If mockery is more damaging than direct criticism, Paul Watson is in big trouble.
For 30 years, Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been the most feared eco-vigilantes on the high seas, steaming out in their black ships, jolly rogers hoisted, to ram and sometimes successfully sink Japanese and Norwegian whaling ships. The Law of the Sea? That's for sissies, Mr. Watson sneers, claiming he and his companions have the right to disrupt what they consider to be illegal and unethical whale hunts.
He's persona non-grata in Iceland, spent 80 days in a Norwegian prison in the 1990s and is even too extreme for Greenpeace, which shuns him, notwithstanding that he helped found that organization. One of his ships carries a tally of whalers sunk – including one ship disabled while in Lisbon port by a limpet mine in 1980 – on its side, the way fighter aces used to tally their kills on their fuselages.
But since Watson and his merry band became the stars of Whale Wars, their own reality show on Animal Planet, their profile has gone through the roof. Movie star Daryl Hannah briefly crewed on the organization's Steve Irwin (named for Australian entertainer/conservationist who was killed by a stingray in 2006) last December as it hunted Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. Their roster of celebrity supporters also include Uma Thurman, Mick Jagger, and Sean Penn.
The wave of attention has left Sea Shepherd's coffers more flush and on Oct. 17 the organization formally unveiled it's new weapon: The Ady Gil. The $2.5 million space-age trimaran is all speed; under the moniker Earthrace, it set the world circumnavigation record in just over 60 days (crushing the old record by nearly two weeks) in 2008. It's been renamed for the Hollywood benefactor who paid for its acquisition and given Sea Shepherds' characteristic black paint job. Watson has told reporters that it will be deployed in this year's anti-whaling (and TV shooting) mission in frigid waters south of Australia.
Amy Baird, Sea Shepherd's media director, says the group's other ships don't have the speed to keep up with Japanese harpoon boats and says the Gil will be used as an "interceptor vessel" to speed along with the harpooners as they seek minke and fin whales, and then dart in between them and their prey as they get set to take their shot. She says the group will depart Australia in early December and hopes to shadow the Japanese whaling fleet until it returns home.
But more money, more problems, as The Notorious B.I.G. once said.
This year, Watson's visa for Australia, where the organization bases its Southern Ocean operations, was briefly held up by the government, something that Watson charged in an open letter was due to pressure from the Japanese government, which licenses a hunt for about 1,000 whales annually. Japan insists the hunt is for scientific research programs, but the meat invariably ends up in Japanese sushi bars and school lunches.
South Park takes aim
But that was nothing compared to the drubbing on US television. On Wednesday night, the satirists from the cartoon show South Park took aim at the group (and Japanese whalers and, typcially, everyone else) in an episode that they named, in their inevitably "classy" fashion, "Whale Whores." In the story, the Japanese are filled with a burning hatred for whales and dolphins, and Stan (one of the South Park kids) teams up with Watson to fight back. Watson is dispatched by a harpoon early in the episode, and Stan ends up captaining the ship, adopting more aggressive tactics that send "Whale Wars" ratings through the roof.
But what might sting Watson, an action-man environmentalist who scorns mere protests in favor of throwing stink bombs at whalers and ramming their ships, is one of South Park's fictional headlines praising Captain Stan and skewering Whale Wars penchant for trying to squeeze drama out of rather mundane ship-board activities: "“Whale Wars Gets Better: Things Actually Happen!”
The episode also touches on one of the things that has made Watson so controversial – his frank willingness to bend the truth. South Park's fictional Larry King calls Watson "an unorganized, incompetent... who thought lying to everyone was OK as long as it served his cause.”
That Watson isn't particularly concerned with the truth isn't a smear – it's a tactic, according to one of his own books, in which he wrote that "all confrontation is based on deception."
More confrontation is what's in the offing when Watson and the rest of his Sea Shepherds depart Australia in December to try to intercept Japan's whalers. They're armed with not only a faster ship this go around, but with water cannons of their own (Japanese whalers have taken to using the canons - which are also used by merchant marines to repel pirate borders – to keep Watson's people away).
The group's intent, Watson has said in recent interviews, is to make whaling commercially unviable for the Japanese, an approach he argues is working.
“We’re speaking the language that the Japanese whaler understands: profit and loss,” Watson said at the unveiling of the Ady Gil. “For the last few years, they’ve made no money. Give us one more year and we can bankrupt them.”
You can watch the video here.