Environmental Vigilante

“Baby seals are as important as baby humans,” Paul Watson believes. And he is ready to fight in defense of the animal world.

On July 16, 1979, just outside the Portuguese port of Leixoes, Paul Watson steered his vessel, Sea Shepherd, on a collision course with the pirate whaler Sierra. He was aiming for the harpoon gun, trying to shear it off and emasculate the whaler, but the prow of his ship struck a glancing blow and did little damage. Watson has described what happened next:

“We executed a 360-degree turn around her stern and came full on at a slight angle toward her forward port side. As she came closer, I could see the horrified amazement on the faces of the crew. I could see Captain Arvid Nordengen, the big Norwegian captain, stand staring, cursing and helpless. I briefly glimpsed a rifle being raised and then we hit.

“We hardly felt the impact on the Sea Shepherd. From the bridge I could see that we were practically on top of the whaler, pushing her far over to starboard. We ripped her open, exposing the whale meat in her guts. We tore a six-by-eight-foot hole in the whaler and as we pulled out we slammed full against her port side, staving in forty-five feet of her hull.”

Twenty years before, the same Paul Watson had joined an organization called the Kindness Club. He was then eight years old. Joining was his mother’s idea, but Watson is grateful, for he believes that the act was pivotal, the biggest move in his life. The precepts of the Kindness Club, he is convinced, have guided his career since. Of the club’s eight goals, the first is “To foster the concept that animals, as well as people, have certain inalienable rights, including protection from cruelty.”The club’s motto is Be Kind.

This gentle philosophy, Watson told me six months after he stove in forty-five feet of his enemy’s hull, had swayed his entire family. Neither of his two sisters will wear furs. None of his three brothers is a hunter. Not to hunt in his hometown—a small fishing village in New Brunswick—is a real aberration, he assured me.

“When I was twelve, all the kids had BB guns,”he said. “I even got my father to get me a BB gun. That was the beginning of my career. I used to shoot kids. I’d shoot kids in the butt when they shot birds.”

This new principle. If kindness fails, shoot them in the butt, had never occurred to Albert Schweitzer, honorary president of the Kindness Club, nor to Aida Flemming, the club’s founder. It was the first manifestation of Watson’s peculiar genius. Little Paul became the unofficial enforcement arm of his organization. He was Kindness Club hit man until the BB gun was confiscated by his father.

At fourteen, Watson ran away from home. He was captured. At fifteen he tried again, this time to sea and this time successfully. He voyaged in the Norwegian merchant marine to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. “I got drunk for the first time in my life, he says. “I got in my first fight. Some of those clubs in South Africa! I don’t know how I got out alive.”

Graduating to the Canadian Coast Guard, he had his first encounter with orca, the killer whale. He was impressed by the animal. He left the Coast Guard, joined the Greenpeace Foundation, and crewed on the Greenpeace Zodiacs that interposed themselves between whales and the catcher boats attempting to kill them. He participated in the first Greenpeace harp seal campaigns, helping to stain harp seal pups with an organic dye that rendered their pelts worthless to the sealers. In 1977 he was fired by Greenpeace for theft and vandalism. (All he did, he protests, was to snatch a sealer’s club and throw it in the water.) He turned free-lance, becoming an environmental knight errant. With money from Cleveland Amory’s Fund for Animals, he bought the Westella, a North Atlantic trawler. Rechristened Sea Shepherd, she sailed in spring of 1979 to the harp seal breeding grounds on the sea ice off the Magdalen Islands. There Watson harassed sealers, got himself arrested and, he says, beaten. In summer of 1979, man and ship embarked on their voyage after Sierra.

His target was a member of a ragtag fleet operating outside the laws of the International Whaling Commission, under various flags of convenience. “Pirate” whalers sail from ports in Taiwan, Spain, Peru, Chile, and, until recently, in South Africa. They take any whale they encounter, whether or not the animal is undersized or of a species that is endangered. They are supported almost entirely by Japan, which provides them with equipment and buys most of their catch. Watson’s ramming of Sierra was the first citizen assault on a pirate whaler. It was unsuccessful. Pursued by Sea Shepherd, the Sierra ran into port. At the harbor mouth, Watson and his men broke off the chase, came about, and headed for England. They nearly made their getaway, but eight miles from Spanish territorial waters they were overtaken by a Portuguese destroyer, which escorted them back to Leixoes.

Early last January, half a year after his capture by the Portuguese, I visited Watson at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. He lives near the beach in the pleasant Kitsilano district. The gold knocker on his door is in the shape of a sperm whale. Inside, the furniture and decor are modern, the walls white and uncluttered, the television expensive. There are no batik bedspreads covering the windows, no paraphernalia for the consumption of illegal substances, no smell of incense—none of the things I had come to expect in the homes of Greenpeace soldiers and former soldiers.

Watson himself did not look the part. Nemesis of the pirate whalers, member of “Earth Force,” a militant group that a more moderate conservationist has described as “environmental kamikazes,” Watson should have been, I thought, wild-eyed, thin-lipped, spare. Instead he is a dark, chunky man of middle height. His beginning paunch suggests some fondness for the creature comforts. His lips are full, the line of his mouth vulnerable. His eyes aren’t fierce. His brows meet at those rising angles which, in a bloodhound, we take to signify uncertainty, worry, and loss of the scent. He was, indeed, frustrated. He had just returned from Portugal, where the previous week he had attempted to steal Sea Shepherd. The Portuguese government had impounded his ship after the ramming of the Sierra, just as his father had once impounded his BB gun. Watson had wanted her back.

“Our intention was to run the ship out of port,” he told me. “That’s why I brought eight people. We checked out a bridge that was blocking the way. We figured if we cut fifteen feet off the mast, we could run under the bridge. We could run all the way to Glasgow.

“We went onboard like we had every right to be there. From the outside, the ship looked fine. The padlocks on the doors were all in place. Except for the ship’s bell, everything was there. We broke open the door to the bridge, and I saw the radio room first. Everything was gone. The radio. Navigational equipment. Fire-fighting and life-saving equipment. Food. Our two-ton air compressor was missing, and 120 tons of diesel fuel.

“Some fishermen told us that the local fire department had removed the fuel. They’d been authorized to pump the bilges, so they pumped out our fuel, too. The police had stolen our single-side band radio. We found our ship’s bell inside a Cypriot vessel moored alongside, and our compressor was welded to its deck. Our ship was just a shell.

“We decided to scuttle her. My Portuguese lawyer had told us that if we didn’t pay a $750,000 bond, the ship would be sold for salvage, with the proceeds going to the Sierra’s owners for damages. We didn’t want that.

“We decided that New Year’s Eve was the best time for the scuttling. We thought we’d never get another chance. Everyone was partying. Everything was slack. At ten that night, Peter Woof and I opened the sea cocks. It was like turning on six high-powered fire hydrants.”

“Did you feel any regret?” I asked.

“No. We were pretty affectionate toward the ship, but this was just something that had to be done. I can’t recall it as being a painful decision.”

The question about regret had surprised him. He paused to search his recollection for any trace of regret there. Unable to find it, he continued.

“Afterward I took Peter to the train. Then I told the cabdriver to take me to the airport. He misunderstood. At the last minute, I realized he was taking me back to the port. I tried to get him to turn around. ‘Porto,’ he kept pointing, ‘porto.' We got right to the fence before he turned around. I saw the bow of Sea Shepherd sticking out of the water, and the place was full of armed guards with machine guns. When we finally got to the plane, I just walked on. The guard at the checkpoint didn’t even look at my name.”

Watson brought me a beer. Opening one for himself, he walked to the bookshelf and returned with a small book. The author was Joyce Lambert, and the title was How to Be Kind. Here, said Watson, was where it had all begun. This was the manual of the Kindness Club. The philosophy within had guided him since childhood.

The cover of How to Be Kind was robin’s-egg blue. It showed a rosy-checked blond girl in a nightdress feeding a bird. At her feet were a rabbit, a raccoon, and a squirrel. I skimmed the pages. Each chapter, I noticed, ended with a quiz. (“What does the word kind mean? Where does kindness start? What’s a campaign? What is the objective of our campaign? Who looks after baby elephants?”) There were subchapters on “Kind St. Francis,” and “How would you like to live in a zoo?” and “Dr. Harry Lillie, Champion of Animals,” and “Jesus and the Mule.” There was a section on caring for injured birds. (“For hawks and owls, feed small pieces of beef heart, but positively no fat. Mix the beef heart with dully feathers or if these are not available, use pulled out cotton batting. These birds must have such indigestible material to assist them with regurgitation. For hummingbirds try the following mixture: 9 c.c. honey, 95 c.c. water, 31/2 c.c. condensed milk, 1 c.c. beef extract, 5.5 c.c. sweet almond oil.”) For an environmental kamikaze, this book seemed an odd bible.

We moved with our beers into the kitchen. Watson’s wife, Starlet, Chinese-Canadian and pregnant, was using the kitchen table as an office desk. She was opening envelopes, removing donations, and entering the amounts in a ledger. The money was for Cambodia, her husband explained. He and some friends had generated it by each bicycling a thousand miles—160 circuits of Stanley Park in Vancouver—in a fund-raiser to buy fuel for Sea Shepherd. The plan had been to liberate the ship, fill it with food and supplies donated by the

Red Cross, and sail to Cambodia. After practicing a little kindness in that starving land. Sea Shepherd would cross to Taiwan, search out the pirate whaler Sea Bird, and practice a little kindness on that vessel.

“You were going to ram her?" I asked.

“Probably. We also thought of running our trawl line, which is an inch-thick cable, under her and ripping her props off.”

I asked Watson what would happen to the bicycle money now that Sea Shepherd rested on the harbor bottom at Leixoes. It would go to the Red Cross and UNICEF, he said.

He led me, next, to the wall and a huge map of coastal Newfoundland. He pointed to the areas where the sea ice forms off the Magdalen Islands, then to the spots where, in March, the harp seals haul out on the ice to give birth. He hesitated. He gave me a speculative look. He started to tell me something, then stopped. Finally, deciding to trust me, he revealed his antisealing strategy for the coming season.

He was going to use kayaks this time. The problem with a ship the size of Sea Shepherd, he said, had been that the authorities spotted it easily. (Canadian law forbids interference with the sealers, and during the hunt the waters are full of Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Coast Guard vessels.) Kayaks had lower profiles. They were sneakier. He planned to use three-man kayaks of a type modeled on the Aleut bidarka. The bidarka builder was in the process of constructing runners for the hulls. When Watson’s commandos encountered ice through which they could find no channel, they would cease paddling, haul their kayaks out, and slide them over the surface. The kayaks would be packed with organic dye for devaluing pelts. The commandos would spray all the pups they could find.

(This expedition ran into difficulties and never came off. For the first time in years, no protesters were on hand to worry the sealers. The March 1980 hunt was peaceful, for humans if not for seal pups.)

Staring at his map, Watson was reminded of earlier harp seal campaigns.

“In 1977, off Labrador, I handcuffed myself to the winchline that hauls pelts across the ice. I thought it was a good idea, with all those police around. That would protect me. The trouble was, they just winched me across the ice, through the water, and up the side of the ship. They dragged me through this gauntlet of sealers, who were kicking and spitting on me. They kept me prisoner onboard for a day.

“In 1979, we went on the Sea Shepherd. There was a crew of thirty-two, with twelve journalists. We broke through 250 miles of ice to get to the hunt. We reached the site on March 8 at eleven at night, and we left the ship at midnight. We crossed four miles of ice and by seven in the morning we had sprayed over a thousand seals. The police came in helicopters— forty officers. They arrested us and beat a couple of us. They dragged me through the water to this Coast Guard icebreaker, Wolfe. They beat me and kicked me. They forced me to lie for two hours on that freezing deck in my wet clothes. I was jailed for five days in the Magdalen Islands. They got me for resisting arrest, obstructing justice, attempting to escape, and for assault on an RCMP officer. It wasn’t assault. The officer tried to tackle me. He missed and went in the water. The RCMP really get into it. They’re worse than the other police. It’s amazing how emotional they get.”

Listening, I thought of the RCMP who had missed. If what Watson said was true, then here was one Mountie who had not always got his man. “You’re surprised they get emotional,” I said. “Why? It sounds like you get pretty emotional out there.”

“I can see people being emotional about preservation of life. But how can people get emotional about the destruction of life?”

“I wonder,” I said. “Have you ever thought that your method might be counterproductive? Has it ever occurred to you to take a softer line?”

“I don’t think we’re counterproductive. Certainly more people are aware of the seal hunt, after what we’ve done. I’ve never felt that I’ve been doing the wrong thing.”

“Have you ever considered it?”

“No. I’ve never considered it.”

“People say you have a death wish,” I suggested. It was true. I had heard several of Watson’s acquaintances say so.

“I don’t. In fact I have a dislike of dying. In fact, I’m about to be a father.” He nodded toward Starlet, whose stomach was nearly full-term and was keeping her some distance from her ledger. “But I don’t want to be alive in a world that has destroyed itself. I couldn’t live in a world without whales and seals. So I’m doing this for myself, for my own survival. Baby seals are as important as baby humans. I get the same gut feeling when baby seals are killed as human babies.”

“What do you think you’ll be doing in ten years?”

“Hopefully the same sort of thing. Though this is the sort of job you hope you’ll work yourself out of a job on. I certainly hope I’m not working on whales in ten years. I hope by then it won’t be necessary.

“I do other things to keep busy. I steal leg-hold traps. Six million animals are killed in traps each year in Canada, not including ‘trash’ animals, like crows, that happen to step in them. I have a trap right here, in fact. I stole this one from the Chateau Laurier fur display.

“I worked for Pappas Brothers Furriers as a spy. I lasted a week before I was fired. For a while here in Vancouver there were billboards advertising furs. They’re all down now. They said, ‘Fur is for Everybody,’ and they showed men, women, and children all lined up in furs. What you do is take a light bulb, file off the end, fill it with red paint, and tape it off. Put a littie paint-thinner in there—that makes it spread further. It makes the paint run down more after it hits.”

I got the picture.

“Do you think you’ll mellow with age?” I asked. “Do you think you’ll ever take a less radical approach?”

“I’m not radical. I’m a conservative. To me, whalers are radicals. Spreading pesticides on fields is radical. I consider what I’m doing a police action. The Washington Post asked me once, ‘Aren’t you a vigilante?’ Yes, I’m a vigilante. But until there’s an international police force on the sea, vigilantes like me will be necessary.” □