Whale Wars: How was the Sea Shepherd's new ship sunk?

Paul Watson, star of "Whale Wars," and his eco-vigliantes at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been sailing close to the legal wind for some time, harassing Japanese whalers. Wednesday the Sea Shepherd's $2.5 million speedboat Ady Gil was sunk.

JoAnne McArthur/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/AP
This photo provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shows the sheared off bow of the Ady Gil, a high-tech speed boat that resembles a stealth bomber after a collision with a Japanese whaling ship in the frigid waters of Antarctica on Wednesday.
JoAnne McArthur/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/AP
This photo provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shows the Japanese whaling ship the Shonan Maru firing high-powered hoses at the Ady Gil in the frigid waters of Antarctica on Wednesday.

The reaction of Paul Watson, the controversial leader of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to the destruction of the crown jewel in his tiny anti-whaling fleet on Wednesday was swift. But Watson also managed to get a plug in for his reality TV show, "Whale Wars."

Early Wednesday the Ady Gil, a $2.5 million carbon-fiber trimaran that his organization has been using to harass the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean, was abandoned to sink after it was sheared in half by a collision (see video just below) with a much larger, steel-hulled boat running security for the Japanese fleet. The Gil, when it was known as Earthrace, set a global circumnavigation record.

"The Japanese whalers have now escalated this conflict very violently,” Mr. Watson said in a press release issued from his flagship Steve Irwin. “If they think that our remaining two ships will retreat from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in the face of their extremism, they will be mistaken. We now have a real whale war on our hands... and we have no intention of retreating."

Retreat has never been one of Watson's strong suits. In over 30 years of environmental activism, he has taken a militant approach to whalers and other opponents that have seen him crow about intentionally ramming other ships (video at end of post of Sea Shepherd ship deliberately ramming a Japanese whaler in 2008) and paint the side of one of his earlier vessels with a tally of "enemy" whalers sunk, including the name of a Norwegian vessel that sank after its hull was breached by a limpet mine in 1980.

Mr. Watson's gone so far in embracing his self-image as an ecological pirate that he's made the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger the symbol of his fleet and he's long argued that environmentalists need to be devious and confrontational in pursuing their ends. Earlier this week, his newest boat, the $5 million Bob Barker (named for the game-show host that paid for it), approached the Japanese fleet flying a Norwegian flag, on the theory that the Japanese would think it was a friendly from one of the two other remaining whaling nations. When it drew close, down came the Norwegian flag and up went the Jolly Roger.

Watson's methods have not only seen him barred from Iceland and jailed in Norway, but have also turned off former allies. In 1977 he was expelled from Greenpeace, not exactly known as a group of shrinking violets, by a vote of 11-1 (the lone vote in support was Watson's own) and he has publicly feuded with the organization in the years since.

Senior Greenpeace member Bob Hunter later wrote: "He seemed possessed by too powerful a drive, too unrelenting a desire to push himself front and center, shouldering everyone else aside… He had consistently gone around to other offices, acting out the role of mutineer. Everywhere he went, he created divisiveness." Watson, for his part, has referred to the group as "yellowpeace" for its policy of nonviolence.

Phil Kline, a senior member of Greenpeace's anti-whaling program, declined to discuss Watson or the recent incident in any detail, but he said that Greenpeace's peaceful approach to international whaling gets results. "Greenpeace has been peacefully protesting whaling for 30 years and we don’t condone violence in any form, so there’s a big difference in philosophy there,'' he says. "By maintaining peaceful protest within civil society, Greenpeace has been able to advocate at the policy and government level, not just in the US but around the world. In 30 years, aside from three rogue countries, we have seen an international moratorium on whaling and saved thousands of whales annually. We’re getting close to ending whaling on the planet."

Watson's stated intent in the Southern Ocean is to harass the Japanese fleet to such an extent that it fails to fill it's quota of about 1,000 fin and minke whales and loses money. The Gil was meant to be the center of that approach, since its speed would enable it to catch and stay with the Japanese fleet. But with the boats destruction today, that tactic is gone. Watson's Irwin was about 500 miles away from the incident. While the Barker was on hand, it had to divert to rescue the crew of the sinking boat. The Japanese fleet sped off, likely to be unmolested for the next few days.

While Watson accused the Japanese on Wednesday of drawing first blood, the stated intent for the Gil all along has been get as close to Japanese whalers as possible. In October, Amy Baird, Sea Shepherd's media director, said the group intended to use the Gil 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.

In late December, Sea Shepherd said it used a "photonic disruptor" – a type of laser that can cause temporary blindness – against the same Japanese security vessel it collided with today

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