Whaling on Whalers

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Paul Watson talks about taking a bullet from the Japanese, why Greenpeace activists are the "Avon ladies of the environmental movement," and <i>Whale Wars</i>, his new series on Animal Planet.

Mother Jones: With the ocean's fish populations collapsing, some scientists predict that the oceans are doomed to go to the jellyfish. Can whales be saved?

Paul Watson: We certainly can't give up hope. Every single commercial fishery is in a state of collapse right now. And there doesn't seem to be any letting up on the exploitation. But we can continue to do what we do and hope that people come to their senses.

MJ: So you don't feel the situation is irreversible.

PW: If I thought that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

MJ: Are you willing to sacrifice your life to save a single whale?

PW: We do that all the time. The one thing we won't do is injure anybody or take their life. Despite that, we're still called terrorists. But we aren't even a protest organization. We're intervening against illegal activities. Sea Shepherd opposes illegal activities exclusively: illegal whaling, illegal fishing, shark poaching. And that's one of the reasons why in 30 years we've never been convicted of a felony. We've never been sued, because the people we oppose are criminals.

MJ: What do you say to people who argue the battle to save the whales should be fought in the courts, in officialdom?

PW: Diplomacy and the courts have failed for the last 30 years. That's one of the reasons Horst Kleinschmidt, the former chair of the International Whaling Commission, is now on our advisory board, because the IWC is not going to save the whales. They've failed miserably. He resigned from the International Whaling Commission because of that. We're empowered under the UN World Charter for Nature, which allows nongovernmental organizations to intervene. And I think we've made more progress than any of these governments. This year, Japan only got half the quota. Last year, they only got half the quota. And we're going to beat them by speaking the language they understand: economics. They are losing so much money. If they have one more season like the last one, they are going to be in serious financial difficulty. That's one of the reasons they are getting very desperate with us now. But I'm hoping this will be our last season out there.

MJ: So you feel the decline in their catch is directly related to the actions of the Sea Shepherd Society.

PW: We know that it is. And they also acknowledge that themselves. They say the reason they couldn't get their quota was because of us.

MJ: You've shot spoiled pie filling from a cannon, rammed ships, and dropped prop foulers. What is the most outrageous tactic you've used against a whaling or fishing ship?

PW: We try to come up with tactics that are, first of all, not going to hurt anybody. We also try to make them humorous. This year we used rotten butter, which is basically a stink bomb, and methocellulose, which makes everything slippery. We call this sort of a nontoxic, biodegradable, organic form of chemical warfare.

MJ: When you say you try to make the tactics funny, is that to catch the public imagination?

PW: The opposition is always trying to paint us as criminals and terrorists. So we feel [humor] offsets that somewhat. I remember when the Faeroese police attacked us and were shooting at us with live ammo and we responded and hit them with chocolate and cream pie. It was really funny because the police charged us with attempted murder, and when it got into the Danish newspapers that we hit them with chocolate and cream pie, those charges were dropped pretty fast.

MJ: You say you stop short of hurting anybody, and yet you claim to have sunk 10 whaling ships since 1979?

PW: We don't sink any ship at sea. These would be ships dockside with nobody on them. And the vessels are searched thoroughly before that happens. For instance, in 1986, we sank half the Icelandic whaling fleet, but there were three boats there and we only sank two because there was a watchman sleeping on the third one.

MJ: Is it true that during the filming of Whale Wars you were shot by someone on a Japanese whaling ship?

PW: They did fire shots. And they actually informed the Australian government that they had fired shots. Until they heard that I was hit. Then they called the Australian government and said that wasn't true, in fact they didn't fire any shots. But the cameras, the audio equipment picked up the sound of the shots and the bullet was lodged in my Kevlar vest. Then of course the Japanese said we'd fabricated the whole thing. I'd shot myself or it was done before. But I was doing an interview with the Animal Planet people just prior to that confrontation where you can plainly see there is no bullet hole there. And in the middle of the conversation suddenly there is a bullet hole there. So, how that happened without them actually shooting me, they can't really explain. In fact, I'd cautioned all of my crew to not swear because they were on camera. And as soon as I saw the bullet, I said, "Oh, fuck." I remember thinking, "Oh god, I'm not supposed to say that."

MJ: Will you pursue charges?

PW: When we got back to Australia, the Australian federal police didn't even want to question us about it. We operate in an area where there really is no law, in international waters. In fact, I guess we are the law. There are international laws, but nobody is enforcing them. That's what we're trying to do. So there was really no jurisdiction for anybody to do anything. They could shoot us. They could probably have killed one of us and we still wouldn't have had anywhere to go.

MJ: You say you act under the authority of the UN World Charter for Nature, which states that private citizens may help "safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction." But some people say you're interpreting it incorrectly, that it doesn't allow for some of what you do, such as ramming ships at sea.

PW: I've actually used this defense in a court of law. In 1993, I chased Cuban and Spanish drag trawlers off the grand banks off of Newfoundland. And it cost them $35 million in losses. We didn't hurt anybody, didn't damage any property even. But they ran and we chased them and Canada charged me with three counts of criminal mischief. Mischief or conspiracy is usually what they charge you with when they haven't got anything else, but they want to come after you politically. I was facing two times life plus 10 years for criminal mischief—they said endangering life carries a life penalty. It was serious, but my defense was the UN World Charter for Nature. In fact, [during the trial] my lawyer got up and said, "Ladies and gentleman, we're not going to say we didn't do what we are charged with. We're going to say we did everything we're charged with. We're proud to have done it, and we intend to do it again."

Now during trial, Canada produced a law professor from Toronto who argued that the World Charter for Nature had no application in Canadian law. And the judge said, "But did Canada sign this?" And she said, "Yes, yes, but Canada signs a lot of international agreements." And so the judge said, "Well, if Canada signed it, then I'm going to advise the jury to take it into consideration." So I was acquitted under what is called color of rights. They thought that I acted in a lawful manner. That set a good precedent for utilizing the World Charter as a defense.

MJ: You once threatened to sink your own ship to block a Canadian seal hunt. Is part of your effectiveness the public knowledge that there's nothing you won't do?

PW: I think we have demonstrated that we're committed to what we're doing, that is, upholding international laws. And I think we've also demonstrated that we have an unblemished record of not injuring anybody. But it is a war. It's a war, I think, to save the planet, really, from ourselves. And you can't be too concerned about what people say or if you're criticized or anything like that.

MJ: In fact, it seems that you relish going head-to-head with this sort of activity.

PW: The best way to explain it is that we represent our clients. And our clients are whales and turtles and sharks and fish and seabirds. For instance, we sunk half of Iceland's whaling fleet in 1986, something I was never charged for, by the way, even though I made myself available. Iceland realized that to put me on trial would be to put themselves on trial. I had a former colleague from Greenpeace come up to me after that, and he said, "I just want to let you know that what you did in Iceland is despicable, reprehensible, criminal, and unforgivable." [Chuckles.] And I said, "Look, John, we didn't sink those whaling ships for you or Greenpeace or anybody else. We sunk them for the whales. You find me one whale that disagrees with what we did, and I promise we'll take it into consideration."

MJ: What is your relationship like with Greenpeace, an organization you cofounded?

PW: Greenpeace hates us with a passion. [Laughs.] Every year I appeal to them to work together on this. But every year they reject me. For some reason, they have it in their minds that we are a violent organization, though we've never injured anybody. I was once doing a talk show in Vancouver when somebody called in a bomb threat to protest my violent methods, which I thought was a little bizarre. But we had to evacuate the building. And then a reporter said, "Greenpeace has condemned you as an ecoterrorist. What's your response?" I wanted to laugh it off, so I said, "What do you expect from the Avon ladies of the environmental movement anyway?" And they've never forgiven me for that. But what I was referring to was them knocking on doors and asking for money all the time.

MJ: You don't feel that they go far enough to protect the whales?

PW: They have this thing called "bearing witness." That's their approach. And I said, "You don't walk down the street and see a kitten being stomped and do nothing, or see a woman being attacked and do nothing, or see a child being molested and do nothing. And you don't sit there in a boat taking pictures of whales dying and do nothing." Bearing witness, to me, is just another way of saying they're cowards.

MJ: How many times have you been arrested?

PW: I don't really have a count. Many, many times. But I've never been convicted.

MJ: You're currently facing charges, right, for allegedly interfering with a commercial seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland?

PW: I'm not; two of my crew members are. But we'll win that case. Canada boarded and took our vessel in international waters, and the evidence that we're always in international waters is our GPS recorder. They boarded the ship, tore the ship apart in search of photographs, because in Canada it's illegal under the Seal Protection Act to witness, document, film, or videotape a seal hunt. If you've seen a seal being killed, you've broken the law, and it's punishable by a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. So I've been charged many times, and we always win. In '92, they held my ship for 22 months and I then sued them and they had to pay damages. So they're doing the same thing again.

MJ: Will you win by citing the UN Charter?

PW: No, we are going to win because we are a Dutch-registered ship with a Dutch captain and a Swedish first officer and a European crew arrested in international waters by the Canadian government. It's an act of piracy. And we have the Dutch government siding with us. Canada has already realized how embarrassing this whole thing is. They tried to give my ship back, but I wouldn't take it unless they gave in to my demands, and those demands are to drop the charges against my crew and deliver a letter of apology for their act of piracy. And then they can give me my ship back.

MJ: So they have your ship right now?

PW: They have the Farley Mowat, but it's costing them $4,000 a day to hold on to it. And after the trial—it won't go to trial for about a year—and after we win, we'll countersue and they'll have to pay damages. But what the Canadian government didn't realize is that I was trying to retire that ship. Because things are getting very expensive, especially with fuel costs, and it's really expensive to retire a ship. So the best way to do it is to have the Canadian government seize it and hold it for us. It's a great deal of money.

MJ: How many awards have you won? Or do you consider arrests and awards to be the same thing?

PW: I've won some awards. Time magazine designated me as one of the environmental heroes of the 20th century. Oh, and I've got some honorary citizenships, like from the Conch Republic of the Florida Keys. But the one thing I am proud of is I didn't get the Chevron environmental award. Never did get that one. Awards don't really mean that much. I put them up on the ship, but what's the good of them? I mean, unless it's got a check with it, who cares?

MJ: You are an advocate of population control.

PW: What I am really is somebody who adheres to the three basic laws of ecology, which are pretty simple. No species has ever survived on this planet unless they lived in accordance with the laws of ecology. The law of diversity: that the strength of an ecosystem is dependent upon diversity. The law of interdependence: that those species are interdependent with each other. And the law of finite resources: that there is a limit to growth because there is a limit to carrying capacity. And if any species doesn't abide by that, they will go extinct. And we will not be any exception. So the law of finite growth dictates that we have to bring our populations under control. There simply aren't the resources on the planet to continue to feed an escalating human population. That's why the oceans are dying. I happen to believe that the occupation of fishermen is the most ecologically destructive occupation on the planet. It could lead to the downfall of civilization and the extinction of humanity. Because if we overfish the oceans, we kill the oceans. If the oceans die, we die. It's as simple as that.

MJ: It's been stated that you think whales are more intelligent than people. Why do you say that?

PW: Well, first of all, physiologically, whales have bigger brains, more convolutions on the brain, four lobes to their brains, compared to our three lobes. All other mammals have three lobes. But [a whale's] is a nonmanipulative intelligence; they don't have technologies. We're conditioned that if a blob of protoplasm stepped out of a space ship with a ray gun it would have to be intelligent because it has technology. But we can't even come close to whales in areas like communications. I was arguing with a whaler one time and he said, "You say that whales are more intelligent than people. This is really stupid; how could you say something like that?" And I said, "I measure intelligence by the ability to live in harmony with the natural world. And by those criteria, whales are more intelligent than we are." And he said, "By those criteria, cockroaches are more intelligent than we are." And I said, "George, you're beginning to understand what I'm trying to tell you."

I mean, last year I got severely criticized, I think it was by Brett Hume, who made a big deal because I had written something that said that worms were more important than people. And he said, "How could you say something like that?" And I said, "Well, I said it because it's true. From an ecological point of view, worms can live on the Earth without people, but we can't live on the Earth without worms. So they are more important."

MJ: Do you feel that looking at things through that ecological lens is a nice simplifying or clarifying principle?

PW: I think it does. I take a biocentric point of view. I look at things from the point of view of the Earth and the laws of ecology. As opposed to the anthropocentric point of view, where everything revolves around humanity. One way I used to explain it to my students was that if you walk into Mecca and spit on the stone, you're in big trouble. But every day we go into the most profoundly beautiful, mysterious cathedrals of the natural world, like the rainforests of Amazonia or the Redwood Forests of California or the Great Barrier Reef, and we totally desecrate these areas with bulldozers and drag trawl nets. And how do we react? A few people sign petitions or write letters to politicians. But certainly nobody would risk their life to protect them as they would with some pie-in-the-sky religion.

MJ: So this is almost like a religion for you.

PW: I don't really believe in religion. I believe in nature. I believe in ecology. I believe in life. But I don't believe in fantasies. And most human beings live in a world of fantasy.

MJ: The Animal Planet program documents your three-month 2007 to 2008 campaign in the Antarctic. What do you hope to accomplish with the program? What made you want to do it?

PW: When I saw Deadliest Catch, here we've got a TV show about a bunch of guys who go out in very rough water and do the same thing every week, catch crabs. Well, I said, "You know, we've got rough water. And we go out and risk our lives. And the water we go out into is even more remote and rougher than the Bering Sea. And we can also offer icebergs, penguins, and whales." So, I thought it would be a more interesting show. But it really gives an opportunity for people to come down into one of the most remote and hostile parts of the planet and see how people are willing to dedicate themselves and risk their lives to protect the whales from illegal activity.

MJ: So the show was your idea?

PW: Yes. We approached all of the networks, actually. And Animal Planet was the network that was interested. Also, Animal Planet is where Steve Irwin came from, and Steve was very close to us. He was going to come on our campaign, and in fact we named our ship the Steve Irwin.

MJ: You obviously understand the power of a message. What will it take to get people to stop stripping the oceans and killing whales? Is it a show like Whale Wars?

PW: Every year we call our campaign something different. Last year it was Operation Migaloo after Migaloo the white humpback whale. And this year it is going to be called Operation Musashi. And I named it in honor of a Japanese strategist named Miyamoto Musashi. I did this to get the Japanese more interested in what we're doing. But the other thing is, Musashi wrote of something called the "twofold way of pen and sword." And that's why the logo we have for this campaign is a crossed feather pen with a samurai sword. And what he meant by that was, confrontation has to be accompanied by communication or education.

MJ: So the show is the perfect marriage of those two things?

PW: We're going down to Antarctica to confront illegal whaling activities, to intervene to shut them down. At the same time we have to explain to people why we're doing this and how we're going about it. So it's intervention and education. And Animal Planet gives us the opportunity to do that.

MJ: Was your crew on its best behavior while the cameras were rolling?

PW: After a couple of days, the crew was almost oblivious to the cameras. In fact, sometimes I think they were overly oblivious to the cameras. They just sort of disappeared. And the Animal Planet crew was professional. They didn't really obstruct and they didn't interfere too much, so it was quite easy. It was a pretty easy partnership.

MJ: Did you have any control over what went into the show?

PW: No, absolutely not. And I don't think we wanted to. Over the years I've always had journalists participate on campaigns and I've always told them, "You report what you see." You're not doing anybody any favors by putting a whitewash over the thing and pretending things aren't what they are. We've had people who participated and reported their opinions, which sometimes I didn't like. But when people report on this in book form or in a magazine article it gives me an opportunity to see what I'm doing from another person's point of view, which is highly constructive.

MJ: Have you seen all the episodes?

PW: I haven't seen any of the episodes because they haven't all been put together. I've seen a few takes on it. But we won't see the show until everybody else sees the show, as far as I know.

MJ: Are you trepidatious at all?

PW: No. It'll be what it'll be. And we believe what we were doing was right and just. Most importantly, we know that we don't put anybody's life at risk; we know we're not going to injure anybody; we know we're trying to uphold the laws. And I think that will come across in the show. Some of the things the Japanese accuse us of are certainly going to be laid to rest, that we were shooting at them and throwing dangerous weapons at them.

MJ: Do you expect to be flooded with volunteers after the show airs?

PW: We already are, really. It used to be difficult to get crew, to get volunteers. Now our most difficult task is saying no to people. We're getting very highly qualified people. But at the same time, I always want to make room for people who have no skills or experience because it's an opportunity for them to get involved. I mean, I first went to sea on a Norwegian ship as a deck boy. You can't even do that anymore, so it's almost getting difficult for young people to get their foot in the door on a lot of these things.

MJ: People talk about apathy among young people, but it seems like you're seeing the opposite.

MJ: I think there generally is a lot of apathy, but I think it's based on the fact that they've been raised in a society that leaves them powerless. One of the things I've been trying to do on the ship is to have our volunteers understand that they have the power to change the world. Don't depend on government or big organizations to solve these problems. They never have; they never will.

MJ: Do you see yourself as a maverick?

MJ: I think all my life I've pretty much seen myself as sort of a maverick, or at least enough people have told me that. I think of it as freethinking, really. One of the advantages I've had in my life is I was forced to…My mother died very young. I was from a very large family. I was forced to leave home at a very young age and go work on ships. So my education was in Africa and the Middle East and the Far East and everything, working my way up on ships. And I skipped my whole high school thing and went to university as a mature student when I was 21. But during that period of time, I wasn't being told how to think. I had to learn how to think. That made a difference.

MJ: Reportedly, you have an annual budget of $2 million. Where does it come from?

PW: It's all from private individuals from around the world. In fact, we don't do direct mail. We don't do door-to-door solicitation, things like that. It's sort of a word-of-mouth thing. What that means is that although we have a small membership, we have a very loyal membership.

MJ: Presently, you sail under the Dutch flag, but for a while you were a pirate ship, right?

PW: The Japanese kept putting pressure on everybody to pull our flags, the Canadian flag, the British flag, the Belizean flag, the Cayman Island flag. Every time we would register, the Japanese would go in there, and next thing we know we would lose our flag. So finally we went under the Dutch flag, and I really like the Dutch register's response to the Japanese, which is, "We don't take our orders from Tokyo." We assured them that we have not and would not ever do anything violent. One of the big problems is there is a misinterpretation of what constitutes violence. I have to agree with Martin Luther King, who said you cannot commit an act of violence against a nonsentient object. Causing damage to a whaling ship or a gun to me is an act of nonviolence, especially if it's being used illegally. One of our supporters is the Dalai Lama. Back in 1985, he sent me a little statue, which he said to put on the ship, which we still have. And I met him in '89 and I asked him what it meant, and the statue is called HayaGriva. He said it's the compassionate aspect of Buddhist wrath. And I said, "What does that mean?" And he said, "Oh, you never want to hurt anybody. But sometimes when they cannot see enlightenment, you sometimes have to scare the hell out of them until they do." Anyway, that's one of the reasons they called us pirates. And when I think back to it, it's appropriate because back in the 17th century, when piracy was out of control in the Caribbean, it wasn't the British or the Spanish navy that brought it under control. Piracy was shut down by Henry Morgan, a pirate. If you want to stop pirates, you need pirates to do it. So we look upon ourselves as pirates of passion in pursuit of pirates of profit.

MJ: Are you setting sail again anytime soon?

PW: We're getting the Steve Irwin outfitted to leave on December 1st from Australia to return to Antarctica.

MJ: Is there a possible Whale Wars sequel in the works?

PW: We're talking with Animal Planet about returning for a second season. And I believe they're going to do it, but I can't really speak for them. I don't think we've actually signed that deal yet.

MJ: You're 57. Is this something you're going to do for your entire life?

PW: I don't really believe in retirement. I think that as long as you've got any life in your body, you can use it. My grandfather died at 96, and he was murdered. My other grandfather lived to be 90. We're a long-living family, no heart disease and no cancer, so I think we'll probably be around for a while.