PARIS – He’s a fugitive on Interpol’s Red List and a marine vigilante who’s done jail time for extradition requests. Yet to many, he’s also a heroic marine conservationist who risks his life and those of his crew to save countless endangered whales, turtles, dolphins and sharks from slaughter.
Love him or loathe him, Paul Watson, the 65-year-old, silver-haired founder of Sea Shepherd and co-founder of Greenpeace is now a celebrity because of his job: ramming whaling boats for a living.
Watson has a hit U.S. reality TV series, “Whale Wars,” that has aired on the Discovery Channel since 2008 about his organization’s fight against Japanese whalers. And his influence reached new heights with the award-winning documentary “Sharkwater,” which conservationists say resulted in shark finning being banned worldwide.
Both have attracted a new legion of global fans to Sea Shepherd’s controversial approach of battering whaling and fishing ships.
The tactics have landed him in legal hot water even as they boost his renown. During an interview with the Associated Press in Paris, Watson – a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen – was stopped four times in the street by fans of all nationalities who asked for autographs.
“The camera is the most powerful weapon we’ve ever invented, so we had to utilize that weapon. That’s why we created the (reality) show,” he said.
France has granted Watson political asylum, shielding him from extradition requests by Costa Rica and Japan on charges that he asserts are trumped up. Watson now lives as an international fugitive in a luxurious 18th-century chateau near Bordeaux.
“It’s not bad,” he said with a smile.
Japan says Watson allegedly masterminded Sea Shepherd’s disruption of Japanese whale hunts in the Antarctic Ocean and thus put whalers’ lives at risk during the hunt.
Watson’s career has been as stormy as the seas he’s traveled. Co-founder of Greenpeace in 1969, he left the organization eight years later.
“I left Greenpeace because protesting is submissive. Like ‘Please, please, please don’t kill the whales,’” he said.
The same year he founded Sea Shepherd with the mantra of using “aggressive non-violence” to protect marine life.
Getting celebrities on board has boosted his cause. It was not until the 1970s, when he got blond bombshell Brigitte Bardot to pose “cheek-to-cheek” with a baby seal on the ice, that he first realized the “power of celebrity.”
A scary-looking Sea Shepherd ship – a camouflaged vessel painted with jagged shark’s teeth – was docked in front of the world’s media at the Cannes Film Festival this month with activist Pamela Anderson in tow, drawing attention to the campaign against Antibes’ Marineland, Europe’s largest Sea World-style theme park. Sea Shepherd is suing the marine park for negligence that they claim led to the deaths of an orca and other animals.
“I don’t love the celebrity thing, but it’s what gets the message across,” Watson said, citing supporters including Christian Bale, William Shatner, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Connery and Richard Dean Anderson. “We can’t lose because we’ve got two James Bonds, Batman, Captain Kirk and MacGyver on our advisory board.”
Isn’t he forgetting Robert Redford, who is also on the board?
“Robert Redford wasn’t a superhero in ‘Captain America,’ he was a villain,” he laughed.
Humor is just the veneer on a focused, dogged determination that’s carried him through six decades of fighting for the rights of marine life.
An Interpol Red Notice is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today.
Watson said the charges from Japan – the world’s biggest whaling nation – date from 2010, when a Japanese whaling vessel cut a $2 million Sea Shepherd boat in half. The Sea Shepherd captain then boarded the Japanese ship – “to confront the whaler who just destroyed his boat” – and was summarily arrested. Watson claims the captain “made a deal” with the Japanese to suspend his sentence “in return for him saying that I ordered him to board.”
Watson said the captain wrote an affidavit to the U.S. State Department a year later admitting that he’d lied to Japan, which led the U.S. to ignore the extradition request. He said the Costa Rica request is also trumped up and is linked to the Japanese charges.
Watson’s charm comes from his effortless way of making extreme positions seem highly reasonable. He says all the property that Sea Shepherd destroys by ramming it at sea is being used for criminal activity.
“So we don’t see a problem with that,” he explained.
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