When people began calling us “pirates,” we designed our own pirate flag, and it’s proven to be our most successful marketing logo. Of course the whalers are the real outlaws, but sometimes it takes a pirate to stop a pirate.
Kendall: Are you having an economic impact on the Japanese fleet?
Watson: Oh, yes. We’ve cost them their profits for five years in a row. That’s why they are so angry. They have made no money. We have cut their quotas in half.
People say Greenpeace’s approach is more responsible than Sea Shepherd’s, because they are trying to educate the Japanese people and convince them not to kill whales. They say the only way to make a difference is to reach the Japanese people. First of all, I think that sort of missionary approach is damned insulting. Who are we to preach to the Japanese about right and wrong? Second of all, I don’t think it makes any difference. The majority of Canadians are against the seal hunt, but the government continues to support it. The one language that everybody understands is profit and loss. As long as we keep their profits from exceeding their losses, we are hurting them.
Kendall: It sounds as if you have rammed and sunk only one vessel.
Watson: We’ve actually rammed numerous vessels, but we have never rammed and sunk a vessel on the spot. We rammed the Sierra and disabled it, then sank it six months later.
Kendall: When you rammed the Sierra, were there people on board?
Watson: Yes, there were people on board, but the ship was at anchor. I could have hit the Sierra out at sea, but I wouldn’t have been able to control the situation there. I have to be able to make sure nobody’s hurt.
First I put my ship in dock and called my crew together. I said, “Look, we are going to go out and ram and disable the Sierra. I can’t guarantee you’re not going to get injured, and I can guarantee that you’re going to go to jail in Portugal. You’ve got ten minutes to decide if you’re with us or not.”
Ten minutes later there were seventeen crew members on the dock. The two who stayed with me were my engineers. So the three of us took the ship out and went at the Sierra full speed. We struck it across the bow to damage the harpoon, then turned around and slammed into it at fifteen knots on the port side, splitting it open to the waterline.
Here’s the thing about ramming boats: when a thousand tons of floating steel collides with a thousand tons of floating steel, it doesn’t even knock anybody off their feet, because the volume of metal absorbs the impact of the blow. It’s almost like cutting through butter with a hot knife. As long as there is nobody standing at the point of impact or behind the bulkhead, you’re not going to kill anybody.
Kendall: How could you know there wasn’t anybody behind the bulkhead?
Watson: Because it was a freezer compartment full of whale meat. If there had been somebody in there, that person wouldn’t have lived long due to the extreme cold.
Kendall: So, just to be clear, you’re saying it is perfectly legal to destroy property as long as it is being used to commit crimes?
Watson: What is “perfectly legal”? If you commit an act with full knowledge by the authorities, you’re either arrested for it or you’re not, and if you’re arrested, you’re either convicted or you’re not. After we hit the Sierra, the Portuguese Navy detained us, and I was brought before the port captain, who threatened to charge me with gross criminal negligence. I told him there was nothing negligent about what we’d done: we’d hit that ship exactly where we’d intended to hit it. He finally decided that, since he couldn’t figure out who owned the ship, he couldn’t bring any charges against me.
When we sank Iceland’s whaling fleet and destroyed their whale-processing plant, costing the Icelandic whaling industry $10 million, I flew to Reykjavík, the capital, to demand that charges be brought. I landed at the airport, and the police turned out to greet me. They asked if I was admitting to the sinking of the ships, and I said, “Not only are we admitting to it, but we are going to sink the next two at the first opportunity.” And the following morning they took me to the airport and sent me home. They knew that to put me on trial would have been to put Iceland on trial, and they did not want that.
Kendall: You have never been responsible for the death of a human being, but would you agree that you have put your own and others’ lives in danger by taking on whaling ships?
Watson: Yes, I would agree that we’re taking risks. We make no pretense about that. In fact, I ask all my crew members before they join whether they are willing to risk their lives to protect a whale, and if they say no, then I don’t want them. This is a dangerous business. We are going to the most remote and hostile waters in the world and confronting aggressive opposition.
Kendall: Your crew aren’t professionals.
Watson: No, and we get criticized for that sometimes, but it doesn’t bother me, because I couldn’t pay professionals to do what these people do. They are volunteers who do this out of passion. When Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was told that his crew were inexperienced sailors, he said he would rather have people of passion than professionals anytime. I agree. Professionals are a pain in the rear end.
After we hit the Sierra, the Portuguese Navy detained us, and I was brought before the port captain, who threatened to charge me with gross criminal negligence. I told him there was nothing negligent about what we’d done: we’d hit that ship exactly where we’d intended to hit it.
Kendall: What would happen if a member of your crew or a Japanese crew were killed in a conflict?
Watson: You can’t control everything, but you can take every precaution to ensure that you don’t hurt anybody. Do we do that? Yes. Is it still possible that someone could get hurt? Yes. You could get hit by a car crossing the street, but you don’t stop crossing the street. You take precautions and do it in a responsible manner. We have an unblemished record of never having injured anybody.
Kendall: Would you consider it acceptable if a person were seriously injured but a whale’s life were saved?
Watson: It’s never acceptable for anybody to be injured. There have been a number of actions over the years that I have decided not to take because they were too dangerous. For instance, we were going after a drift-netter in the north Pacific once, and one of the netter’s crew approached the power block that we were trying to damage. I don’t know why he did it, but once he was there, we had to abort the ramming maneuver because there was a possibility he would be injured.
Another example is when we sank the two whaling ships in Iceland. There was a third one there, but a watchman was sleeping on board. We couldn’t guarantee that he would get off safely, so we didn’t sink that vessel. We always give a warning before we ram ships.
Kendall: Do you consider human life more valuable than whale life?
Watson: I consider the survival of a species to be more important than that of a single individual, but I personally consider all species to be of equal value. Because of the ecological law of interdependence, however, some species can be more valuable to the ecosystem than others. Worms, bees, and certain forms of bacteria, for example, are far more important than humans are to the survival of life on the planet. They can live on the planet without us, but we can’t live on the planet without them.
A Japanese reporter once asked me, if I saw a dolphin and a human being both caught in a gill net, which one I would rescue first. I said, “Well, I’m not in Japan to rescue human beings.” That answer actually gained me some respect in Japan, because the Japanese have a strong sense of duty. My duty is to the dolphins.
Kendall: Were you drawn to the ocean in childhood?
Watson: I was brought up near the beach. A lot of the people where I lived were fishermen, but I didn’t become one. As a child I didn’t see fishermen as very good people.
Kendall: What makes the ocean so precious to you?
Watson: The ocean is the life of the planet. It controls the weather. It provides half the oxygen we breathe. I don’t think people really understand that the diminishment of the ocean is the diminishment of life on earth, and the death of the ocean will be the death of all of us.
If the earth were a spaceship, the biosphere would be the life-support system, the sun would be the engine, and the crew would be creatures like bacteria, insects, fish, and worms. Humans are the passengers; we’re not the crew. We’re destroying the crew. When it comes to maintaining the welfare of the planet, the real work is done by those so-called lower forms of life that are cleaning up messes and pumping out the oxygen. Most people don’t even understand that we have nearly a thousand species that live in and on us. Each human being contains about one kilogram of living bacteria.
Kendall: There are a few people who are trying to stop the destruction. Are you optimistic about their chances?
Watson: Yes, but I have to be realistic. We’ve got more subscribers to the online video game World of Warcraft than we have active environmentalists in the world. For the most part we preoccupy ourselves with fantasies such as video games or religion or television and remain oblivious to the very delicate ecosystem that keeps us alive.
Kendall: You have said that humans are particularly capable of “living with diminishment.” Can you explain that?
Watson: Humans are primates and have primate mannerisms: we have the ability to forget; we do not look too far into the future; and, most important, we have the ability to adapt to diminished conditions. From an evolutionary point of view this used to be a good trait. Fifteen thousand years ago it helped us get by with what we had. But now we are adapting to diminishment that we have caused. We forget how the world used to be, and we don’t look ahead to how it will be. In 1965 if someone had told me that in forty years we’d be buying our water in plastic bottles and paying more for it than gasoline, I would have thought they were insane, but we have adapted to that diminishment.
In the same way, we have adapted to eating seafood we would never have considered edible years ago. In my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada, no one would have thought of eating mussels in the 1950s and 1960s. Now they are a main course. Lobster used to be considered the “poor man’s meat.” There was a law in Prince Edward Island against feeding it to your servants; it was seen as an abuse of domestic help. Lobsters were used to fertilize potato fields. But scarcity creates demand. Now you can charge a lot of money for lobster.
The thing about lobsters that people don’t take into account is that they live to be well over 150 years old. Many fish in the oceans also live over a century. An orange roughy doesn’t even reach sexual maturity until forty-five and lives to be about two hundred years of age. Some sharks can live more than a hundred years. We are taking these animals out of the sea faster than they can reproduce. That is why commercial fisheries are going out of business.
We would never treat a land animal the way we treat fish — well, not never. Bison would be a good example of how we did that, and beavers.
Kendall: Why is it that we treat marine animals so much worse than we do land animals?
Watson: The ocean is an alien world to most of us. Out of sight, out of mind. And we are a land animal, so we have more appreciation for land animals. But there really is no difference between, say, a bluefin tuna and a cheetah. The bluefin tuna is one of the fastest fish of the ocean and a huge predator, much like a cheetah. But we would not think of treating the cheetah the way we treat the bluefin tuna. We seem to take almost everything in the ocean for granted and deny the feelings of even highly evolved animals like dolphins and whales. The way people kill dolphins and pilot whales would never be tolerated if they were land mammals. No abattoir in the world would take twenty-five minutes to kill a cow. It would be shut down.
Kendall: What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
Watson: The most difficult thing is the strain it puts on personal relationships. I’m constantly traveling. I spend five or six months a year at sea. I’ve been married a bunch of times.
Kendall: What sustains you?
Watson: A sense of satisfaction. We’re getting real results through our interventions. We saved more than five hundred whales in 2010. Over the last six years we have protected a couple of thousand whales. It gives me a good feeling knowing that there are whales out there swimming in the oceans that would otherwise be dead if we hadn’t intervened.
Kendall: If Americans are concerned about the destruction of marine environments, what can they do to help stop it?
Watson: The first thing is to look at what they are eating, especially seafood, and see where it comes from. There really is no such thing as sustainable seafood. There are simply too many people on the planet to have it. You may go to a supermarket and see “sustainable orange roughy” or “sustainable Patagonian toothfish” for sale, but it’s all a big con. Basically people should not eat fish. If people tell me they were raised on seafood and can’t give it up, I tell them I was too, but I had to give it up, because I don’t want to contribute to the destruction of the oceans.
Kendall: But if people catch fewer fish than they leave behind to breed, isn’t that sustainable?
Watson: Yes, but I don’t know of any place where that is actually happening. After the legal fisheries get through, the illegal fisheries come in and take what is left.
Kendall: Can you say more about why you left Greenpeace?
Watson: Because I’m not a protester. I don’t think that protesting gets you very far. It’s such a submissive position to be in: “Please, please, don’t kill the whales.” And then the whalers go ahead and kill them anyway.
One of the most satisfying things about my work is that I have not seen a whale die since the day I left Greenpeace, because we are not holding up banners — we are getting in the whalers’ way and shutting them down.
You are not going to solve the world’s problems by circulating petitions and hanging banners and going to meetings. I went to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, and not a single promise made at that conference has been kept. The Kyoto Protocol has failed. The promises of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, have been broken, too. We humans are good at going to meetings and drafting papers and passing laws, but what good are laws if nobody enforces them? Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol; Australia and the U.S. did not. Environmentalists were patting Canada on the back, but per capita greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada are no better than in Australia and the U.S. The only difference is that Canada signed a piece of paper, and the U.S. did not.
I was a founding member of Greenpeace. I was never thrown out of the organization, but I was voted off the board after another member accused me of violence and theft. He had seen me go up to a sealer who was about to club a seal pup to death. I took the man’s club away from him and threw it into the ocean. I don’t call that “theft.” I call it a nonviolent means of protecting the baby seal.
Kendall: You’ve said that people should support local environmental organizations more than international ones. Why?
Watson: The strength of the environmental movement has to lie in a diversity of approaches. Local groups probably achieve more than megaorganizations like the World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace, where much of the money just goes into a bureaucratic black hole.
All the major achievements in conservation have been made by individuals. Take Dian Fossey, for example. She went out to protect mountain gorillas and was fed peanuts by the World Wildlife Fund and the National Geographic Society. She had to beg for every penny she got. Meanwhile they were making a lot of money off her work. Then, when she got tough with the poachers, the big conservation organizations threatened to cut off her funding altogether. Even now, after she’s dead, they are still making money off her. I think for every dollar that Fossey got, those organizations collected a couple of thousand.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton was working with elephants in Africa. The World Wide Fund for Nature had a big fundraising drive for him. I asked him if it was helpful, and he said, “I didn’t see a penny of it.”
Kendall: Which large organizations do you think are doing good work?
Watson: The Nature Conservancy is one: you give money to buy land, and the land is protected. The Natural Resources Defense Council is taking the U.S. Navy to court over sonar testing that is killing whales and dolphins, so they are doing something. When you see results for your investment, that’s when you know it’s a good organization.
Kendall: With all the oceans in the world, how do you decide where to go?
Watson: Sea Shepherd gets involved wherever illegal activities are taking place. On top of that, we look at where we can make a difference, and we ask if we can afford it.
One of our major projects is in the Galápagos Islands. We decided twelve years ago that if we couldn’t save this isolated, unique environment, what could we save? We have an office there and a full-time patrol boat, and we have our own canine unit that sniffs out shark fin and other contraband items that are being smuggled onto or off the islands. We are working in partnership with the Galápagos park rangers and the Ecuadorean federal police. It’s funny, because we are supposed to be this radical organization, but here we are partnered with the police. We’ve busted open shark-fin rings, helped arrest hundreds of individuals, and seized sixty-five vessels. Last year we provided radios to all the police and rangers. This year we are investing a million euros in a system to monitor every single vessel coming in and out of the Galápagos Islands.
The protection of the Galápagos Islands is Sea Shepherd’s number-one project, actually, but we’re also involved in many other things. Sea Shepherd Brazil is taking fishing companies to court for overfishing and killing dolphins, and we’re winning. Our next campaign is to take the Steve Irwin to the Mediterranean to protect the bluefin tuna, and we’re also going to be tackling whaling in the North Atlantic again.
This is an international organization now. We are registered in about fifteen different countries. On this last campaign I think we had volunteers from eighteen nations, including Japan.
Kendall: Where does most of your funding come from?
Watson: The general public in Australia, Europe, and the United States is our major source of support. We survive economically thanks to a handful of big donors. Television personality Bob Barker gave us $5 million for the purchase of the ship that bears his name. Ady Gil gave us $2 million.
But we have a very small budget because we spend zero dollars on promotion or direct mail. We are a word-of-mouth organization. Greenpeace spends $70 million a year recruiting members, and the Sierra Club spends a similar amount. If I donate a hundred dollars to an organization, I don’t want a third of it used to recruit more donors. We have kept Sea Shepherd small to avoid that. We could have been a massive group if we had invested in self-promotion. PETA was co-founded by one of my former crew members, Alex Pacheco. He went with direct mail, and that’s why they are so big now. There might be some advantages to that, but the disadvantage is the bureaucracy.
Kendall: How many people do you have on salary?
Watson: About thirty. Scott West, a former special agent in the criminal-investigation division of the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], is now working for us as our chief investigation officer. He said he has arrested more people while working for Sea Shepherd than he did with the EPA.
When we hire people, we usually hire out of the pool of volunteers. Our philosophy is that the best job is the one you’d do if you weren’t getting paid.
Kendall: What if an anonymous donor gave Sea Shepherd $50 million? Would you expand then?
Watson: If somebody gave us $50 million tomorrow, we’d get a fast ice-breaking vessel with a helicopter on it and expand our fleet. I can guarantee you that not a penny would go into bureaucracy. We’re going to keep our organization small and efficient. We’re so efficient right now that we can decide what we’re going to do and start a campaign in a few hours.
We’ve had the opportunity to expand, but we haven’t gone there. We’ve had direct-mail marketers come to us and say, “We can guarantee results, because you guys are actually doing something.” But it involves paying them 70 percent of the money coming in, so we’ve turned them down.
Kendall: For an organization, how big is too big?
Watson: Actually you can be very big as long as you don’t let the bureaucrats take control of everything. That’s the difference between governments and pirates.
Kendall: The IWC’s ban on whaling could be lifted in the future. What will you do if that happens? Become an outlaw?
Watson: If it came to that, then it would no longer be a job for Sea Shepherd. It would be a job for covert organizations. Because once democracy and the law are compromised, you’ve got revolution. But that’s not the situation we’re in today. We do have laws right now, and Sea Shepherd plans to uphold them.