With the new season of "Whale Wars" premiering Friday on Animal Planet, I wanted to weigh in pre-emptively on the self-aggrandizing exploits of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its leader, Paul Watson. (Dislosure: I've never actually seen the show, but I've met and interviewed Watson.)
On January 5, a Sea Shepherd vessel known as the Ady Gil, a high-speed trimaran, was run through by a whaling ship somewhere in the vast Southern Ocean. Though both sides seemed equally at fault in the collision, the Ady Gil eventually sank, but not before the media-savvy activists, under the direction of Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, had sent out releases, photos, and videos.
On February 6, a second Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, named for the former game show host and animal rights advocate who paid for it, was left with a 3-foot long and 4-inch deep gash above waterline after a collision with another whaler. Within hours, Sea Shepherd had posted an indignant account on its website and sent a video of the incident to the AP and CBS news, among other outlets. Watson issued a release:
“Because the whalers got away basically scot-free with the outrageous sinking of the Ady Gil, they now apparently think they can do whatever they want and they appear to have no qualms about endangering Sea Shepherd crew.”
But the question of who is endangering whom isn’t quite so clear-cut as Watson suggests, nor is Sea Shepherd’s claim to the moral high ground quite so unassailable. Watson is a better propagandist than seaman and also a born antagonist. (After helping found Canadian Greenpeace, he parted ways with the organization in 1977 when they opted for a less confrontational path. He now refers to them as “the Avon ladies of the environmental movement.”) He is fond of telling reporters that the camera is his most powerful weapon, and in the past few years, as the technology of self-broadcasting and a cultural appetite for high-risk “reality” programming have surged, Watson and Sea Shepherd have attained a previously unthinkable reach via their online presence and their own reality-television series.
Whale Wars draws about a million viewers per episode, and Animal Planet’s production crew of 16 was “embedded” with the Sea Shepherds, filming the show’s third season, when these incidents went down. One of their cameramen was aboard the Ady Gil when it was struck by the Japanese whaler, and Animal Planet didn’t miss a beat, issuing a statement that hyped the high stakes of this “critical” environmental battle while disavowing the dangerous dynamic they helped create:
“We’re very concerned that all of the players – on both sides of the ‘war’ – should come out of this conflict unharmed.”
But the combination of Watson’s damn-the-torpedoes tactics, his unwavering sense of self-righteousness, and the behavior-distorting effects of omnipresent cameras are putting his amateurish crew of well-meaning but naïve eco-warriors at ever greater risk. And while it may make for good television, it remains an open question as to whether direct intervention with the whalers is going to help change policy. Theatrics have long had a place in environmental activism, but increasingly, Watson’s antics have come to look like an end in themselves rather than a means to achieving some greater good.