Radical anti-whaling captain says call me a pirate


Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Paul Watson flies the Jolly Roger from his ship and boasts of ramming more boats than any living seafarer, part of an anti-whaling crusade that even Greenpeace calls too radical.

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In this photo released by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their ship Robert Hunter, left, is seen as it shadows Japanese ship Nisshin Maru in the water of Antarctic in 2006.

The Associated Press

Watson and his group came under withering criticism this season, summer in the Antarctic, for tactics that some say put the lives of whales above the lives of people.

A Japanese whaling ship caught fire after being chased and harassed by Watson's fleet, the ships and volunteers of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which not only rammed the whaling boats but fired smoke canisters and ropes to entangle the propellers.

Japan announced Wednesday that it was ending its whaling season early because of the fire, which killed a crewman. Although the blaze came a day after Watson's group pulled back for lack of fuel, and there's no alleged connection, Japan calls Watson a terrorist.

But the 56-year-old Canadian, who founded the society 30 years ago, dismisses the complaints.

"Call for a boycott of tuna fish these days and they call you a terrorist," he said.

Watson has spent his adult life as a conservationist, beginning with Greenpeace, which itself has a strident reputation. The turn to radicalism came, he says, when he made eye contact with a harpooned whale as it rose above his dinghy before falling back into the sea.

"Paul recognized a flicker of understanding in the dying whale's eye. He felt that the whale knew what they were trying to do," the Sea Shepherd Web site says.

The society bought a ship with donated money in 1979, allowing members to disrupt seal hunting in eastern Canada. Later that year, the group rammed its ship into a whaler in a Portuguese harbor, and the pattern was set. Sea Shepherd claims responsibility for ramming six whaling ships and for playing a part in 10 others going out of the whaling business.

Watson says his whatever-it-takes tactics threaten lives no more than whaling itself. He points to the Japanese whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru, which was crippled in February for 10 days in ice-strewn Antarctic waters after the fatal fire.

"I think the Japanese are extremely reckless taking a floating factory down to a pristine and fragile ecosystem with the potential of causing a major oil and chemical spill and of course killing endangered species," Watson said.

The Nisshin Maru and its five support ships were Sea Shepherd's main targets this whaling season.

Sea Shepherd's attack ships, the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter, circled the Japanese factory ship, dispensing Zodiac inflatables into the heavy seas for the close-in attack.

Society volunteers used nail guns to fasten plates over the Nisshin Maru's drain outlets, which spill whale blood into the sea.

The attack ended when one of the Zodiacs cracked its hull in a collision with the Japanese ship and the Zodiac's two crew members, Australian Watson Karl Neilsen and John Gravois of Los Angeles, became lost for more than seven hours in heavy fog and falling snow.

Julie Farris, a 27-year-old American volunteer, said the hours of searching were tense and scary after the Robert Hunter's helicopter couldn't take off to search for the missing men because of the snow and fog.

Soon after the two men were found, the Robert Hunter discovered a Japanese spotter ship among the sea ice and tried to snare its propellor before the two ships collided. Other tactics include hurling smoke and stink bombs at the whalers' decks.

"These are not mere acts of sabotage, but literally an attack. We call these an act of terrorism but I don't think it is an exaggerated phrase," Hajime Ishikawa, deputy director of the Japanese government-linked Institute of Cetacean Research.

Sea Shepherd is at an extreme fringe of a movement that has broad popular support. Most whaling opponents distance themselves from the group's tactics.

"We don't think violence is the answer," Greenpeace spokesman Shane Rattenbury said. "If you are conducting violent action, the discussion becomes about the violence, not the issue."

New Zealand and Australia — leading anti-whaling nations — condemn Sea Shepherd's tactics as an unacceptable threat to human life.

The International Whaling Commission canceled Sea Shepherd's accreditation as a non-government organization after it claimed responsibility for sinking two Icelandic whaling boats in Reykjavik harbor and the wrecking of a meat-processing factory in 1986.

Lou Sanson, chief executive Antarctica New Zealand, the government agency responsible for that nation's operations on the frozen continent, said tactics like those of Sea Shepherd increase the risk of damaging the fragile Antarctic environment.

"It's a dangerous enough environment to be operating in as it is without building in the additional risk of ramming ships," he told The Associated Press.

But Watson dismisses Greenpeace — an organization he helped found in 1971 before a falling out — and other mainstream conservation groups as "feel good corporations." He also insists the U.N. World Charter for Nature gives him legal authority to save whales by sinking or disabling whaling vessels.

He has repeatedly been the target of legal action, but says he has never been convicted of a felony. He was convicted in absentia by Norway and sentenced to 120 days in prison on a charge related to the 1992 sinking of a whaling ship. He spent 60 days in Dutch custody, but they refused to extradite him to serve out his sentence.

The society boasts volunteers from 14 countries, who endure cramped and barely sanitary conditions.

Aboard the 677-ton Farley Mowat, the crew of 21 shares just two toilets and some of them have to sleep in linen lockers for lack of space. On the 1,017-ton Robert Hunter, limited fresh water means one brief shower every three days for the 33 crew members.

Japan has called on governments with Antarctic territory — including Australia, New Zealand and the United States — to do more to stop Sea Shepherd attacks. But exactly who has jurisdiction, what can be done under the law and how to collect evidence for prosecutions isn't clear.

Australian Justice Minister Chris Ellison warned that "if they were to call into an Australian port, they could well face the consequences of Australian law, if they have breached it." But Australian police are not investigating Sea Shepherd ships that are docked at Melbourne.

"I've probably rammed more boats than any person alive," said Watson, though he says he hasn't rammed a whaler since 1992. He said collisions he was involved in the this season and last were the whalers' fault. The whalers say otherwise.

"I've never seen a whale die since I started Sea Shepherd in 1977 and we've never hurt anyone by effectively preventing this crime," Watson said.

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