When Paul Watson says that he and other members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society risk their lives to save whales, he isn't joking. Every winter, the Sea Shepherd staff and crew set sail to the treacherous Southern Ocean to stop Japanese whalers from catching and killing nature's largest mammals. At that extreme latitude, the winds blow harder and faster than anywhere else on the planet. The icy waters surrounding Antarctica can send a person into hypothermic shock in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, if something goes wrong in that remote expanse of sea and glacier, help is a far cry away.
Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, started the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1981. It evolved from Watson's former conservation group, Earthforce Environmental Society, which he founded in 1977 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since then, Watson has led Sea Shepherd on more than 200 voyages to protect whales, seals, dolphins, sharks and other marine life.
Documented in the Animal Planet series "Whale Wars," Sea Shepherd has been both lauded for its impressive accomplishments and criticized for its direct-action tactics. Hurling stink bombs onto Japanese whaling ships, covertly filming seal hunters in Canada and cutting illegal fishing lines in the Galapagos Islands are just a few of the aggressive approaches Sea Shepherd has taken. Despite any controversy their actions raise, Watson and crew know how to get results. For instance, Sea Shepherd has reportedly rescued more than 1,400 whales from slaughter over the past four hunting seasons.
During Sea Shepherd's extensive history, Watson has molded the organization into a global venture with a star-studded list of donors. Though best known for its anti-whaling efforts, Sea Shepherd conducts a robust range of conservation campaigns across the world. At the center of it all, Paul Watson serves as the Sea Shepherd captain as well as the public face and voice of the group. The depth and intensity of his personal passion for marine preservation fuel Sea Shepherd's agenda and inspire others to join its cause.
The Captain's Journey
In 1975, Paul Watson and a group of fellow Greenpeace activists sailed a boat named Rainbow Warrior into the Pacific Ocean to protest Russian whaling. Once they located the Russian fleet, Watson and another volunteer climbed into an inflatable Zodiac raft to put themselves physically between the harpoons and the targeted whales. As Watson tells it, one fleeing sperm whale swam past the Zodiac and looked him directly in the eye. As the whale swam the raft, Watson felt a moment of sentient recognition from the leviathan, which shook him to the core.
Before the whales, Paul Watson was drawn to environmental conservation as a boy thanks to a wild beaver named Bucky. When Bucky was trapped and killed, Watson's lifelong sojourn to protect wildlife began in earnest. After leaving home, he experienced the seaman's life for the first time by spending time with the Canadian coast guard as well as merchant marine fleets.
In Vancouver during the late 1960s, the pieces of puzzle fell further into place when Watson met other like-minded environmental activists. Together, they co-founded Greenpeace. In addition to the anti-whaling ventures, Watson was instrumental in rallying demonstrations against seal hunting in northern Canada. But as he jostled for more direct confrontation instead of protesting, tensions rose between him and Greenpeace. In 1977, Watson was voted out of the organization.
The break from Greenpeace didn't quell Watson's eco-evangelism. He picked up where he had left off by forming Earthforce Environmental Society, which would give way to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The organization's first boat, the eponymous Sea Shepherd, transported Watson and his crew to halt seal hunting in Canada and whaling in the Pacific and Atlantic. Since then, Sea Shepherd's agenda has broadened, with the annual anti-whaling expeditions at the core.
Sailing on a Mission
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society members risk life and limb to fulfill a concise mission: protect and preserve marine ecosystems across the world's oceans. Achieving the lofty goal isn't an east endeavor. Going head to head with the six-vessel Japanese whaling fleet, as portrayed in "Whale Wars," seems like a David and Goliath scenario. Sea Shepherd crew must track down ships and attempt to scuttle illegal and destructive fishing operations while avoiding legal entanglements of their own.
While criticized at times for its direct-action tactics, Sea Shepherd looks to the United Nations' World Charter for Nature as its official mandate. Adopted in 1982, the charter calls for global environmental conservation and protection. A clause within it directs organizations, individuals and groups, along with governments and industries, to enforce its strict environmental standards. The legal interpretation of the charter, however, has been a contentious issue for Sea Shepherd and its opponents. (Learn more.)
Despite its common characterization as a fringe, vigilante organization, Sea Shepherd doesn't always go it alone either. "Sea Shepherd has worked with many governments and organizations in the past to promote marine conservation, including in the Galapagos, Cocos, Trinidad, Senegal, and Columbia, to name a few," says Kim McCoy, director of shark conservation for Sea Shepherd. "We are always interested in opportunities to cooperate with government agencies and officials in the interest of upholding international, national, provincial, and/or local marine conservation regulations."
Yet, when it comes to their famous anti-whaling campaigns, there are some alliances and compromises that Sea Shepherd refuses to make.
More than 20 years after a moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect, Sea Shepherd still confronts whaling ships every year. The 84-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) left open certain provisions in its moratorium that allow limited whaling without penalty. First, it's permitted for aboriginal subsistence hunting, which native groups in the United States and Russia practice. The IWC also authorizes whaling for scientific research; Japan's whaling operation is managed through the Institute for Cetacean Research for this reason. Finally, countries that filed an official objection with the IWC's ban aren't bound by it, as in the case of pro-whaling Norway.
In response to these policy gaps and what it sees as government inaction, Sea Shepherd has targeted Spanish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Japanese whaling operations over the years. The gruesome process of slaying such enormous animals usually involves an explosive harpoon. Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research claims that it takes about 2 minutes to kill a whale, but National Geographic has reported that it takes up to 20 minutes and can also involve electric shock.
Considering the prolonged death, the mammal's high level of intelligence and its sheer impact on the marine ecosystem, Paul Watson and members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are outraged by what they consider as reckless slaughter. "The public should be concerned about commercial whaling, because we simply cannot afford to lose the great whales," explains Kim McCoy, Sea Shepherd director of shark conservation. "Each species that we lose further diminishes our already depleted oceans, and if the oceans die, we die; it's as simple as that."
Sea Shepherd's persistent anti-whaling efforts have paid off. "Across Sea Shepherd's extensive history, our greatest accomplishment to date is shutting down pirate whaling operations in the North Atlantic between 1979 and 1986, including the sinking of eight ships," says McCoy. In addition, McCoy says that more than 1,400 whales were saved over the course of its four campaigns since 2005.
But while Sea Shepherd has enjoyed notable success, its direct-action tactics have also stirred the waters of controversy.
In February 2009, Sea Shepherd's annual showdown with Japan's whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean made international headlines following a boat collision. In response, the Japanese government publicly accused Sea Shepherd of intentionally ramming its boat, the Steve Irwin, into the Yushin Maru 2. No crew members on either side sustained injuries, but the incident highlights the intensity of the anti-whaling campaigns.
Paul Watson officially denies purposefully ramming the Japanese boat, but the environmental leader certainly isn't afraid of ruffling feathers in exchange for protecting the oceans' ecosystems. In fact, scenes from "Whale Wars" have shown the Nisshin Maru (Japan's whale processing boat) fleeing the Steve Irwin rather than having to fend off Sea Shepherd's offensive maneuvers.
One of the most defining — and controversial — aspects of Sea Shepherd is its form of direct-action tactics, such as prop fouling that involves hooking rope around a ship's propeller to jam it. The environmentalists also have a few more tricks up their sleeves that can make a stinky mess of whaling and illegal fishing boats. The Sea Shepherd arsenal includes:
- Butyric acid bombs: benign stink bombs derived from rancid butter.
- Methyl cellulose: a slippery powder.
- Water cannons: powerful hoses.
This confrontational style has its pros and cons, as Kim McCoy, director of shark conservation, explains. "The major advantage to Sea Shepherd's direct-action tactics, as opposed to other forms of activism, is that these tactics are guaranteed to get results," she says. "The major disadvantage is the negative attention they draw in the form of harassment from governments and other entities that would prefer for us to sit around and do nothing."
Since Sea Shepherd doesn't function under the auspices of any government, its legal authority to enforce whaling and fishing regulations remains a murky matter. The Japanese government is particularly outspoken against Sea Shepherd, publicly labeling it as a terrorist organization.
Although Sea Shepherd's direct-action tactics have attracted criticism, the organization upholds a strict policy of non-violence. Paul Watson reiterates that no one aboard a Sea Shepherd vessel has ever been seriously injured, and that the organization's actions have never endangered any lives.
Shepherding Global Marine Life
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's mission doesn't stop with the whales. With offices dotted around four continent and 11 countries, Sea Shepherd's outreach has a global impact. Through alliances, direct-action tactics and media alerts, Sea Shepherd protects an assortment of marine wildlife while continually raising public awareness about the dire need for conservation.
Sea Shepherd's international campaigns include:
- Challenging the annual harp seal hunt in Canada's Labrador Front.
- Cutting and removing illegal fishing long lines.
- Guarding marine reserves in the Galapagos Islands.
- Stopping illegal shark finning.
- Documenting dolphin hunting in Japan.
Whether people agree with Sea Shepherd's tactics or not, the precarious state of the world's waterways is very real. Piles of trash are routinely dumped into oceans and streams, littering the aquatic ecosystems. The Ocean Conservancy collected more than 7 million pounds of man-made debris during its 2008 cleanup. Underwater noise pollution from offshore oil drilling disrupts communication between species, hampering migration, mating and locating food.
Industrial fishing practices are also depleting aquatic species and resources at a rapid rate. For every 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) of fish caught worldwide, 1 pound (.45 kilograms) of unwanted bycatch is tossed. Furthermore, about 40 percent of what the global fishing operations gobble up each year is bycatch. In response, some government agencies have taken steps to reduce the number of bottom trawlers, pelagic long lines and drift nets that are responsible for much of the wasted resources.
But until the last whaling boats are retired and the oceans are adequately protected, Paul Watson and his band of Sea Shepherds will be out there, sailing the globe on a mission. Like it or not.