Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson on His Attempt to End Japanese Whaling

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Paul Watson. Photo: Tim
Watters/Sea Shepherd

Over the last three decades, most of the chases involving Sea
Captain Paul Watson have occurred on the high seas. He’s
usually the one in pursuit, chasing down and engaging in steel on steel skirmishes with
whalers and shark fishermen, attempting to stop them from harpooning and
finning. This past May, though, Watson was pursued, and caught, in a political and
criminal net of sorts. While on a flight changeover in Frankfurt, Germany, authorities arrested him for what he says was a
decade-old offense involving a Costa Rican fishing boat operating off the coast
of Guatamala. We’ll let him
tell that story below.

He can because he’s free, taking calls from aboard his
ship the Steve Irwin. Roughly a year
after it was reported that Sea Shepherd caused the Institute of Cetacean
—the Japanese group that hunts whales—more than $20 million in losses,
Watson is leading Sea Shepherd’s biggest arsenal into the Southern Ocean. At
his disposal are four ships, aerial drones, numerous speed boats, a
helicopter, and more than 100 crew members. His goal in 2012 is to try and stop Japan from getting a single
whale. We called him up as he captains his vessel south, toward drama that’s a
bit more familiar.

Can you tell me how
you were arrested?

I was on my way to the Cannes Film Festival in May, and I
had taken a Lufthansa flight from Denver, and it was to transfer in Frankfurt,
to Nice. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I was told I was under arrest. It was
quite surprising to me because I had been in Europe a month before—in Spain
and France. So I asked, Well, what are the charges? I was quite surprised to
learn that Costa Rica had an order for my arrest.

I found out that Costa Rica had applied to Interpol for an
arrest warrant, but Interpol had dismissed the request because it was
politically motivated. Germany decided to act on it unilaterally, aside from
Interpol, and they held me for eight days. Then I was released on a $250,000
Euro bond while they entertained extradition. I found out later they had
already made their mind up in the beginning because the president of Costa Rica
was meeting with the chancellor of Germany that very week. It happened because
the president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, met with the prime minister of
Japan. The warrant was issued right after that.

They went back to 2002, when I intercepted a Costa Rican
longliner in the waters off Guatemala that was fishing for sharks illegally. We
filmed them, as part of the documentary Shark
. I asked the Guatemalan government what should be done and they said
we could stop them. We did. We didn’t hurt anybody. We didn’t damage any
property. We just shut down their operations.

Well, they went back into Costa Rica and accused me of
trying to kill them. When I got to Costa Rica I was arrested. We went to court and
the charges were dismissed when they saw our evidence and talked to our
witness. Two days later, they charged me again because they had appointed a new
prosecutor and a new judge. They also dismissed it, because I was given
clearance to leave Costa Rica. I never heard another thing about it until I
arrived this May in Germany. They charged me with attempting to shipwreck the
vessel and endanger life. There isn’t even such a charge in Costa Rica.

While they were holding me, Japan, who had previously
requested through Interpol for whaling activities in the Southern Ocean—Interpol
had dismissed them—put in an application to terminate and have me sent there. On
a Friday in July, I got a call from a supporter inside the Ministry of Justice
who said, “On Monday, when you go into the police station”—I had to report
every day—”you will be arrested and sent to Japan.” I decided, Well, if I go to
Japan, then I’m never leaving Japan. That’s when I left.

How did you escape?
Well, I had to report to the German police once a day [and it was a holiday], so I
had two days to get out of Germany. I proceeded to go to the coast, and from
there take a boat. Since then, it’s been 9,000 miles and four months to get
back on board the Steve Irwin. It was
made a little more difficult by not having my passport. They took both my
Canadian and American passports from me.

I saw the two red
on Interpol. There’s one from Costa Rica and one from Japan. What sort
of situation does that put you in, in terms of leaving a boat and going to

Well, we’re working on getting the notices dismissed through
Interpol. The Japanese notice is based on the accusations of one of my former
crew members, who made a plea bargain with them that if he gave them that
information, they would give him a suspended sentence. So, we’re trying to get
that dismissed through Interpol. The Costa Rican notice had long expired under
the statute of limitations.

Here’s the thing: Nobody gets extradited for a crime where
nobody’s been hurt, where no property’s been damaged. The charge in Japan is
basically that I ordered somebody to trespass. Nobody gets expedited on a
trespass charge. This is very, very political.

What are your plans now
that you’re on the Steve Irwin?

I joined the Steve
about a week ago, and right now we have four ships that are being
mobilized to intercept the Japanese whaling fleet. It’s “Operation Zero Tolerance.”
We’re calling it that because our objective is to make sure they don’t kill a
single whale this year. We have the Steve
and the Brigitte Bardot
presently at sea, and the Bob Barker
is getting refueled. Our new vessel, the Sam
, is at sea also. We get stronger every year and the Japanese whaling
fleet gets weaker. Last year they only took 26 percent of the quota. The year
before that, they took 17 percent. I’m hoping that it will be zero percent this

How are you planning
to use those boats?

Usually the hardest part is finding the fleet. But we have four ships, a
helicopter, and two drones—military style drones that can conduct long-range
surveillance. Once we find them, the most effective way is to block the stern
side of the Nisshin Maru so they
can’t load dead whales and they can’t kill new ones. The second way is keep
them running—to keep them occupied. So the harpoon vessels chase us to keep us
away from the Nisshin Maru, which
keeps them from killing whales. This year, they don’t have enough tools to keep
us off the Nisshin Maru. So we're
quite confident that we’ll be able to block them right from the get go.

Second Mate Peter Brown launches a drone from the Steve Irwin. Photo: Sea Shepherd

Can you tell me a bit
about the drones?

Well, this year we received a $1 million donation, which was
specified for drone operations. These are quarter million dollar pieces of
machinery, and they have to be made weatherproof to operate in Antarctic
conditions. They can go hundreds of miles away from the ship, can be operated
on board our vessel, and their job is to detect the vessels and report back
their positions.

They’re outfitted
with video cameras?

Yes, we can actually see what they see.

How far can they fly?
About 300 miles.

So you spot a
Japanese whaling ship and it’s going after a whale, what sort of steps will you

We don’t focus on the harpoon vessels, because they are
fast, although the Brigitte Bardot is
faster. The most effective way to stop them is to block the Nisshin Maru, the factory ship. If they
can’t load those whales, that’s the end of their operations. Back in 2008, they
attempted to load while we were blocking. They had attempted to do this while
Greenpeace was blocking, and Greenpeace moved away. They figured we would do
the same thing. That resulted in three collisions. They haven’t tried that

How much do you have
to worry about human life when these two ships, in a very remote region, are in
a situation where they could crash? Where something bad could happen? One of
them could sink?

Well, they’re big ships and side-on-side on collisions
aren’t that worrying, but we take every precaution to make sure that we aren’t
injuring anybody. We haven’t ever injured anybody in our 35 years of operation.
I’m quite proud of that record and I’d like to keep it. We operate in what the
Dalai Lama calls the spirit of high aggrieve, which is aggressive non-violence.
We’re not here to hurt anybody. We’re here to save lives, and sometimes we have
to scare the hell out of people to do it.

Sea Shepherd said
that you’ve prevented the death of 3,600 whales. Can you tell me how that number
is calculated?

Every year japan has a quota. For example, it’s 935 minke
whales, 50 humpback whales, and 50 fin whales. Last year, they only got 277
minke whales and then one fin whale—the year before that, 178 whales. So, when
you deduct those numbers from their overall quotas, those are the number of
whales that we’ve saved.

So you're simply
subtracting the number they actually get from their quota?

Last year we caused some $25 million in losses. Overall,
well over $100 million over the last
eight years.
That’s what our real focus is. Our objective is to sink the
Japanese whaling fleet economically, and we’ve actually done that. We’re only
surviving now because last year they stole—I say stole, it was allocated—from
the tsunami relief fund. People around the world sent money to the tsunami
relief fund. The last place they thought it would be going was to whaling.
That’s resulted in quite a scandal in Japan as that information has been
released. People are questioning why Japan is using money intended for the
victims of the tsunami to support an industry that is not very popular and not

How far do you think
they are from stopping whaling?

If it was left to the fact that they’re not making any
money, it would have been stopped years ago. There’s a limit to how far that
can go. If we can send them back without
killing a single whale this year, that will be the final nail in the coffin of
the whaling industry. That’s what I’m hoping for.

People in Japan are getting more and more concerned that so
much money is going to support an industry that isn’t making a profit. They
like to say that it’s scientific research, but everybody knows that it’s about
selling whale meat. The other thing that people forget is that this is the
Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary. You don’t kill whales in a sanctuary. We’re
down here protecting the integrity of an internationally established sanctuary.

Are there certain
things that you’ve seen to be able to say that people in Japan don’t want
whaling in the future?

There’s been numerous articles over the last few months
talking about how scandalous taking funds from the tsunami relief funds was. A
that was done recently in Japan said that 27 percent of people support
whaling, 18 percent of people are against whaling, and the rest don’t care.
Japan tried to pass that off by saying that there are more people that support
whaling than are against it, forgetting that the vast majority just didn’t
care. I’m fine with support coming from the Japanese people. We have Japanese
crew members. So there’s a controversy there. Five or six years ago, nobody
even knew about this situation. It wasn’t being reported on in Japan. Now,
there’s a discussion and a controversy, and that’s good.

You know, about 35
years ago, we were chasing whalers in Australia and they were a stubborn lot
too. But in 1978 they packed it in and now Australia is one of the strongest
places for protecting whales in the world. So I’m hoping that we can do the
same thing with Japan.

Do you think you’ll
see that in your lifetime?

Well, we’ve definitely seen a lot of successes to reduce the
number of whales killed during my lifetime. I started protecting whales in
1975. That’s my occupation, to end whaling worldwide. This is an industry that
has no place in the 21st century. We should start learning more
about whales. You know, we spend billions of dollars searching through the
universe looking for extraterrestrial intelligence when we could possibly be
communicating with life forms on our own planet. I just find it ludicrous that
we’re so dismissive of all of these other citizen species that share this
planet this with us.

Steve Irwin. Photo: Sea Shepherd

Is there anything
that I didn’t ask?

On the Interpol thing, what bugs me is that nobody gets extradited to Japan from
the United States. You know, even if you’re a serial killer. So why would people
be willing to send me back to Japan on a trespass charge. That certainly smacks
of politics if I’ve ever heard of it.

And do you think they
would if you ever returned to the U.S.?

Sources within the U.S. government have told me that the
United States government would do that. Yes.

So what are you going
to do after your time in the Southern Ocean is done?

Well, right now, I’m in the greatest country in the world,
which is the ocean. I’m untouchable. I can sit here until we solve these
political issues in some sort of legal manner.

—Joe Spring

Trending on Outside Online