Despite speaking on a bad line from somewhere off Antarctica, the message from Paul Watson was loud and clear:

“We will never retreat or surrender the southern oceans till we drive the Japanese whaling fleet out of here. We are not going to back down on this, and we are getting stronger every year. Every year we come down with more support.”

For the fifth year running now, Watson, the charismatic 60-year-old founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is pursuing Japan’s whaling fleet across the frigid Southern Ocean with his ragtag “Neptune’s Navy” of supporters.

Two collisions already this year between Japan’s “research whaling” ships and Sea Shepherd vessels have refocused the world’s attention on this annual cat-and-mouse game in the deep south. Whereas Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker boat escaped with a gash down its side after a clash with the Yushin Maru No. 3 whaler at the weekend, the group’s high-tech, $2.5 million Ady Gil trimaran was not so lucky, sinking after its encounter with the Japan fleet’s Shonan Maru No. 2 in January. Each side blames the other for both incidents.

“This year we came down with three vessels. We lost one, but we came down with three. Next year we will come down with another three, maybe four, I don’t know,” vows Watson from on board the Sea Shepherd flagship, the MV Steve Irwin. “We do what we do with the resources available to us, and every year those resources become stronger. We will not abandon the whales. Ships are expendable, the whales are not.”

Sea Shepherd is a nonprofit organization that advocates “direct action” as a means to its stated end: halting the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans, thereby conserving and protecting ecosystems and species.

Since the group’s founding in 1977, Sea Shepherd has been involved in activities related to “research, investigation, and enforcement of laws, treaties, resolutions and regulations established to protect marine wildlife worldwide,” says Media Director Amy Baird.

Their campaigns have focused on illegal fishing and whaling, poaching, shark finning and seal hunting. The group claims credit for shutting down illegal whaling activities in the North Atlantic in 1979 and 1986, and is currently involved in a campaign against poaching in the Galapagos Islands in partnership with Galapagos National Park rangers and Ecuadorean police, another against illegal fishing in Brazil, and an international push to stop shark finning.

Sea Shepherd’s aggressive tactics — including the ramming and sinking of vessels, throwing acid onto ships, destroying nets and tampering with vessels at harbor — have been labeled “terrorism” by some, while at the same time the group’s nefarious, piratical image has made it something of a media darling in the West.

Funded mostly through private donations, Sea Shepherd boasts the support of luminaries such as the Dalai Lama as well as celebrities Daryl Hannah, Edward Norton, Christian Bale, Mick Jagger and Kelly Slater. Anthony Kiedis, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, Richard Dean Anderson and a slew of other A-listers are on their board of directors.

The group even has its own reality TV show, “Whale Wars,” which has attracted larger audiences to Animal Planet than any other in the network’s history. The third season of the show, which has been lampooned on the satirical show South Park, is currently being filmed on board the Sea Shepherd fleet in the Antarctic.

However, the way Watson tells it, despite the lawless image of the skirmishes in the world’s oceans, the fight is about upholding rules, not breaking them.

“We are living in an era of the largest extinction of species in the last 65 million years. We are in a major extinction event that actually has a name now, called the Holocene, because we are responsible for it. I feel that we have a responsibility to try to do everything we can to protect species, and the best way to do that is to uphold international conservation law.”

“The Sea Shepherd operates in accordance with the principles of the United Nation World Charter for Nature, which allows for intervention by nongovernment organizations, and I have used that in my defense in the past. We are not breaking the law.”

Moreover, Watson suggests that the controversial direct-action tactics the group employs, such as the pelting of bottles of rancid butter onto Japanese whaling vessels, are a necessary part of a strategy aimed at hitting the whalers where it hurts most: the bottom line.

“The only language that the Japanese whaling industry understands is economics. They are not going to be swayed by education or other arguments; we really have to make sure that they really lose money. So by cutting into their kill quotas, we are cutting into their profit. They haven’t made profit for three years, so it’s a question of how long they can continue to lose profit.”

The Japanese government argues that its ships are allowed to kill 1,000 whales (including 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales) each year under an internationally approved program for research purposes.

Watson sees it differently.

“The Japanese whaling fleet is targeting endangered (fin and humpback) whales and protected (minke) whales inside an established international whale sanctuary — the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary — in violation of a global moratorium on commercial whaling and in violation of the Antarctic Treaty that prohibits commercial activity below 60 degrees south,” he contends. “The fleet is in contempt of an Australian Federal Court ruling prohibiting whaling in the Australian Antarctic Territory.”

“This is not scientific research whaling. There has not been a single international peer-reviewed scientific paper published on the ‘research’ in 23 years. It is bogus research and everyone knows that it is.”

Another argument the Japanese government has used to press its case for the resumption of commercial whaling is the culture issue: that whaling forms part of the traditions of the nation, particularly in coastal areas.

It’s an argument Watson has little time for. “I’m not interested in culture; I’m interested in the law. Sea Shepherd are not a protest organization, we don’t protest really, because we disagree with it. We are intervening because it’s illegal.”

While Capt. Watson insists that they have never pulled the plug on an activity and will continue as long as it takes, the Japanese whaling campaign has been particularly difficult for them, and their annual jaunts to the oceans of Antarctica have been met with increasing hostility, which has left Watson “concerned about the escalating violence.”

Last Saturday, according to Watson, the Japanese had four harpoon boats circle the Bob Barker vessel, “attacking them with water cannons and LRADs” (Long Range Acoustical Devices). The Yushin Maru No. 3 then “slammed their port side into the stern section of the Sea Shepherd vessel, ripping a one-meter gash into the hull.” The Institute for Cetacean Research, however, says the collision occurred as the Japanese ship tried to avoid “butyric acid-containing projectiles.”

Watson reserves harsh words for the “stubborn Japanese government,” which, he argues, gives the whalers carte blanche to resort to ever more dangerous tactics in dealing with the Sea Shepherd vessels.

“We are at a disadvantage because the Japanese whalers can do whatever they want; they can even kill us and the Japanese government will justify and defend their actions,” he says of the January sinking of the Ady Gil. “We have to do what we do (while) making sure that we don’t injure anybody, and we don’t break the law, knowing that our governments are going to condemn anything we do anyways, so we are at a distinct disadvantage.”

“It is an extremely dangerous situation down here, and they (the whalers) will just walk away from it, because Japan is refusing to cooperate with any international investigation” into the collision and sinking, says Watson. “As far as I am concerned, the captain of the Shonan Maru should be charged with attempted murder for what he tried to do.”

In his decades of work as a conservationist, starting at the age of 10 when he freed animals caught in traps in his Canadian hometown, Watson has seen more than his fair share of confrontations. Over the course of his career, he claims to have been struck by a bullet, has had concussion grenades thrown at him, been dipped in the icy seas off the coast of Labrador, and had seal blubber smothered on his face.

However, Watson insists, “Since I established the Sea Shepherd conservation society in 1977, we haven’t had a single injury, we have never been convicted of a single felony and we have never been sued. Strangely enough though, Greenpeace is continually calling us a violent organization, yet they have had people injured, they have had people killed and had numerous felony convictions. We have an unblemished record as far as injuries are concerned.”

Watson makes no secret of his disdain for Greenpeace, mentioning the group — which he calls the “world’s biggest feel-good organization” — several times in our interview. (Watson’s biography states that he is one of the cofounders of Greenpeace and Greenpeace International — a claim Greenpeace denies.)

Utilizing skills he acquired as a Canadian Coast Guard in the 60s, he led several Greenpeace campaigns in the organization’s early years. It was on one of these campaigns that his life changed, providing the impetus for his drive toward saving marine life. In June 1975, while disrupting Russian whaling activities off the coast of California, he says he saw “pity” in the eye of a bull sperm whale that had been harpooned.

“I thought ‘What were the Russians killing these whales for?’ — and apparently it was for spermicidal oil, a high heat-resistant oil, and one of the things you do with it is make intercontinental ballistic missiles — and I said to myself, ‘Here we are destroying these incredibly beautiful, intelligent, socially complex creatures for the purpose of the mass destruction of humanity,’ and that is when it occurred to me: We must be insane.”

Watson left the Greenpeace Foundation (or was expelled, according to Greenpeace) in 1977 because of disagreements on tactics — including the use of direct-action campaigns — as well as over the growing bureaucratic structure of the organization.

In 1977, Watson founded the Earth Force society, in Vancouver, Canada, and in 1978, with financial support from the U.K.-based Fund for Animals and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he bought his first vessel, the Sea Shepherd, whose first mission was to disrupt the seal hunting season in eastern Canada.

Within a year, the Sea Shepherd had rammed its first whaling ship, the Sierra, in Portugal, eventually sinking it. Since then, the organization has embarked on 200 voyages, and Watson himself has written six books, lectured extensively at universities, and was also an instructor in UCLA’s Honors Program in the late 90s.

So what’s the motivation behind Watson’s life of activism?

“I don’t want to live in a world without whales. I don’t want to live in a world without sharks. I don’t want to see biodiversity destroyed on this planet, because if we destroy biodiversity in the oceans, the oceans will die, we die,” he says. “I don’t think people really make that connection: that a dead ocean is the end of civilization.”

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