Saving the whales

Paul Watson first gained notoriety as an early member of environmental crusaders Greenpeace (with them from 1971 to 1977, their split was acrimonious - he says he was a founding member, while they say he wasn't. He left in 1977). As the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and star of Animal Planet's hit show Whale Wars, Watson still isn't one to mince words. His direct action approach to activism has consistently generated controversy (a peek at the Whale Wars message forum can vouch for that) and its share of danger, but, he argues, it also generates results that are for the betterment of the planet. But Watson doesn't care what people think - he says his clients are the whales.

Paul Watson first gained notoriety as an early member of environmental crusaders Greenpeace (with them from 1971 to 1977, their split was acrimonious – he says he was a founding member, while they say he wasn’t. He left in 1977). As the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and star of Animal Planet’s hit show Whale Wars, Watson still isn’t one to mince words. His direct action approach to activism has consistently generated controversy (a peek at the Whale Wars message forum can vouch for that) and its share of danger, but, he argues, it also generates results that are for the betterment of the planet. But Watson doesn’t care what people think – he says his clients are the whales.

The Planet Green program Focus Earth questioned whether you and the Sea Shepherds are eco-terrorists. What’s your opinion of that label?

I say to anybody who calls me a terrorist either arrest me or shut up. If I was a terrorist I wouldn’t be running around the world on my passport and holding press conferences and giving lectures at universities. The fact is that it doesn’t matter if you’re running for president of the United States or saving whales, if people don’t like you they’re going to call you a terrorist. I try to joke: we’re terra-ists, which is ‘of the earth,’ not a terrorist.

Is the show and the Sea Shepherds’ work having any impact in terms of international policy?

On the Antarctic whale campaign we’ve cut [the Japanese] quotas in half every year, we’ve negated their profits. The Japanese whaling industry hasn’t made a profit in four years, we’re bankrupting them. Our approach is purely an economic one. We have to make sure that their losses exceed their profits every year. They can’t sustain it if we continue to do that.

Also we just came back from the international whaling commission meeting in Madeira, and they spent an entire day just talking about us, so we obviously must be having some effect on them.

Watching your show is a tense experience; how stressful is your job?

It’s not stressful for me, I think it’s stressful for a lot of the crew. Certainly for the Animal Planet crew, who seem to be the most stressed out of all. I’ve been doing this all my life. I was the youngest founding member of Greenpeace originally when I was 18, so this is what I do and it doesn’t stress me out at all.

What’s been the most dangerous experience you’ve had doing this sort of work?

Over the years there’s so many it’s hard to keep track of them. In 1982 we landed in Soviet Siberia to get evidence on the illegal whaling operations and got into a confrontation with the Red Army and the Soviet Navy and escaped. That was pretty stressful for a lot of people. We’ve been in confrontation with the Norwegian navy. They fired on us twice, rammed us, ripped our bow off and dropped four depth charges underneath us. And the pirate whalers, they shoot at us all the time.

It’s hard to say which was more dangerous than the other. I guess probably in Canada when we’re trying to save seals. We got attacked by a mob of drunken sealers – 300 of them – and I was beaten quite severely there. Martin Sheen was with us, he had his life threatened but then they turned around and broke into a video store and decided to burn all his videos to show him what they thought of him.

How can you measure how many whales you save?

We actually had the Japanese give us credit for that; they came out and said because of Sea Sheperd’s interference they didn’t get 305 whales this year, last year 500 whales.