SYDNEY – With a loyal crew of 40 on board, skipper Paul Watson, a hardline antiwhaling campaigner, set sail this week from the port of Melbourne for the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean.
In four days, he is set to reach the Antarctic for the beginning of Japan’s four-month whaling season, a hunt that is increasingly attracting international outrage.
But with a record of perceived violence and aggression, very few are willing to count Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society he created 30 years ago among their allies.
Watson’s ready threats of ramming the Japanese whalers continually gain coverage in the Western press. While chasing down the whaling fleet last year, the captain sensationally declared he was ready to give its mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, a “steel enema” by jamming his ship into its stern.
It is comments like this that have alienated some antiwhaling governments, including Australia and New Zealand, and split opinion among environmental groups.
Greenpeace, the now global environmental giant that Watson cofounded in 1971 but was later expelled from, is just one organization quick to blame his aggressive behavior for setbacks to the cause.
But this year, Watson insists his campaign, dubbed Operation Migaloo in honor of a rare albino humpback, will be nonviolent.
“We are not going to hurt anybody and we are not going to endanger anybody’s lives at sea,” Watson claimed.
Watson freely admitted, however, that he plans to wreak as much havoc as possible on the Japanese whaling fleet, which will hunt 1,000 whales in the Antarctic, including humpbacks for the first time in 44 years.
Watson’s vessel — renamed Steve Irwin after the late TV wildlife program host popularly known as “Crocodile Hunter” — is laden with Watson’s not-so-secret defense weapons that he will employ against the whalers — smoke bombs and liters of rancid butter (butyric acid) and pie filling.
The pie filling, sourced from U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus, will be fired in 170-liter shots onto the whalers’ deck, Watson explains with a gleeful chuckle.
“We can slime them with it, but it’s not going to kill anybody. It’s the same with the butter, I could pour some on my hands and I would stink for a week, but it’s not going to hurt me,” he said.
It is this behavior that has prompted the Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts Japan’s whaling program on behalf of the government, to label Watson and his crew pirates and terrorists.
But Watson is unapologetic, and has even been known to embrace the pirate label by flying a Jolly Roger from his ship’s mast.
“We are not the eco-terrorists here. The Japanese whaling fleet is because they are terrorizing the environment. They are filling our oceans with blood down there and they have the audacity to call us violent. I think that is incredibly arrogant,” Watson said.
Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Japan conducts research whaling authorized by the IWC, although critics charge the program is a pretext for keeping the nation’s tiny whaling industry alive.
Watson maintains that what Japan is doing is illegal and contravenes global treaties, including the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species.
“There is no way to justify doing any kind of whaling in a whale sanctuary,” Watson said.
“Put simply, there is no difference between opposing Japanese whaling and opposing people who are poaching elephants for ivory or robbing a bank,” he said.
Watson sees his adventures in the Southern Ocean not as a protest action, but as an “intervention” against what he calls a “highly criminal operation.”
In the past, Watson has not received much cooperation from the Australian and New Zealand governments, who prefer diplomatic means of opposing whaling and have, at times, been openly critical of the captain’s methods.
When Watson caught up with the Japanese fleet in the Antarctic last year, he immediately called authorities in both countries demanding naval vessels be dispatched to take whalers into custody. Both Australia and New Zealand refused.
But Watson has higher hopes for cooperation this year after the swearing in of a new Labor government in Australia this week.
Before winning power, the center-left Labor Party pledged to take a tougher stance on whaling than the conservative Liberal-led government, by using the country’s naval fleet to monitor Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic and pursuing legal action against Japan in international courts.
Watson is now calling on Labor to honor the promise in government, and go even further.
“The new Labor government has said they are going to send the navy down there, and we are trying to pressure the navy, through public support, to order the whaling fleet out of the area,” Watson said.
Although most believe the Australian Navy does not have the authority to board or stop the Japanese whaling ships, Labor’s promises have also raised the hopes of other environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which is already tailing the Japanese whaling vessels this year with a ship of its own, the Esperanza.
Steve Shallhorn, head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said Labor will have to honor its promises, adding any action by the Australian Navy will be significant.