In a Dramatic Duel at Sea, a Young Conservationist Rams a Ship to Save the Whales
A New Brunswick native who ran away to sea at the age of 15, Watson has devoted the last decade to conservationist causes. He developed a special affection for whales while attempting to stop a Russian hunt off California in 1975. As he watched from a small rubber boat, a harpoon struck a bull whale in the herd. "Blood was everywhere," he recalls. "All of a sudden the bull rose straight out of the water right above us—this towering leviathan. He could easily have come down and crushed us. But we looked into his eyes, and he slid back into the water, looking at us all the time as he was dying. I thought he understood what we were doing." After that experience, Watson convinced the Fund for Animals in New York to buy the Sea Shepherd. (It is registered in his name for legal reasons.) Mustering a British captain and a multinational crew, Watson set off last year as a kind of floating knight-errant of conservation.
His prime target, Sierra, was one of four remaining pirate whalers in the world—a mystery ship sailing under a flag of convenience (Cyprus) with Norwegian officers, South African crew and, reportedly, Japanese owners. "You never find out who's responsible for them or who gets the dough," says Fund for Animals president Cleveland Amory. "They're globs of sleaze on the ocean." When Watson finally spotted Sierra one Sunday afternoon last month, she proved slippery indeed—running at top speed day and night for the Portuguese port of Leixoes, then tricking Watson's captain into docking before turning back out to sea.
Watson decided to steer a dangerous course. "I told the crew my intention was to take the ship out and ram Sierra," he recalls. With 18 tons of concrete in her bow, Sea Shepherd was sure to survive, but 14 seamen left anyway. Watson and two others put to sea in a vessel that normally requires a crew of eight. Within minutes Shepherd had crossed Sierra's bow, sheared off her harpoons—then wheeled around and hit her square amidships, ripping up deck and damaging the port cargo hold. Watson has no apologies for the tactic. "The only way to put the Sierra out of commission without hurting anybody," he insists, "was to ram it."
Not everybody agrees. Portuguese authorities have filed charges against Watson and his cohorts that could put them in prison for up to eight years (although, having since fled Portugal illegally, none of the three is likely to return for trial). The International Whaling Commission has condemned the incident—and, well-intentioned as he may have been, Watson almost caused a disaster. The Sierra was secretly carrying a two-year supply of highly explosive harpoon charges below decks.
Whatever its merit, Watson's escapade apparently achieved its purpose: Sierra is out of commission and its captain has said he thinks he'll find a safer command. Watson is due in Canada in November to face criminal charges stemming from his effort to stop last year's Canadian seal hunt. Sea Shepherd is being held in Portugal while the investigation continues. Nonetheless, Watson and his backers vow "Whale War I" will go on, at whatever cost. "This is a battle to save the whale and the planet," says Watson. "That justifies some heavy tactics." His friend Amory agrees: "I started the fund to put cleats on the little old ladies in tennis shoes. If Portugal won't give back our navy, we plan to get an air force." Paul Watson will then apply for a pilot's license.