High seas hijinks for Paul Watson

His life of radical activism lands him in a familiar spot: a European jail cell

High seas hijinks

Daniel Rosenthal/laif/Redux

The last time Paul Watson was in a European jail, he emerged as a global environmental hero. It was 1997, and the Canadian founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was being held in the Netherlands on a Norwegian government warrant. A court in Oslo had convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to 120 days for sinking a ship in an anti-whaling protest three years before. During the months of legal wrangling over his extradition, the mop-topped vegan conducted countless interviews from a prison pay phone. Celebrities like Pierce Brosnan and Jane Seymour campaigned for his release, while supporters protested outside Dutch embassies around the world. And by the time the court finally ruled in his favour, he had signed up several guards as new members. “Dutch prisons are probably the most civilized you’re going to find anywhere in the world,” he proclaimed.

Which is all to say that the Germans—who arrested Watson at Frankfurt Airport this week, on decade-old charges for a run-in with a Costa Rican shark-fishing vessel, and are now moving ahead with efforts to extradite him to Central America—best tread carefully. The available evidence suggests the “interference with a ship” consisted of a minor collision with no apparent injuries (even if the Costa Ricans are suggesting they might upgrade the indictment to attempted murder). And people who try to bring the world’s most notorious environmental swashbuckler to justice have a way of finding themselves on trial.

The battle lines are already being drawn. “It’s politically motivated,” said Peter Hammarstedt, captain of Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker (the former Price is Right host donated $5 million to purchase the vessel). Costa Rica has had 10 years to have Watson extradited, says Hammarstedt: “He has travelled freely all over the world.” On its website, the organization was urging supporters to flood the Berlin office of the German federal justice minister with phone calls. And even Bryan Adams tweeted his support. “C’mon GERMANY Release @CaptPaulWatson. The world needs people like Paul to fight for our oceans.”

It’s only the latest twist in a saga so cinematic—multiple arrests, legendary feuds and three failed marriages, including one to an ex-Playboy centrefold—that his life story has been optioned for a movie on multiple occasions. (Ewan McGregor is the latest actor attached to the project.)

Born in Toronto in 1950 to an Acadian short-order cook and the daughter of a Danish artist, Watson grew up in the picturesque New Brunswick town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea. And it was there along the Bay of Fundy that he discovered his activism. He has often recounted the story of befriending a beaver—although in some versions it’s an otter—at the family cabin one summer, only to return the next year and find that it, and all of its mates, had been caught and skinned by local trappers. In revenge, the nine-year-old Watson recruited his younger sisters and brothers to help him destroy all the snares and legholds they could find.

And it was during those years that he also acquired the oversized chip on his shoulder. After his mother died giving birth to his sixth sibling, when he was 13, he quarrelled frequently with his father—Watson has described him as a wife beater—and left home after exchanging punches when he was in his early teens. At 17, he took a job at Expo 67, then rode the rails to Vancouver where he took a job on a CP steamship. Before he was 20, he had sailed most of the world’s oceans and discovered a vision for his future.

In 1969, the then part-time university student joined other Vancouver activists on a voyage to protest undersea U.S. nuclear tests in Alaska. And when that group morphed into Greenpeace three years later, he was a driving force. Watson was at the centre of the organization’s attention-grabbing demos—manoeuvring rubber zodiacs between whales and the harpoon guns of Soviet whalers, once chaining himself to a load of pelts on the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (The sealers hoisted him on deck and tried to suffocate him under a load of blubber.)

But his zeal for the cause and camera-hungry instincts soon caused a rift and he was voted off Greenpeace’s board in 1977. The official explanation was that Watson had violated the group’s non-violent principles by tossing a sealer’s club in the water. But he has always maintained it was jealousy over his flirtation with Brigitte Bardot when the French sex-kitten-turned-activist toured the ice floes. Either way, the hard feelings have endured for decades. When David McTaggart, the former chairman of Greenpeace International died in a car crash in Italy in 2001, Watson sent an email to ex-colleagues announcing his intention to “piss on his grave.” The only questions, wrote Watson, were where and with what input. “In Italy, I will bathe him in rich, red Chianti, and in Canada it shall be good old rye whisky.”

Sea Shepherd, which acquired its first ship in 1979, has always operated at the uncomfortable edge of the environmental movement, preferring confrontation over dialogue. “We do not protest,” Watson told the Daily Telegraph in 2001. “Protesting is fundamentally submissive. We are enforcers. We sail to enforce the law.” Although as evidenced by their logo—a skull over crossed trident and shepherd’s crook—the guiding spirit is more buccaneer than cop. Over the years, Watson claims to have sunk 10 whaling vessels, including a 1986 attack on two boats in Reykjavik harbour that temporarily crippled the Icelandic fishery. Other direct action campaigns, like the ramming of Japanese vessels and sinking of their drift nets in the early 1990s, drew attention to overfishing in the North Pacific. And most recently, his sustained harassment of whalers in the Antarctic—high-speed chases, collisions and stink bombs—have forced them to fall short of their quotas for several seasons in a row.

But as Watson’s infamy has grown, he himself has become a target. The Japanese government placed him on Interpol’s wanted list in 2010 for pestering their fleets. Last summer a Maltese company had one of his boats impounded. And Australian PM Julia Gillard has served notice that he will be “charged and convicted” if his shenanigans continue in the Southern Ocean.

There have been allegations that some of Watson’s headline-grabbing exploits are more fiction than fact, staged for his popular Whale Wars cable reality show. In the fall of 2010, a former colleague said Watson ordered him to scuttle one of the Sea Shepherd’s ships, the Ady Gil, after a collision with a Japanese whaler in order to “garner sympathy” and “create better TV.”

The show, which begins its fifth season in early June and airs on Animal Planet, is the channel’s highest-rated program in both Canada and the U.S. It strikes a deep chord with viewers, says Jason Carey, the network’s vice-president. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet who say they’ve been inspired by Paul.” But it comes with an abundant share of danger—a company cameraman broke his ribs during the 2010 collision—and controversy. “It’s something we think and talk about all the time,” says Carey. “We’re documentarians, and we very carefully maintain our independence from Sea Shepherd.”

Still, those who know Watson best say that beneath all the bravado, he is a man of unimpeachable convictions. “He’s the nearest thing I’ve ever had to hero,” says 91-year-old author and conservationist Farley Mowat, himself a veteran of many bloody WWII battles. “He’s earned my admiration as a dedicated protector of all wildlife and a voice for the creatures who don’t have one.”

Since they first bonded during anti-sealing protests more than 25 years ago, Mowat has become well-habituated to a friend in almost constant need, providing bail money and sometimes shelter at his home in Port Hope, Ont., when Watson has been on the run from authorities. Mowat stresses two things about the Sea Shepherd founder: he has never hurt another human, and he won’t ever give up. “He’ll go on doing what he’s doing until he dies. And whether it’s violently, or he’s killed by somebody, it won’t matter to him. He’ll go down as he lives.”

And a 10-year-old warrant for a marginal collision in the waters off Costa Rica is surely not the beginning of that end. In 2002, Watson gave the authorities video of his encounter with the poachers captured by a film crew aboard his ship. It backed up his story that he’d done nothing worse than bump the 13-foot boat and turn water cannons on its crew, and the investigation was shelved. Until its sudden and unexplained resurrection.

Last week, Mowat was waiting for his phone to ring with the latest plea for help. “I can predict he’ll be out of prison very soon,” says Mowat. “And the Germans will be goddamned glad to get rid of him.”

With files from Anthony A. Davis

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