Paul Watson has been one of the most important activists in the environmental movement for more than 30 years. A co-founder of Greenpeace, Watson now leads the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which takes direct action against those involved in illegal whaling and other activities that harm marine wildlife. Sea Shepherd's tactics include ships chasing whaling vessels around Antarctica and elsewhere, harassing and generally making life miserable (and more expensive) for these criminal fleets—sometimes even sinking them. Beginning tomorrow at 9pm, Animal Planet chronicles Watson’s efforts with Whale Wars, a new reality series that’s sure to dramatically raise the stakes on dangerous-jobs shows like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers. Peter Heller, who joined Watson at the bottom of the world to research his book about Sea Shepherd, The Whale Warriors, interviewed Watson for

PLENTY: Your organization the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society lays claim to sinking at least eight whaling ships. Can you tell me why you did that?

PAUL WATSON: We’re simply enforcing international conservation law. It’s our purpose to oppose criminal operations.

What specific laws and treaties protect whales?

Japan is in violation of killing whales in a whale sanctuary established by the International Whaling Commission [IWC]. They’re targeting endangered whales that are protected under the Convention of International Endangered Trade and Species [CITES]. In 1986, the IWC passed a motion to declare a moratorium on commercial whaling all around the world and so all commercial whaling is illegal. Norway just completely flaunts that and ignores the law, and Japan has come up with a bogus—what they call a loophole, which is “scientific whaling.” But they haven’t produced any papers on it and the scientific community doesn’t recognize that as legitimate research.

Where you get your authority?

We do what we do under the direction of the United Nations World Charter for Nature, an organization which allows for non-government organizations and individuals to uphold international conservation law, specifically in areas beyond national jurisdiction. We have all of the laws and regulations and treaties we need to protect the oceans but there’s a lack of economic and political will for some, so we’re simply doing what the governments of the world should be doing. We’re simply intervening. I don’t see any difference between what we do and any other policing authority.

How do you sink a whaling vessel without causing anybody harm?

They were sunk by opening up the water cooling systems in the engines and then thereby sinking them. We’ve never injured anybody; we’ve never been convicted of a felony; we’ve never been sued. We approach all these things using every precaution to make sure that nobody’s injured and the vessels that we sunk actually had no personnel on board at the time.

How do you stay out of jail?

We don’t break any laws. What we do we do very carefully, and with a good understanding of international law. We don’t injure anybody; we don’t destroy or damage property that isn’t being used for anything other than illegal activity. If you’re dealing with criminals, they’re not going to want to go to court.

Tell me about how you got started taking what many people would consider extreme actions to stop whaling.

I first opposed the commercial whaling operations back when I was with Greenpeace in 1975. We went out and confronted the Soviet whaling fleet off the coast of California and we came up with this tactic to put zodiacs in front of harpoons and I was frustrated because it didn’t work and it didn’t work again in 1977. I left Greenpeace in 1977 and one of the reasons is that I didn’t want to see whales die. I haven’t seen a whale die since I left Greenpeace because when we show up they stop whaling, they run. I don’t look on what we do as extreme. To me extremism is targeting endangered whales in a whale sanctuary in violation of a moratorium. That, to me, is extreme.

What were the other reasons you left Greenpeace?

One of them was that it was becoming a more bureaucratic organization. I had a lot of problems with the new president, Patrick Moore, who now works for the nuclear industry and the logging industry. So rather than fight it out with Greenpeace internally, I just left and set up my own organization.

How was the mission of your organization different?

We’re explicitly about protecting marine wildlife. Also, we’re not a protest organization, we’re an interventionist organization; we don’t invest money into promotion. We feel that if people want to save the oceans, they should get involved. We’re not going to spend millions of dollars going after people with a direct mail campaign.

How do you keep environmental issues alive when we’re so overwhelmed with them?

I think that doing things like the TV show—where we dramatize what we’re doing, bringing people from around the world into one of the most remote, hostile regions on the planet—helps keep it alive. But environmental conservation work is not going to go away.  People are going to have to get involved because it’s a matter of preservation. If we don’t save the whales and the sharks, we’re not going to save the oceans. And if the oceans die, we die. It’s as simple as that. People are beginning to realize that we need to live in accordance with the law of ecology, the law of finite resources, and if we don’t, we’re going to go extinct. There’s reluctance of course: Everybody wants to be an environmentalist, but nobody wants to stop flying in airplanes, driving cars, and drinking water in plastic bottles—though they like to change light bulbs and do some recycling. But it’s going to get to the point where there’s not going to be any choice. We’ve got to stop arguing over trivialities and start working on what is most important, which is ultimately the survival of our planet and the survival of ourselves.

Which of the campaigns do you feel were Sea Shepherd’s greatest accomplishments?

We’ve had so many campaigns where we’re protecting anything from plankton to the great whales that it’s hard to really say what the best moment was. A defining moment to me was when I first hunted down and the pirate whaler Sierra in 1979, I crossed the line into very direct action. It also was one of the most satisfying experiences because we ended the career of the most notorious pirate whaler of them all and it never killed a whale again after that.

You were very instrumental in stopping the seal hunts in Canada for many years, right?

Yeah, it was shut down for about 10 years, from ’84 to ’94.

And what did you guys do to shut that down?

It was a combination of a lot of things, with a lot of different organizations, to bring attention to the issue: Blocking the sealers directly, saving seals directly, undermining the markets till finally this year the European Parliament banned seal pelts. So we have to speak the language that they best understand, which is profit and loss.

And how many seals are they killing right now?

They have a quota of about 325,000; it’s the largest ever. Canada keeps saying that there’s an overabundance in seals when in fact the actual population is about 10 percent of its numbers from about 300 years ago when Europeans first came over.

Tell me about your campaign last year in Antarctica. In news accounts it was fairly dramatic.

Yeah, we were able to find the whaling fleet twice and I implemented a couple of strategies. The first was to put a crew on board a harpoon vessel and deliver a warrant to the captain because the Australian court had issued a ban on whaling in Australia and Antarctic territory. I knew the Japanese would hold my crew once we were on board, and we were able to get Australia to intervene because one of the crew was an Australian citizen. For the first time we broke into that veil of secrecy in Japan and got it into the media and finally people in Japan became aware of what was going on and now it’s a big controversy there. But we were able to chase them for 21,000 miles from December into March and they only got half their quota of humpbacks and only half the pike whales—and it cost them about $70 million.

You engaged the whalers another time and had quite a violent confrontation.

Every time we caught them they would run. We would harass them by throwing bottles of butyric acid on board, of course the Japanese media immediately described us as throwing acid. Then we put packets of cellulose, which is a very slippery substance used to coat pills, on board. It’s the first organic, nontoxic, biodegradable form of warfare ever undertaken. It makes the decks of the entire ship slick. It makes the decks of the entire ship slick. Anyway, we got close and they warned us to stay away and we didn’t, and then there were four shots fired, which the television crew caught on audio. One of the bullets struck me but I wasn’t injured.

Why did you decide to do the show on Animal Planet, and how did that come about?

We’re trying to increase awareness all around the world and a few years ago we went to all of the networks with this idea and said, “Hey look, you know you’ve got this very successful show [Deadliest Catch] with a bunch of guys in boats in really bad weather and all they’re doing is catching crabs. I’ll give you men and women from all over the world in a boat in really bad weather with icebergs and whales and confrontations with whalers—so it’s bound to be more interesting than catching crabs.

How did it go once their crew was on board?

They had a crew of about eight. We were pretty much oblivious to them after a couple of days and they had no input other than to just to record what was going on. They shot around 700 hours, so the series is like an educational reality show. We just signed for another two years with them.

Are the Japanese going to be targeting the endangered humpback next season as well as this one?

There’s every indication they’re going to go after humpbacks again. They targeted them last year and under international pressure they pulled off.

Who’s your greatest ally on the high seas?

Our allies are the Dutch, the five nations of the Iroquois, a former minister of the environment of Australia, the Dalai Lama, and our own advisory board and board of directors. We have Pierce Brosnan, Christian Bale, Richard Dean Anderson, and William Shatner. Once you’ve got James Bond, Batman, Captain Kirk and MacGuyver, how can you lose?

What’s your greatest disappointment in your career?

I’ve had a lot of disappointments. I think my biggest disappointment is the failure of elected officials to make good on their promises in regards to the environment or anything else really. I have very little faith in politicians. In order to win in these things you have to be persistent; you have to keep at it so that’s why go back year after year. We’re about to go back on our fifth whale campaign in Antarctica. And we just have to keep on. That’s part of our overall strategy.

Story by Peter Heller. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Paul Watson: Whale warrior
The founder of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society and co-founder of Greenpeace talks.