Profile: Paul Watson

Ecology gunslinger

John Faustmann June 16 1980
Profile: Paul Watson

Ecology gunslinger

John Faustmann June 16 1980

Ecology gunslinger

Profile: Paul Watson

John Faustmann

Dressed in a half-unbottoned safari shirt, with a pair of khaki pants tucked into his boots, Paul Watson paces his Vancouver living room like a banana-republic revolutionary between coups. “What we did was considered impossible,” he is saying. “You just can’t set sail on the open ocean and find a ship you are looking for.” Yet after a decade of work as a conservationistsailing into nuclear test zones, chaining himself to sealing ships, running interference between whales and whalers as well as getting jailed, shot at and chased by angry mobs for his effortsPaul Watson, 29-year-old ecology gunslinger, and the impossible are not exactly strangers. And now that two former writers for the New York Herald Tribune are busy working on his biography—with film rights already sold to an independent producer—celebrity will not exactly seem strange, either.

The ship he was looking for in July, 1979, was the Sierra—a pirate whaler operating outside the bounds of international law. “They were not ordinary whalers,” Watson says. “Out of a 30-ton whale they were taking six tons of meat and throwing the rest away. They knew they were exterminating a species.” Determined to stop them, Watson raised the funds to buy the 206-foot trawler Sea Shepherd, hired a crew, sailed across the Atlantic and, by pure luck, found the Sierra just off the coast of Portugal. Most of his crew deserted, and Watson went after the Sierra with only two other men on board. “We came straight at her,” he recalls, relishing the memory. “The whalers were all laughing at us as we got closer. They thought we were playing chicken with them.” Watson wasn’t playing. He rammed the Sierra twice, opening a 12foot gash in her side and nearly sinking her. “It was the relief of 10 years of frustration for me,” he says.

Four days later Paul Watson, the boy from St. Andrew’s-By-the-Sea, New Brunswick, was on the Good Morning America show in New York telling his story. “That’s a sort of modern environmental warfare,” he chuckles in his living room. “You’ve got to get back and do the publicity.” But Watson, his Beatle haircut now flecked with grey, won’t have to worry about publicity for a while. American writer Cleveland Amory, whose The Fund for Animals Inc. sponsored the voyage of the Sea Shepherd, says that Watson “became a world figure after hitting the Sierra.” World figure or not, he has certainly become a celebrity in the United States.

In addition to the biography and film, NBC television has hired him to do an environment series for their new show Speak Up America.

Though all this sounds like pretty heady stuff for a fellow from a small Maritime town, Paul Watson views it as just the latest development in an already eventful life. The eldest in a family of seven, Watson traded in New Brunswick for Vancouver and ran away to sea at 15. At 20, financing his way through Simon Fraser University by working for the Canadian Coast Guard, Watson got interested in interspecies communication. “Then I found out,” he recalls, “that just when we were on the brink of understanding what whales were all about, the world was ready to destroy them.” On an impulse in 1969 he joined the Don’t Make a Wave Committee and protested the nuclear testing in the Aleutians by sailing a small boat into the testing area. (“I didn’t think they’d blow us up. It’s just not good public relations.”) The bomb went off as scheduled but the committee survived to evolve into the Greenpeace Foundation. For the next five years Watson was on the front lines of most of the Greenpeace confrontations to save the world’s marine mammals—off the coast of Labrador, in the area known as “The Front,” to fight the annual seal hunt and on the Pacific in a frail Zodiak inflatable boat to joust with Russian whalers. He took time off in 1972 to see if he could go “around the world in 80 days on 80 cents”—did it, by cadging airplane and freighter rides, and wound up back in Vancouver with $1.20 (left over from his original $2 bill). As a sidelight in 1973, he dodged U.S. marshals’ bullets as a medic for Sioux Indian protesters at Wounded Knee.

But, by 1977, Watson had become fed up with the internal politics at Greenpeace, and many members disagreed with his not so nonviolent tactics. “I admire his bravery,” says Canadian Greenpeace President Patrick Moore, “but I can’t accept the kinds of risks he takes.” So Watson left Greenpeace and started his own movement called Earthforce. It lived long enough to finance one trip to Kenya, where Watson was shot at while investigating ivory poaching and a ranger was killed.

Almost a regular fixture at the seal hunt, Watson has scuffled with fisheries officers who have taken it as a near crusade to discredit him. The federal government’s pro-sealing information includes the text of a Paul Watson/ Barbara Frum As It Happens radio interview, which the government hopes will show that some anti-sealing groups are finding protesting profitable. Fisheries officer Stanley Dudka, who arrested Watson on the ice last year, said with some vehemence, “I wouldn’t give you my opinion on him. It’s not something you could print.” Speaking from his home in Halifax, Captain Lyngvaer, formerly of the sealing ship Martin Karlsen, may have summed up the East Coast reaction to Watson’s particular brand of ice capades. Recalling a conversation he had had with Watson, Lyngvaer said: “I asked him: ‘Do you think someone should kill themselves for seals?’ He said ‘yes.’ That just sounded crazy to me, so I changed the conversation.”

Watson causes an overreaction in his critics, who then issue extreme statements on his mental health and egocentricity. A Boston newspaper even accused him of having a suicide complex. “That’s ridiculous,” retorts Watson. “People say that because they can’t imagine risking their lives for something that isn’t human. Yet how many people have died in this century for a piece of real estate? Besides,” he adds, “I’d never take a risk where it was 100per-cent certain I would die.” He smiles, strokes the small roll of flesh at his waist and tacks on a thin chuckle. “Eighty per cent, maybe.” Whatever the odds, Paul Watson is too busy, or just not interested, in figuring them out. His present life has him hopping around the continent doing lectures and television shows and, as Warren Rogers, one of his biographers, puts it: “He doesn’t care what he looks like, he doesn’t care about money—he decides to go somewhere and he goes.”

For the past few weeks, however, Paul Watson has been staying in Vancouver where his wife, Starlet, recently gave birth to their first child, a girl. Still, he looks almost fidgety at homeanxious to get on with it. His latest plan is an expedition to the South Pole, designed to preserve Antarctica as an international park. Right now he’s raising the funds for it. “I find it difficult to talk people out of money,” he says (although he has raised several hundred thousand dollars for a variety of his causes and takes a small part for living expenses). But “by Dec. 14,1981,1 want to be standing on the South Pole. I want to be the first person to get there using wind and solar energy only.”

His work all comes down, Watson says, to having “warrior” mentality. “People look on conservationists as little old ladies in tennis shoes. I want to get away from that. To risk your life for the survival of a species is much more honorable than dying for some abstract thing like patriotism.” He pauses for a moment to give it some thought. “There are so many environmental issues,” he says wearily, “acid rain, mercury poisoning, the destruction of the ozone layer. I don’t look at what I’m doing as the be-all and end-all of saving the world. I’m just working to protect marine mammals. It’s only one small part of the entire problem, but it’s something I figure I can do.” The Fund for Animals Inc. President Amory doesn’t think it’s such a small part. “Because of Paul Watson,” he says, “the environmental movement won’t ever be the same again.”