Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
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The Japanese government calls him an eco-terrorist, but Paul Watson looks more like the sea captain off The Simpsons - minus the wooden leg. He's not too thrilled about being labelled, either.
"What is an eco-terrorist? To me, it's someone who terrorises the environment, and in that respect the Japanese whalers are an eco-terrorist organisation."
Founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, most widely known for its harassment of Japanese whaling boats in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Watson is also the captain of the SSCS flagship, the Steve Irwin, which is preparing to leave for its annual hunt at the beginning of December.
Of the Japanese whaling fleet, Watson focuses on the Nisshin Maru, the factory ship. "We just show up and they start running, so we keep chasing them. They're bigger, but they still run from us."
One of the reasons for running might be the rotten butter and methyl cellulose (a product which makes decks super-slippery) with which the Sea Shepherd crew pelts the factory ship. With a gleam in his eye, Watson describes it as "non-toxic, biodegradable, organic, pharmochemical warfare."
He's not there to hurt the whalers - at least, not physically. It's Watson's belief that the way to shut down whaling is to make it completely uneconomical as soon as possible. Targeting the whalers decreases their haul of whales, which decreases their profit margins.
"They're losing money every year and that's the one language that they understand. If we just keep the losses exceeding the profits then we'll have them on the ropes. This will be our fifth year [going after the whalers]. I think we can shut them down in two years, or hopefully within the next year."
Sea Shepherd is an organisation that sees itself as upholding international conservation law when others - especially governments - do not.
Watson is particularly scathing about the role of governments in living up to their responsibilities in protecting endangered marine life.
"Nothing's enforced. It's a free for all, the Wild West. We have all the rules, regulations, treaties and laws we need to protect the oceans, but nobody's enforcing them. The Australian government hasn't done anything of any substance to protect the whales… when it gets right down to it, they're afraid of the Japanese and trade threats. Being afraid always seems to trump the law these days."
But others believe there are better ways to save the whales than gunboats on the high seas.
The Australian government is investing $6 million over the next year into non-lethal whale research, in an effort to combat the argument of 'scientific whaling'.
"This funding will ramp up the first phase of the Government's internationally endorsed reform program for the International Whaling Commission, directed at changing it to a conservation-focused organisation," said Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
"Australia does not believe that we need to kill whales to understand them. Modern day research uses genetic and molecular techniques, as well as satellite tags, acoustic methods and aerial surveys, rather than grenade-tipped harpoons."
The Australia government seems to be favouring the longer-term route of working with the IRC and regional partnerships to reduce whaling.
And they are not the only ones adopting this 'soft diplomacy' approach.
Greenpeace has opted not to send protest ships to the Southern Ocean this year, instead preferring to concentrate its efforts on changing the perception of the Japanese public about whales and whale meat.
"The arena of influence to end whaling at this time is in Japan, not on the high seas. That's why this year Greenpeace is focusing all our efforts on building opposition to whaling from within Japan," said Steve Shallhorn, CEO for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
It's a strategy that appears to be slowly paying off. In a poll conducted by the Nippon Research Centre this year, 31 per cent of the Japanese public favoured whaling, 25 per cent were against, and 44 per cent were neutral. Support for stopping whaling skewed to the younger generation, with more women than men in favour.
"Constant pressure on Japan's whaling industry by both Greenpeace and the international community has reduced the fleet to sneaking out of port in a fog of crisis and scandal, desperate to avoid attention", said Sara Holden, Greenpeace International Whales Coordinator.
Vigilante on the high seas?
Although this is promising for the future, Watson argues that these efforts don't help whales in the here and now. "Convincing the Japanese people could take decades - and the whales don't have that kind of time. The oceans are dying. Everything in the oceans is dying. If we can't save something like the whales, how are we going to save anything else? If the oceans die, then we die. It's as simple as that."
Watson's approach appears to be a popular one. There's no shortage of people willing to sign on. The Steve Irwin takes about 40 people per trip, and Watson says there's never any trouble getting people willing to work in the galley, bridge, engine-room or deck.
"Our most difficult thing right now is saying "no" to so many people who want to go… we're trying to give as many people as possible the opportunity but it's becoming more and more difficult. There simply isn't enough room!"
It's not all fun and games, however. Watson admits he has been shot at many times, with a bulletproof vest protecting him from a lethal shot earlier this year. Sea Shepherd operations have also been in conflict with the Soviet and Norwegian navies, and depth charges have been dropped beneath their ship.
Watson isn't surprised by it all. "We're going up against butchers. They're all criminals, so we're used to people being aggressive and violent. You just have to take the proper precautions."
But nor is he too worried. In over three decades of operations, he claims that no one has been seriously injured on any of the Sea Shepherd boats. He sees it as an acceptable risk, for a worthy cause. "In our society people take risks to go fishing, and they take risks to go fight in wars. I think it's a far more noble cause to take these risks to protect an endangered species or habitat."