Whale Wars: The aggressive tactics of Sea Shepherd Paul Watson

A collision Tuesday with a Japanese whalers destroyed a $2 million high-tech speedboat operated by Paul Watson and his anti-whaling outfit, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. It was probably the costliest collision yet for the group. But Watson has a long roster of mishaps at sea.

Paul Darrow/Reuters/File
Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, shown in this April 14, 2008 file photo, in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
The Institute of Cetacean Research/Reuters
A frame grab from a video released by the Institute of Cetacean Research shows the crew of the Japanese ship Shonan Maru No. 2 spraying water at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's high-tech powerboat Ady Gil during a collision between the two vessels in the Southern Ocean on Wednesday.

Paul Watson calls his reality TV show "Whale Wars" for a reason: When he says he's "fighting" to save whales he isn't using a metaphor.

For decades, Mr. Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have rammed, sabotaged, shot water canons at and thrown stink bombs on whalers and commercial fishing vessels. The Ady Gil, the high-tech speedboat he sought to deploy against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean this winter, may have been his most expensive loss so far at sea but his has been a career filled with dangerous mishaps and financial losses - both for his crews and for the boats he's targeted.

In a press release Wednesday, he said while the loss of the Gil, which he said was worth $2 million, was a heavy blow, he'd happily trade it to save the life of one whale. While more whales are likely to be successfully harpooned by the Japanese fleet this season thanks to the loss of the ship and the diversion of other resources its caused, his extreme views on the matter were captured in a war of words between Watson and Greenpeace in 2008. Greenpeace, which opposes the use of violence in its campaigns because it says its conservation views are more effectively spread into policy levels by constructive engagement, was singled out by Watson as "Yellowpeace."

That year, Greenpeace criticized Watson and his tactics as "morally wrong" and counter-productive because "If there's one way to harden Japanese public opinion and ensure whaling continues, it's to use violent tactics against their fleet." Watson responded by appearing to compare the plight of the whales to that of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. "It was this kind of attitude by Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto that resulted in the Holocaust. The leaders begged the people to not resist and to allow the Germans and the Poles to save them," he wrote, defending his tactics.

The jury is still out on who caused Wednesday's collision. Watson's group says they were deliberately rammed; the Japanese say the Gil steered into them. A view of the video shows some merit to both claims, though typically larger vessels are expected to make every effort to steer away from smaller ones on the high seas, and the Japanese were clearly well-aware of their proximity to the Gill, given that they were directing water canon fire at it before, during and after the collision.

But they certainly had cause to be concerned about the Sea Shepherd vessels activities, since the group has a record of aggressively targeting whalers for ramming, and worse.

What are the group's tactics?


In a 2007 New Yorker article, Watson claimed his group has successfully sunk 10 ships in port. The New Yorker reporter said that claim was hard to verify, and all they were certain of was that the group had successfully sunk two ships in port and had tried and failed to scuttle two others. One of Watson's older ships used to carry a tally of sunk whalers on its side in the fashion of a fighter ace, and among the sinkings the group took credit for was that of the Sierra, an unlicensed whaler. In 1979, Watson rammed the ship and damaged it at sea, and it limped into port. Limpet mines were later attached to its hull and brought it down. Watson proudly defended his claim of 10 ships sunk on his website, saying "we rammed (1979) and we sunk (1980) the pirate whaler Sierra in Portugal, the whalers Isba I and Isba II in Spain in 1980, the Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 in Iceland in 1986, the Nybraena in 1992, the Senet in 1994 and the Morild in 1998, all in Norway." Though there have been no more recent sunken ships, the video below is of a Sea Shepherd attempt on a Japanese whaler in 2008.


In 2005 and 2006, Watson's group said it had tried to disable the propeller on the Nisshin Maru, the largest ship in the Japanese whaling fleet and the world's last factory ship for processing whale meat, blubber and oil, with a series of homemade devices – lengths of strong cable attached at both ends to buoys. The group said the intent was for the ship's bow to pass over the cable and for the cable to foul, and hopefully damage, the ship's propeller. The effort failed, something Greenpeace applauded. "Disabling a ship at sea in the Antarctic, regardless of how much one may object to its activities, is not only a callous act of disregard for human life, it's courting an environmental disaster in one of the most fragile environments in the world," the group said. Watson said Greenpeace were hypocrites, and that they'd both rammed and sought to disable ships in the past as well.


Watson understands that his group thrives on notoriety, which generates financial support. Since Animal Planet picked up the reality show "Whale Wars," about his group's efforts against the Japanese in the Southern Ocean, its profile has soared. Bob Barker of "The Price is Right" fame donated $5 million to Sea Shepherd last year for it to purchase and convert a former Norwegian whaler. It is now the most powerful ship in their fleet. Other celebrity endorsers include Sean Penn, Mick Jagger, and Daryl Hannah. In one of books he wrote that "all confrontation is based on deception." On page 42 of his 1993 book, "Earthforce," about environmentalist tactics, he advised readers to invent data and to deliver it with conviction to the press to support their positions.

The nature of the mass media today is such that truth is irrelevant. What is true and what is right to the general public is what is defined as true and right by the mass media. Ronald Reagan understood that the facts are not relevant. The media reported what he said as fact.... a headline comment in Monday's newspaper far outweighs the revelation of inaccuracy revealed in a small box inside the paper on Tuesday."

Past statements like that led to a great deal of skepticism when a 2008 episode of Whale Wars showed an aide pulling a piece of metal from a bullet proof vest Watson happened to be wearing. Watson claimed it was an assassination attempt by the Japanese whalers. The Japanese denied taking a shot at Watson. Watson was not knocked down by the alleged shot.

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