Paul Watson has a thick skin, maybe as thick as the hide of a whale, one of the creatures he has spent the better part of three-and-a-half decades protecting.
In any given week, the controversial environmental “bad boy” and “terrorist” probably attracts more insults, accusations, and barbs than Moby Dick absorbed harpoons in its climactic showdown with Captain Ahab. And like the fictional white whale, Watson generally wreaks havoc and survives to go about his business on the world’s oceans until the next Ahab comes along to try and sink him again.
And just like in the iconic American novel by Herman Melville, the monomaniacal seafarer in this scenario has an unflagging belief in both the righteousness of his obsesion and his ability to pursue it.
“I would just say that nobody could do what I do unless you had a big ego,” Watson tells the Georgia Straight. “It’s the only way you can really put it. You have to be arrogant enough to challenge the arrogance of the human race.”
It’s July 15, and Watson is speaking from the Shetland Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland. The founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is on the satellite phone aboard the 59-metre Steve Irwin, Sea Shepherd’s flagship vessel in its war against what Watson and his followers deem to be illegal whalers and other despoilers of Earth’s oceans.
“We’re getting ready to go to the Faroe Islands, about 160 miles north, to intervene against the pilot-whale hunt that takes place there every summer,” Watson explains about why he is tied up at a pier in Lerwick harbour.
The reason he is on the phone to the Straight, a paper he used to write for in the 1970s, back when he was a founder of the Greenpeace Foundation (member number 007), is that he is the subject of a new feature documentary, Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, and he has agreed to do some publicity for its release.
The film, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (July 22), is the result of almost a decade’s worth of work by Vancouver director-producer Trish Dolman. Eco-Pirate generated pretty solid buzz in Toronto at this spring’s Hot Docs film festival, and Watson, 60, thinks it does a fair job of portraying him and what turned out to be his life’s work.
“It’s down the middle. Trish has tried to present the side that opposes me and the side that supports me, and I think she did a good job on it.”
In the film—which traces Watson’s activist roots from his childhood to his first Vancouver-based antinuclear and antiwhaling expeditions in the Pacific Ocean in the early and mid 1970s—Greenpeace International cofounders such as author Rex Weyler and consultant Patrick Moore sound off about Watson, and not always in a generous spirit.
Former comrade-in-arms Moore, in particular, is sharply critical of virtually everything Watson stands for, even going so far as to dredge up resentments that date back to the first seal-hunt protests in Eastern Canada in 1976 and ’77, when Watson rankled Moore and other activists with some direct action against hunters on the ice floes. This went contrary to Greenpeace’s pacifist policy of solely bearing witness, a reflection of the Quaker influence of Irving and Dorothy Stowe, two of the organization’s founders in Vancouver.
“Paul had completely botched the organization of this thing,” Moore says of the seal-hunt protests. “It was clear that Paul was out of control.”
Soon after, Moore and the Greenpeace board’s objections led to Watson leaving the group. (Watson told the Straight in a 1993 cover feature that Moore was actually “pissed off that I wouldn’t let him sit next to Brigitte Bardot in the helicopter”, after the former sex kitten was brought in to get publicity for the seal campaign.)
Almost immediately thereafter, Watson founded Sea Shepherd. (His dispatches from the first seal-hunt protest campaign had been published in the Straight under the headline “Shepherds of the Labrador Front”, a title that would later inspire the name of his now-famous society.)
“Actually, I was expecting Patrick Moore to be a little more negative [in the film] than he was,” Watson says without a hint of sarcasm. “I was sort of disappointed that he wasn’t. I thought I actually came across quite well.”
He probably means it. The two have sniped at each other publicly for decades, and worse things have been said on both sides. Those years saw Watson become more radicalized in his ocean activism—sabotaging, pursuing, ramming, even sinking outlaw drift netters, whalers, and poachers—while Moore, according to many environmentalists, betrayed his principles by embracing forestry, aquaculture, and nuclear power, and denying human-caused global warming.
There is no shortage of critics like Moore, Watson says with a laugh. “You know, I wouldn’t think I was successful if I didn’t have just as many people hate me as support me. You can’t change things by not pissing people off.”
It’s a curious echo of what Moore says in Eco-Pirate regarding Watson: “Pacifism is about not making the other person want to hit you or kill you.”
Watson, diplomatically, doesn’t say whether or not he thinks Moore has been successful on that front.
It is Watson’s supposed attitudes toward his fellow human beings that fuel some of the outrage flung his way by conservative TV hosts, in newspaper opinion pieces, and on websites. Apparently, he likes animals more than people.
“I’m not really concerned about doing this for our children or our children’s children,” Watson says in Eco-Pirate. “I’m doing it for the whales.”
He is also often reminded that he once placed the welfare of worms ahead of that of humans.
“That’s taken a little out of context,” he says with a trace of weariness. “What I’m saying is no species is more important than others. All species are interdependent, but people got upset because I said worms were more important than people. I said [that] because worms can live on the Earth without us but we can’t live without them. We need them and they don’t need us. And bees and insects and fish: we need them and they don’t need us. It makes them, ecologically, more important than we are. A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
Watson and Sea Shepherd have been riding a wave of popularity in recent years due to the wild success of an Animal Planet network reality-TV show, now in it’s fourth season, that has been following his annual running battles with Japanese “special permit” whalers in the Southern Ocean off the shores of Antarctica. He says Eco-Pirate and other films featuring Sea Shepherd help educate people, but TV is a real shot in the arm for the fundraising he depends on.
“Our show, Whale Wars, has been extraordinarily helpful in that. Television is certainly a better public media for getting that kind of public support. I think that films like Sharkwater, Eco-Pirate, Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist have been very good at establishing our credibility as an effective marine-conservation organization.”
Asked if he is sanguine about the oceans’ future, Watson says: “I’m not pessimistic about anything. You just have to have enough passion and perseverance. I always point to 1972: the very idea that Nelson Mandela would be president of South Africa was unthinkable, unimaginable, and impossible, yet it happened. So I’m eternally optimistic.
“If the oceans were to die, we die. We can’t live on this planet with dead oceans. So, really, this is a question of self-preservation, to save the human species.”
Not exactly the words of a professional misanthrope.
Watch the trailer for Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson.