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This Is Northern New South Wales

Captain Paul Watson – Sea Shepherd


Common Ground Byron Bay was delighted to accept the invitation to interview Capt Paul Watson Founder & President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society yesterday. Captain Watson was in Byron Bay last night for an intimate discussion and fundraiser. With a shared passion for Ocean Wildlife conservation and an age gap of 46 years, 14 year old Morgan Pendergast conducted an interview with Captain Paul Watson for Common Ground.

Captain Paul Watson’s primary interest is in defending and protecting marine life in our oceans. It is his deepest passion and it is a fight that you will read, he has been involved in for most of his life. He has stated he will never give up the fight; he will never retire and will continue until the day he dies. He is a Captain and Educator, Author and Lecturer, Fund-raiser and Filmmaker, Executive Director and Marine Conservationist. He is the Master of the 1000 tonne vessel Steve Irwin. His ship Bob Barker is crucial in blocking the slipway of the Nisshin Maru during whale defense campaigns in the Southern Ocean. He is closely connected to the Scuba Diving, Surfing and Vegetarian communities.

What motivated you to get involved in wildlife conservation? Captain Watson – I began doing what I am doing when I was 11years old because when I was 10, I was swimming with a family of beavers in Eastern Canada and the next year when I went back to find the beavers they were all gone. I found traps that the trappers had taken out there in the wintertime so I became pretty angry. That winter, I began to walk the trap lines and free the beavers and destroy the traps so that is where I actually started in wildlife conservation…pretty much as a saboteur. When I was 17 I was the youngest founding member of the Greenpeace Foundation so it’s about the only thing I have done all my life.

Humpback whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction but the numbers have since risen to over 80,000 how do that make you feel? Captain Watson – The numbers may have risen to 80,000 but that is still probably only 10% of their original number. Whale populations have a long way to go to recover, once the oceans were full of whales and it was a much healthier situation, so it will take some time to recover but it is good to see that this is happening. However, I still maintain that not only whales but all life in our oceans is still in danger because we are over fishing the oceans, we are polluting the oceans, and ultimately WE are in danger because if I have one message to get across it is………we have to save our oceans because if we don’t defend biodiversity in our oceans the oceans will die, if the oceans die we die, we cant live on the planet with a dead ocean, so it is really a question of self preservation.

How do you think people can become more aware of the risks to whale species? And how can the average person support conservation efforts? Captain Watson – I always think that the strength of any movement whether it is conservation or any other, really has to lie in diversity…diversity in approaches, so really, what you have to do, is find your passion. When people find their passion….what they are really interested in, and devote their skills, abilities and talents towards that passion positive things happen. It does not matter whether your approach is litigation, legislation, education, direct action or whatever…as long as you are working towards the goal of making this a better world for future generations. Everybody has to find their passion in life and then go with that, follow it and champion that particular cause and I think that this is the true strength of this overall movement…. for instance because of Diane Fossey we have mountain gorilla’s in Rwanda – she devoted her life to that, David Windgate protected the Bermuda Storm Petrol in Bermuda he devoted his life to that,  so it’s all over the world that we have these individuals who are passionate about what they are doing and that is making more of a difference than governments or big organisations or anything, that is really the true strength of the environmental movement.

What are some of the most memorable moments you have experienced as the Captain of The Sea Shepherd? Captain Watson – Oh that’s a difficult question….memorable in what way (laughs)

Beautiful or amazing moments? Something that has really stuck out for you? Captain Watson – Oh god everything we do down there in Antarctica is memorable, well I mean you go to Antarctica itself, it is the most beautiful place on earth, the experience of seeing whales and dolphins, penguins in this pristine environment makes them all very memorable experiences. And of course our campaigns intervene to protect them. You know, ……there has been so many it is really hard to pinpoint one over the other, because everything we do and have done over the last 40 years has been an extensive collection of memorable moments really.

Have you ever gone swimming with whales or dolphins? And if you have where and when? Captain Watson – I have spent a lot of time in the water with whales and dolphins, the most memorable experiences there are I think back many years ago, we were in the straits of Bella Bella off British Columbia and we jumped into the water in front of an oncoming pod of Orca’s and this is when everyone thought Orca’s ate people! But of course they don’t, so we suddenly saw this pod of Orca’s coming towards us…now lets not forget that your perspective on an oncoming pod of Orca’s changes dramatically when you are in the water with only your head sticking out of the water because your first though is…..these guys eat Sea Lions and they are bigger than us!…, as they came closer to us they suddenly disappeared!!! So the only thing more daunting than an oncoming pod of Orca’s,  is an oncoming pod of Orca’s that suddenly disappear! Now you have no idea where they are!!! They all of sudden surfaced right beside us and for some strange reason I reached out and grabbed the dorsal fin of one of them and swung up on his back!… I rode that Orca for about 200m until he kicked me off with his tail and I went swirling around in the backwash. After that I realised just how incredible it was…you know you don’t walk up to a lion and ride it!  and yet the Orca is the most powerful, most formidable predator on the planet and it just allowed me to do that. And over the years since, we have swum with Orca’s that have even allowed us to put our hands over their teeth and touch their tongues in the wild. Whales are unlike any other creature, we swim with humpbacks, we swim with grey whales, sperm whales…there are places you can do it but many that you cant because they are protected by the various laws and rightfully so…I think that whale watching is certainly something that people should get into although I would rather that everybody actually watched whales from kayaks or swimming with them then go out with these tours on motorized vessels.

Have you ever surfed? Captain Watson – I was a surfer many years ago primarily in Hawaii, and we are very close to the surfing community. Right now Sea Shepherd is very fortunate to have on our advisory board, Kelly Slater, Dave Rastovich and just this week we have been joined by Stephanie Gilmore who are all incredible ambassadors for the ocean. Surfers are really in the best place to be ambassadors for the ocean because they are in that place where the ocean connects with the land and really get to feel first hand the power and the majesty of this planet ocean…which it should be referred to instead of planet earth.

How can younger generations support whale conservation when we have no money? Captain Watson – You don’t need money to be a conservationist and I think that we have proved that over the years. I left Greenpeace and set up an organisation with no money, and if you are doing the right thing people will come and support you. When you look at groups with no money or individuals with no money they are often accomplishing a lot more than these big organisations….Passion is more important than money. I could not do what I do on the Sea Shepherd if it wasn’t for the passion, the courage and the imagination of my volunteer crew from around the world. These people bring to the table something that I could never pay people to do, I could not pay people to take the risks that these people do …they don’t have money but they come.

What are some of the things you have seen in your years of campaigning that motivates you to continue? Captain Watson – I don’t know if I need anything to motivate me Morgan, it is just a continuous thing I have been doing, there is nothing specific that motivates me other than the fact that I believe if we don’t get involved…life is going to be diminished in our oceans and the diminishment will translate into serious consequences for all life on this planet. So really what we do being ocean conservationists, is doing more to protect humanity in the long run than practically any other Endeavour. We talk about all of these environmental problems we are facing, global warming this and that but I cannot think of anything more important than to address diminishment of biodiversity in our oceans. It is the ocean that gives us the air to breathe it regulates the temperature. I always like to compare our earth to a space ship which is what it is – we are on a spaceship that is travelling around the galaxy at 500 miles a second which is an incredibly fast spaceship, but like any spaceship it has a life support system and that life support system is maintained by a crew. We are not crew. Human Beings are passengers on this spaceship who are having a great time entertaining ourselves, but we are not running the ship.

The crew of the spaceship are the worms, the bacteria, the insects, the fish, the trees, the plants, the plankton that provide the air we breathe and the regulating temperature control etc…it is a life support system. And what we are doing as passengers is killing off the crew and there are only so many crew that we can kill off before things start collapsing, so really it is in the interests of all the passengers of spaceship earth to do everything they can to protect the crew of spaceship earth.

A few years ago for instance I was criticised because I said worms were more important than people, and people said “oh how can you say something so outrageous! That worms are more important than people!” and so I said that worms are more important than people! because…Worms are more important than people! Because worms can live on the earth without people but people can’t live on the earth without worms! Ecologically speaking they are far more important than we are. Any species that we need that doesn’t need us, has to be more important than we are.

As Albert Einstein once said “remove the honey bee and I’ll give civilization 4 years to survive”.

What advice would you give to people that want to get involved with Ocean wildlife conservation directly? Captain Watson – If they want to get involved…just do it. Really that’s all you can do just do it! Although I hear a lot of people say I am going to become a marine biologist…I can tell you we have a LOT of Marine Biologists and they don’t have a job when the get out of University because there is just too many Marine Biologists and not enough positions to work in. In fact I think you would actually get more accomplished by studying acting or music, whatever that gives you a place to be a spokes person. But really the key to it is what do you do best?   Whether you are a writer, a filmmaker, or whether you are a teacher or a lawyer you take those abilities, what you do best and then you harness those abilities to make it work for a better planet. So it really is as simple as to do what you do best.

Besides your work with Sea Shepherd what are your other passions? Captain Watson – My other passions are poetry, literature and history.

Do you play a musical instrument? Captain Watson –I can’t play anything. I sing but I can’t play a musical instrument. I don’t know one note from the other!

What is your favourite band or music genre? Captain Watson – Celtic Music, Folk Music and old Rock Music.

What would you like the world to look like in 50 years time when I am at retirement age? Captain Watson – What would I like the world to look like in 50 years time? It is not a question of what I would like it to look like; I think it is the question of what it will be. 100 Years from now I predict that the year 2112 will look like 1812, we will have reached peak oil, we will have run out of all of these incredibly rare elements and minerals that we use to make all of this modern technology. So I envisage a world of sailing boats, windmills, and horses. Back to the way things were. We are living in probably the most affluent generation that has ever occurred on this planet or will ever occur on this planet and the reason for that is we have had a couple of hundred years to exploit the biggest continents on earth, we have totally exploited Africa, Australia, North and South America and that wont come again, those resources are exhaustible this is the law of finite resources, so there will never be any generations in the future that will have the level of affluence that people are enjoying now. So we are going to have to adapt to that. When oil collapses it all collapses. Oil is the key to agriculture, transportation…everything, what are the alternatives, every one is say “oh nuclear power is that alternative” but again it is all smoke and mirrors. Nuclear power is not a clean energy people might think it provides a clean energy but they forget one thing nuclear fuel, to obtain it, it takes a 1000 tonnes of pitch blend oil to extract one ounce of uranium. So the mining processing and transportation of that ore is incredibly high on fossil fuel usage. So it is not a solution. It basically comes down to the limitation of growth.

Photos by Kirra Pendergast & Lachlan Pennefather with thanks to Robyn Downie, Katie Watts, Adam and the rest of the local Sea Shepherd Volunteers.