Interview with a Fugitive: Captain Paul Watson
An Animal Rights Article from


Will Potter, Green Is the New Red
January 2014

Watson’s fugitive days may have ended, but this fight is far from over.

fugitive Paul Watson Sea Shepherd

It’s not easy to interview an international fugitive. After encrypted emails, phone calls from unknown numbers, last minute travel plans changed—in multiple countries—I eventually found myself sitting across from Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson sharing vegan lemon chicken and Szechuan noodles and talking about desert islands like nothing could be more normal.

For 15 months, the internationally-known environmentalist and star of the Animal Planet reality show Whale Wars has been on the run. He fled Germany in July, 2012, because he was facing extradition to Costa Rica, where he was wanted on charges related to a confrontation with shark-finners on the high seas in Guatemalan waters. Watson says he could never get a fair trial there, and his life could be at risk, so he took to the sea.

The anonymous volunteers who helped him called it “Operation Unknown.” Some started calling it “Operation Where’s Waldo.”

While Watson was on the run, Sea Shepherd’s crew had to prepare for their latest campaign against Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. The future of Watson, and the organization, was unknown, but there was no use worrying about all that, Watson said: “I don’t do stress.”

Watson is known for his speeches, and if there’s one upside of running for your life it’s the accumulation of new stories. There was the time in Tonga when he and his crew traded canned goods with villagers for fresh produce, and then got lured into a free lunch with Mormons. Or when they steered a Zodiac toward a small island for a camping trip, but didn’t see a rock wall hidden by waves, flipped, and almost drowned.

There were coconuts. “So many coconuts,” he said. And killer wasps: When they attacked Watson, he bolted into the jungle and got lost.

On another Pacific island they experimented with kava, a traditional drink with pyschoactive properties. It didn’t work. “It’s like trying to drink sawdust that has been filtered through a gym sock,” Watson said.

In my attempts to arrange an interview, I had hoped for a rendezvous at sea, or at least some coconuts. But I finally caught up with him in Seattle at one of his favorite restaurants, Bamboo Garden.

A few days before, he found out Interpol’s “Red Notice” had been dropped. He was no longer wanted. He came ashore in California, and alerted customs. Watson expected to be stopped and interrogated, but the only question from customs officers was how they could get some Sea Shepherd T-shirts.

Watson was laughing, and his crew said it’s the happiest they have ever seen him. He told me about reuniting with his daughter and 18-month-old-grandaughter, who he last saw when she was a month old, and he was glowing. At one point during dinner, a couple of fans at another table excitedly said “Hi Paul Watson!” and waved. For a few moments, it felt like this incognito adventure was over.

Then we stepped outside. There was a new black pickup truck in the parking lot, covered with Sea Shepherd logos. I jokingly asked him, “Which car is yours?” He stopped at the edge of the lot, and started the truck’s engine with a remote control. “I got that to make sure there isn’t a car bomb,” he said flatly.

Watson’s fugitive days may have ended, but this fight is far from over.

The U.S. chapter of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, as his group of sailors who harass illegal whaling boats is officially known, has been mired in a legal battle with Japanese whalers since March of 2012. Despite harrowing video showing the whalers attempting to crush the Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker between two much larger ships, the whalers say they are the victims of “extremists” and filed an injunction in U.S. court to stop them.

In a ruling for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Alex Kozinski agreed and said “you don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch” to be a pirate. Now Sea Shepherd and its board of directors are trying to prove that they haven’t violated that injunction with their protests.

“Our support base doesn’t come from the ‘left’ or the ‘right.’ We’re in front,” Watson says. “The injunction is an attempt to destroy [our grassroots] support.”

Animal Planet has pulled back on its popular Whale Wars program, and scaled the series down to a two-hour feature this year.

Watson has been forced to step down from the helm he occupied for 35 years. Much of the court proceedings, which seek over $2 million in penalties, have been focused on whether or not he actually has pulled back from the whaling campaign. On one emotional day in court, his daughter Lani Blazier testified about his decision with tears in her eyes: “This is a man who gave up pretty much my entire childhood to do what he is doing… The fact that he’s doing this now shows he’s not taking these charges lightly.”

The legal fight has forced Sea Shepherd to decentralize and regroup. “This is a global movement,” Sea Shepherd Captain Alex Cornelissen tells me, listing off names of chapters: Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, South Africa, the list goes on and on. “They’re sprouting up everywhere.”

Right now Sea Shepherd volunteers—sans Captain Watson—are chasing the whalers out of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. But as they grow more effective, the backlash from the Japanese is only going to intensify. A fundraising plea said that “the courtroom battles… are a fight for the very soul of Sea Shepherd.”

“The future hides in the fog, the present endures,” Watson wrote in a poem he recently posted to Facebook.

“But at these times I let the wind set the course, knowing that the ship will carry on as it may.”

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