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Interview: Captain Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd

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To mark the 40th anniversary of Sea Shepherd, OnboardOnline sat down with founder Captain Paul Watson for an exclusive interview about the genesis of the non-profit marine conservation movement and why he believes the environment will win through eventually. 

When you think of the word conservation and all that it means, there are very few individuals in the world who can embody and inhabit that word more than Captain Paul Watson. 

To call the Toronto-born sailor a saviour of marine life is not overstating the case. Having started his conservation career with Greenpeace in the early 1970s, he has been at the helm of Sea Shepherd for the last four decades, upsetting governments, scuppering poaching and killing operations across the globe and attracting as much criticism and condemnation for his ‘interventionist, aggressive but non-violent’ methods as praise. 

It’s no surprise then to find that he was once named by The Guardian newspaper as one of the top 50 people who could save the planet. After speaking to him from his home in Friday Harbor, Washington, I’d put him in the top five. 

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The young Captain Paul Watson © Sea Shepherd

Outspoken, honest and refreshingly un-PC, Paul, 66, is quick to dismiss any idea that the planet needs saving, however. ‘We are not here to save the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving, it’s going to be around for another billion years. What our movement is about is saving humanity from humanity. That’s what we’re talking about.’ 

To understand where Paul is coming from, we need to start at the beginning. An influential founding member of Greenpeace, Paul crewed and skippered for them throughout the 1970s until he was ousted from the board in 1977 and decided to set up a more direct action movement, from which Sea Shepherd was born. 

‘My time with Greenpeace towards the end of my tenure there in 1977 was getting very frustrating,’ he reveals.  ‘Greenpeace is a protest organization and I wanted to be part of something stronger which is why I set up Sea Shepherd. Protest is very submissive, it’s very much ‘please, please, please don’t kill the whales,’ but they ignore you and they do it anyway. 

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The early days, Paul Watson and Roberta Hunter © Sea Shepherd

‘There’s only so much that gets done with banners and photographers. So I decided to set Sea Shepherd up as an anti-poaching and interventionist organization which interferes and shuts down operations instead of just taking pictures. 

‘It’s non-violent - we have an unblemished record and have never injured anybody in 40 years - but we are aggressive and I see nothing wrong with that, or with destroying equipment which is being used illegally to take lives. If you see an elephant about to get shot and you destroy the rifle, that to me is an act of non-violence because you are saving a life.’ 

Paul’s passion for conservation began at a young age. Growing up on the New Brunswick coastline in Canada, he started disrupting hunting activities near his home at the age of nine and witnessed his first seal being clubbed to death on a beach when he was just 10 years old. 

‘I was there with my uncle, we were watching the seals come ashore onto the beach and people were running around excitedly wanting to kill them,’ he recalls. ‘The worst part is that the people who watch them land are not sealers, but they are still allowed to kill them. It’s even more cruel than if the sealers do it, because the sealers sort of know what they’re doing but these guys didn’t. 

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Captain Paul Watson (1983) on the ice with a seal and Sea Shepherd II © Sea Shepherd

‘In the Faroe Islands, they let kids participate in killing the whales and dolphins because they feel that if they expose them to this at a young age, they will become just as ruthless as adults.’ 

The early days of Sea Shepherd required initiative and chutzpah when it came to raising the funds to be in a position to buy the first vessels for the fleet and operate them. Paul’s idea to send a letter to author and leading animal rights activist Cleveland Amory at New York’s Fund for Animals resulted in a $120,000 donation to buy the first ship, The Sea Shepherd. 

‘The start of Sea Shepherd was just myself and a couple of people I’d talked into signing the registration to make it official,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t have any money but I had an idea for protecting the seals on the East Coast of Canada which was something I knew Cleveland was passionate about. I met him and he gave me the money to buy our first ship from Hull in 1978. I didn’t have any money to run it but I knew Bill Jordan, deputy vet at the RSPCA, and he talked them into giving me £50,000 to run that campaign.’ 

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Captain Paul Watson onboard Sea Shepherd © Sea Shepherd

Paul took Sea Shepherd to Boston in January 1979 and carried out his first campaign for the seals in March that year. After collecting volunteers and crew members in Boston, they headed to the Azores and the coast of Portugal looking for a pirate whaling vessel called the Sierra which they found that summer. 

‘I rammed it, put it out of commission and ended its career,’ he says. ‘But we also had our vessel seized by the Portuguese Navy and I was charged with gross criminal negligence until I could convince the Port Captain that there wasn’t anything negligent about it – I hit the Sierra exactly where I intended to hit it! 

‘He told me that until he could find out who owned the ship, I was free to walk out of the door, so I did but they held onto my ship anyway. The judge on the case took a bribe from the Sierra Trading Company and they took Sea Shepherd away without a trial.’ 

When Paul found out that the ship was about to be given to the whaling company by way of compensation for the loss of Sierra, he returned and deliberately sank it in the harbour. A month later, he went to Lisbon where the Sierra had been repaired and was seaworthy again and with a small team, he sunk it dockside. 

‘We also sank half the Spanish whaling fleet and shut down the Cape Fisher in the Canary Islands that year. In six months, we were able to shut down every illegal whaling operation in the North Atlantic.’ 

Getting sensitive intel in the days before the internet was a challenge and often, luck and serendipity played a major role. ‘I knew the Sierra was operating from the top of Portugal and halfway down the coast of West Africa so I started at the beginning and we worked our way down. 

Action 600© Sea Shepherd

‘After a couple of weeks, I saw a ship which looked like a whaler and as we got closer, I saw it was the Sierra so we intercepted it by coincidence. The day before, I had stopped the ship for six hours to swim with some turtles. We didn’t want to run them down as there was a big migration of loggerhead sea turtles happening. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have intercepted the call sign of the Sierra.’ 

Sea Shepherd’s second boat - like the first, a North Atlantic side trawler and a veteran of the 1973 cod war - was bought in Grimsby and slowly, the movement grew to encapsulate around 200 volunteers and crew and 12 vessels. 

Paul is particularly proud of the impact they have had on illegal whaling in international waters. The most recent anti-whaling mission Operation Nemesis took place in the Southern Ocean against Japanese whalers. 

‘Looking at our whale campaigns overall since 2005, we’ve managed to reduce the quota from 1035 to 333, get them into the international court and get the condemnation of the international court of justice,’ he says. 

SA OW cruises past icebergs at sunset3Ocean Warrior on Operation Nemesis © Sea Shepherd

‘We have exposed what they are doing but Japan is a very intractable and stubborn nation which ignores the law. They are putting in an immense amount of money – around £30 - £40 million a year - just to oppose us. In 2012, they took $30m from the Tsunami Relief Fund and gave it to the whalers for security. 

‘It has cost Japan a few hundred million dollars over the years and in that time, we have saved around 6,000 whales which are now swimming free, so that gives us a great sense of satisfaction.’ 

However, Japan is keen to limit Sea Shepherd’s freedom to oppose their activities and Paul reveals that the Japanese government has now implemented military technology so they can keep watch on conservation activity and interventions by satellite in real time. 

‘Both the Steve Irwin and Ocean Warrior could get close to the fleet but they can never close in because if the whalers can see you in real time, they can simply keep moving away,’ says Paul. 

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MY Steve Irwin & heli ops to find the Japanese vessel Nisshin © Sea Shepherd

‘About a month ago, Japan passed new anti-terrorism legislation in the form of 273 new laws that make it illegal to harass the whaling fleet. Two or more people gathering to oppose the dolphin slaughter is now going to be an act of terrorism and to document or witness the killing of dolphins or whales will also be an act of terrorism. 

‘It’s pretty hard to counter that. The things we used to be able to do, we can’t do any more because now we have governments using their power to defend criminal operations. 

‘Japan has put me on the Interpol Red List – I’m the only person in history to be put on that list where nobody was hurt, nothing was stolen and certainly nobody was killed. 

‘I’m accused of conspiracy to trespass on a whaling ship and obstruction of business, yet this is a list for serial killers, war criminals and major drug traffickers. The fact that I’m the only person Japan has on that list indicates just how political this is and how much we have affected them. We have taken on the most powerful economic superpower and we have royally pissed them off! 

SSCS EC 0196192 600Captain Paul Watson in Antarctica © Sea Shepherd

‘What I’ve learned is you have to evolve your tactics in response to what’s happening. We are in the position of coming up with new strategies to oppose these extreme anti-terrorism laws.

'It will soon reach the point in every country where standing up and opposing things which are cruel or environmentally destructive will be considered as terrorism. This is the world we are living in. Exercising your human rights is soon going to be an act of terrorism! 

‘They have tried everything to stop me – they felt that by shutting me down, they would shut down Sea Shepherd - but they have found that Sea Shepherd is a movement, it’s not just me, and while you can stop an individual, you can’t stop a movement.’ 

Captain Paul Watson at the bow of the Steve Irwin - by Barbara Veiga © Sea Shepherd

Having made some very powerful enemies over the last 40 years – Costa Rica is another nation that is not among his biggest fans – Paul remains philosophical about the dangers of fighting the establishment. 

‘The alternative is to do nothing, which is unfortunately what most people do,’ he shrugs. ‘Costa Rica is one of the most corrupt nations in Latin America, it exports 30 tonnes of shark products to China and it has an extremely corrupt government. The fisheries department is pretty much run by fishermen and one of the guys on the board was exposed two years ago as one of the biggest drug dealers in Costa Rica.’ 

In the face of such challenges, however, Paul remains optimistic about the future of conservation, the success of which he believes lies in the passion of each individual.  

‘Our campaigns can evolve because of the passion of the people involved in them. We don’t sit down and say, we’re going to do this or that. Our people in the field say, let’s do this or that. It all comes down to the individual. That’s what keeps me going.’ 

NEXT WEEK: Paul talks about his ongoing battles against corrupt governments, the latest news on current operations around the globe, the high profile support that keeps Sea Shepherd buoyant and why he won’t lose faith in humanity doing the right thing. Read Part 2

Related Articles:
Sea Shepherd - Cool Ships and Conservation
Sea Shepherd's Operation Nemesis
Captain Wyanda Lublink - Sea Shepherd's MY Steve Irwin
Captain Adam Meyerson - Sea Shepherd's MY Ocean Warrior

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