Watson has become somewhat of a household name after he shopped around and landed a reality TV show, Whale Wars, on Animal Planet. The show documents the organization’s campaigns to stop whale hunting in an Antarctic whale sanctuary.
To say that Watson is a controversial, polarizing-yet-galvanizing figure in the eco-activist world would be like saying sugar is sweet. Greenpeace talking heads swear Watson is not, as he claims to be, one of their founding member. Greenpeace states that Watson’s philosophy does not match its own and that his approach causes more harm than good.
Watson would tell you that all of Greenpeace’s founding members were kicked off the board, and he is one of them. He would also say that holding up signs and taking pictures is for wussies, and it does not save whales.
These days, Watson is a mainstream, recognizable force to be reckoned with thanks to Whale Wars. The perpetual pain-in-the-whalers’ collective asses elbows his way onto the evening news, splattering photos of altercations with whalers across the screens of media outlets worldwide—and now he’s famous to boot.
“WE GIVE THEM RESULTS”
The trade-off for the free publicity that Watson gets via Whale Wars is that neither he nor Sea Shepherd have any control over the editing process of footage.
“Of course they have a tendency to dramatize things, but it pretty much gets things right,” Watson says.
Watson started Earthforce Environmental Society in 1977 in Vancouver, Canada, with another former Greenpeace founder. That group evolved into Sea Shepherd, incorporated in 1981 with its direct-action philosophy that has been called “eco-terrorism” by detractors.
“We are making them look bad and they don’t like it,” Watson says about Greenpeace. “We’ve never injured anybody. The Greenpeace philosophy of ‘bearing witness’ doesn’t work. I’ve said it means you are a coward. You don’t stand there and watch whales die. We use aggressive nonviolence.”
The whales are not the only ones on Watson’s to-save list. Canada crucifies Watson on national media regularly for his role in trying to stop seal hunting and for busting poaching vessels in the Galapagos Islands to protect sharks from illegal finning. They are trying to get the go-ahead to help save sea turtles in the Gulf area.
“People like results,” Watson says. “We give them results. We are not out there waving banners and taking pictures.”
Instead, his crew pummels whaling ships with stink bombs, breaks propellers and straight up rams ships.
A LITTLE HELP FROM BATMAN
Without soliciting funds from donors, Sea Shepherd does pretty well getting its ships off to sea. Sea Shepherd gets a four-star rating for efficiency (the highest rating), according to Charity Navigator, a website that evaluates nonprofits’ spending.
Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, who is also on the Sea Shepherd’s board, paid for the crew to get its ship fixed two campaigns ago. Bob Barker of Price is Right fame donated $5 million, which paid for an entire ship, fittingly christened The Bob Barker.
“The interesting thing about celebrity supporters is that we never went to them,” Watson says. “They came to us. And with guys like Christian Bale, Richard Dean Anderson, William Shatner and Pierce Brosnan, that means we’ve got Batman, MacGyver, Captain Kirk and James Bond on our side.” As Sea Shepherd supporters, they help bring attention to the cause, Watson says.
Also helping the cause is Saturday’s Sea No Evil art show benefit in Riverside. The event includes a silent art auction with artists, live entertainment and Watson as the guest speaker. More than 50 artists donated their work including Shepard Fairey, Caia Koopman, Camille Rose Garcia, Tara McPherson and Skullphone. The event will also include an acoustic performance by Matt Costa, as well as DJ sets by Fairey, actress Michelle Rodriguez and The Crystal Method. Over the past two years, Sea No Evil has raised about $85,000 for the organization.
“Media is important in every walk of life,” Watson says. “If it ain’t on TV, it didn’t happen.” Free publicity is something Watson learned the value of early on while in Greenpeace, Watson says.
Most of the original Greenpeace board members were journalists who understood how to use the media as a tool to get their message out, Watson says. And you don’t get attention with facts, figures and statistics.
Watson sees himself as fighting a war—an actual blood-and-guts war with whales and other innocents as the victims. He has stated in the past that it’s OK to bend the truth to get the desired result. His Machiavellian attitude is part of why he wears the title captain. War is ugly, and he and his crew members are absolutely willing to go to prison—some would even die—for the cause.
So did the whalers really attempt to, as former first mate Peter Brown said, assassinate Watson at the end of Season One of Whale Wars? At that season’s finale, Watson pulled a bullet out of his bulletproof vest after being fired upon by Japanese whalers.
Did someone despise him and the Sea Shepherd’s mission of protecting mammals and animals so much that he or she sought to poison Watson with arsenic, as seen in another episode?
We don’t know. Here’s what we do know: Watson has never shied away from stating that it is OK to manipulate the government, the media, whalers and the general public with misinformation if it is in the name of the cause.
Japanese whalers lose millions and millions of dollars every year because of Watson’s crew. They hired a public relations firm to protect themselves against negative public opinion, Watson says. They have pointed rifles at Sea Shepherd crews on camera.
Both claim to have the law on their side. Sea Shepherd enforces international law, specifically a moratorium that was placed on commercial whaling in the ’80s. Japan says it’s within the confines of the law because research is being conducted.
So far, Watson will tell you, Sea Shepherd is winning the war, a statement backed up by numbers the Japanese whaling industry provides that show the amount of whales they missed their quota by. According to Japanese whalers, Sea Shepherd prevented around 500 whales from meeting their fates with harpoons, and sometimes gunshot wounds last whaling season.
The majority of Japanese citizens don’t particularly care for whaling—there is even a Japanese translator who joined the team during its second season of Whale Wars. She is always pictured with her face hidden so as not to shame her family or put her life in danger.
MEAT OF THE MATTER
Whale hunting became increasingly popular in Japan during the 20th century until the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. But the international law allows for a certain amount of whales to be killed in the name of research.
Japanese officials say that tests are being conducted, and the meat is not wasted, as required. The remains are sold for consumption. Sea Shepherd isn’t buying it, accusing the whaling industry of using research as a ruse for a lucrative business.
The Institute of Cetacean Research, a private non-profit institution, is behind the research vessels. The institute is funded by Japanese government subsidies and Kyodo Senpaku, a company that processes and markets meat byproducts including whale meat.
The whalers say it is a cultural difference, one that deserves deference. Critics of whaling argue that it is a practice that outlived its purpose and is no longer necessary in Japan.
In post-World War II Japan, nearly 50 percent of the meat consumed in the country was whale meat. At the time, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur encouraged whaling as a way to help rebuild the country, even going out on expeditions with Japanese whalers.
But by the 1970s, whale meat was all but obsolete in Japan as household incomes improved and other pricier types of meats were in demand again. Japan, known for its thriving electro-gadget economy, is certainly not so destitute that it must rely on whaling as do the Inuit indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic regions.
One of the biggest criticisms of Sea Shepherd since the TV show started documenting their efforts is that the crew is unprofessional, a swipe Watson says is an essential aspect of their success.
Watson relies on the wisdom of Ernest Shackleton, the Arctic explorer who reportedly advertised for volunteers for his expedition in search of the South Pole.
In his ad, Shackleton said the job was a hazardous journey with little pay, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, a doubtful safe return, but with honor and recognition in case of success. Legend goes that more than 100 people replied to the ad.
“We just went on six expeditions to the most hostile area in the world and had no serious injuries,” Watson says. “For how dangerous it is, you can’t pay people to have that kind of passion.”
Sea No Evil Art Show 2010 at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium, 3485 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 787-7678; www.seashepherdartshow.com. Sat, July 31. 6PM. VIP tickets $110. $20 donation required at the door. All ages.