Animals, Conservation

Warrior of the Waves

Captain Paul Watson has dedicated his life to saving the planet. As a founder member of Greenpeace and creator of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society the story of his life reads like an action thriller.

By Julie Conway

When he was 12-years-old Paul Watson shot a boy in the bottom with a B B gun.

‘He was shooting birds and I wanted him to know how it felt,’ he explains unapologetically. ‘I felt it was terribly unfair that I got into so much trouble, the local authorities thought I was crazy. I thought it was the boy who was the crazy one.’

When he was just nine, he destroyed the traps that killed his best friend, a beaver.

Fifteen years later people from around the world watched Watson, numb with shock, as he became the first man to put himself between a harpoon and a whale.

The life of this charismatic, charming, eco-warrior can still strike fear into the most hardened of whalers.

Captain Paul Watson, a founding member of Greenpeace and founder of environmental action group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is one of the most colourful and effective environmental campaigners.

To his friends he is charming and courteous, enjoying the company of celebrities and counting Pierce Brosnan and Martin Sheen among his best friends.

But to his enemies he is quite terrifying.

The sight of Watson’s skull and crossbones flying from the mast of his schooner has been known to intimidate even the most callous of whalers. And they have every reason to be wary. With blazing eyes he has sunk whaling boats in ports in Norway, Iceland and Spain; cut drift nets and rammed ships fishing illegally at sea; disrupted Canadian harp seal hunts and clashed with the Soviet Navy.

Hollywood has talked about making a film of his life.

‘They don’t need to make anything up,’ he chuckles. ‘My life’s been dramatic enough as it is.’

Divorced with a grown up daughter, his ex-wife, American Lisa Distefano, would surely agree. However, a passionate defender of whales herself, she has always supported his beliefs.

Paul’s daughter Lilliolani is also enthusiastic, she has inherited her father’s sense of passion for the sea. ‘She has crewed on the ship,’ he explains proudly.

Despite his celebrity links, the Canadian campaigner who now lives in the US, would rather be out at sea than schmoozing at parties.

He may have a mop of silvery grey hair and a slightly thicker waist, but he is as energised and ready for direct action as he always has been.

His first taste of adventure at sea came when he was 17 and joined the Norwegian Merchant Marine. ‘What could be better than reading Conrad’s Typhoon in the middle of a typhoon in the South China Sea?’ he says.

After a brief spell working for the Canadian coastguards Watson signed up for a degree in communications and media studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, near Vancouver, Canada. It was there he met Bob Hunter, a co-founder of Greenpeace. He also learnt how to use the media to generate maximum publicity for your cause – experience that would prove extremely valuable.

Watson and Hunter heard about plans for a nuclear test off the coast of Canada. The group of local Quakers and ‘peaceniks’ leading the protest were concerned with the potential human victims of a nuclear war. But for Watson and Hunter there were additional concerns; a wildlife refuge that stood in the path of the tidal wave the test was expected to create.

‘One day someone flashed a sign that said peace, and another person said, sure we want peace but it has to be green peace.’

The name was perfect. Within five years the two wild, young Canadians in a converted trawler named Rainbow Warrior were sailing into the paths of whaling ships and making headlines all over the world.

Watson understood the power of the media and made sure they were there to document the daring confrontations.

The most enduring image of the save the whale campaign came in 1975. Watson and Hunter, along with a team for the sea and land support, decided to put themselves between the whales and the whalers using a fast inflatable Zodiac boat.

On 27th June, 1975 they found the Vlastny, a 160-foot Russian whaling ship, sixty nautical miles west of Eureka, California.

They spotted a fleeing pod of eight sperm whales just metres ahead. Watson and Hunter set off in the inflatable Zodiac. Their purpose, to put themselves between the whales and the whalers.

‘As Bob and I sped along, we passed through the rainbow tinted mist of their breath. We could smell what the whales had just exhaled. With each breath that I took, I became more aware of the fear and the desperation of the creatures before us,’ says Watson.

The whales surfaced only briefly, but could not take in enough oxygen to dive. They were exhausted. Watson and Hunter were just ten feet from the Russian boat. Ten feet behind were the fleeing whales.

A muscular blond man stood on the deck, a grenade harpoon, five feet in length with foot long barbed flanges, was ready to fire.

He was focused on the whales behind them, seemingly blind to the two men bobbing about in the tiny boat between him and the whales.

He fired the harpoon directly over the heads of the Watson and Hunter into a female sperm whale. The poor whale was so badly injured she was dying.

It was the first time man had put himself between the whale and whaler. The public were horrified by the images of the slain whales and amazed at the bravery of the men risking their lives.


To this day the image of Greenpeace is still associated with that footage.

But in years to come his direct action tactics and forceful personality infuriated the chairman of Greenpeace, David McTaggart.

Watson left the organisation in 1977 and formed Sea Shepherd International.

‘I vowed that I would never allow Sea Shepherd to evolve into a bureaucracy and we would never compromise or apologise to those who slaughter the whales, the dolphins, the seals and lay waste to the sea,’ he explains.

Watson also makes no apologies for using aggressive confrontation.

‘We do not protest. Protesting is fundamentally submissive. We are enforcers. We sail to enforce the law.’

Sea Shepherd has sunk eight whaling ships and one drift netting vessel.

‘We’ve taken every precaution to ensure that no one gets hurt, and we have an excellent record. We’ve never caused an injury. We’ve never sustained an injury. But what should be pointed out here is that all these are illegal activities, and our record speaks for itself about our precautions.’

Sea Shepherd’s record is impressive. It is an organisation staffed by volunteers with 25,000 members and a budget of just $1 million a year.

Yet they brought an end to pirate whaling in the North Atlantic by ramming the whaler Sierra off the coast of Portugal in 1979; they successfully documented illegal whaling in Soviet Siberia after a six hour pursuit by the Soviet Navy and Air Force in 1981; they interfered in activities of the sealing fleets off the eastern coast of Canada and led a campaign against the slaughter of Pilot whales in the Faroe Island; which led to an armed assault on Sea Shepherd II in 1985 and 1986.

In 1986 they brought the illegal Icelandic whaling industry to a grinding halt. In 1994 their boat was rammed, depth charged and fired upon by the Norwegian Navy after it came within 40 miles of a whaling fleet. None of the crew were injured.

Watson has led four high seas expeditions against drift netting. Sea Shepherd was also instrumental in exposing and shutting down the US tuna fleets’ cruel practice of fishing on dolphins by obtaining the first video taped evidence.

Sea Shepherd has campaigned to stop whalers from the Faroe Islands and Norway, stop dolphin hunting in Japan, support a seal rescue centre in South Africa and protect the Galapagos Islands.

‘If we can’t protect something like the Galapagos, what can we protect?’ he asks.

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