Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Paul Watson, a prominent member of Greenpeace, broke with that organization to establish a more aggressive group dedicated to the protection of marine life.

Summary of Event

In late June of 1975, Paul Watson, an ardent environmental activist who had once been an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard, was participating in a Greenpeace Greenpeace expedition to protest the killing of whales off the coast of California. Whaling;opposition Watson and another Greenpeace crewman were manning an inflatable motorboat near a Soviet whaling ship when a sperm whale, enraged by the harpoon lodged in its side, approached dangerously close to their small craft. Watson later recalled that the dying animal looked at him with “a gentle, knowing, forgiving gaze” before it backed away from the boat and quietly slipped under the waves. Although Watson was already committed to the preservation of marine life, the episode left him with a deepened conviction that whales are animals of superior intelligence; later, he would point to the incident as a pivotal moment in his decision to become a militant defender of marine mammals. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Environmental organizations
Conservation;marine life
Marine life, protection
[kw]Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (Aug., 1977)
[kw]Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson (Aug., 1977)
[kw]Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson Founds the (Aug., 1977)
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Environmental organizations
Conservation;marine life
Marine life, protection
[g]North America;Aug., 1977: Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society[02890]
[g]Canada;Aug., 1977: Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society[02890]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Aug., 1977: Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society[02890]
[c]Environmental issues;Aug., 1977: Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society[02890]
[c]Animals and endangered species;Aug., 1977: Watson Founds the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society[02890]
Watson, Paul
Amory, Cleveland

Watson, although a member of Greenpeace since the organization’s founding in 1971, was finding himself increasingly at odds with the group’s philosophy. Initially a small band of dedicated activists who placed themselves at personal risk to interfere with such threats to the environment as nuclear tests, Greenpeace had grown into an international concern that directed much of its efforts toward fund-raising. Watson believed that the group’s evolution was dissipating its effectiveness, and he was also chafing at the organization’s commitment to passive protest in pursuit of its goals.

Although Watson himself believed that doing harm to living things was wrong, he believed that the use of nonharmful force against property could be justified to protect life. Moreover, he was becoming increasingly convinced that passive protest was not working. In March, 1977, while protesting the slaughter of baby harp seals in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, Watson seized a club from a seal hunter and threw it into the water. Such direct action conflicted with Greenpeace’s expressed policy, and when he returned to the organization’s Vancouver headquarters, Watson found himself expelled from the group. When Greenpeace’s board of directors charged him with vigilantism, he replied that, in the absence of an environmental police force to oppose environmental crimes, vigilantes were bound to appear. Shortly afterward, Watson set about forming just such a police force.

In the summer of 1977, Watson and several friends established an organization they at first called Earthforce. Earthforce Headquartered in Vancouver, the group was dedicated to the use of direct action to protect the world’s animals. Although Watson and his band of activists would later achieve notoriety for defending marine life, their first mission was to travel to East Africa to document the killing of elephants for ivory. Elephants, poaching Earthforce presented its findings, including films of the illegal slaughter of elephants, to the U.S. government to help lobby for a ban on the importation of African ivory; for Watson, however, the preservation of marine mammals was a recurring goal.

Paul Watson, the Canadian antiwhaling activist who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Watson was determined not to waste his group’s energies on fund-raising, but Earthforce soon ran into financial problems. With the individual members’ funds exhausted, Watson turned for assistance to Cleveland Amory, a well-known writer and historian who had formed the Fund for Animals Fund for Animals in 1967. Amory gave Watson the $120,000 he needed to buy a retired English fishing ship, the Westella. With the help of a $48,000 grant from the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Watson was able to outfit the ship with fuel, supplies, a radar scanner, and a crew. The Westella was rechristened the Sea Shepherd, Sea Shepherd (ship) a name taken from a poem by the sixteenth century English writer Edmund Spenser, and the organization also took the new name. Far better equipped than ever before, Watson and the other members of the renamed group soon returned to the Canadian Arctic to again confront seal hunters.


On the Sea Shepherd’s first voyage, Watson and the crew took the ship through four hundred miles of ice to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There, they sprayed hundreds of baby seals with a red dye that made the animals’ white pelts valueless to hunters. Soon, however, they were stopped and arrested by Canadian police. Undeterred, Watson and his allies returned to the gulf in 1982 and 1983, after which the gulf hunt was discontinued. During these years, Sea Shepherd members also opposed seal hunting Seal hunting in Scotland and Ireland. In 1983, society members demonstrated that they could effectively remove the valuable white hairs of seal pups by brushing the animals, a process the molting seals seemed to enjoy; the removal of the hairs eliminated much of the rationale for seal killing.

At the same time, however, Watson and the Sea Shepherd were undertaking even more dramatic action. Publicity stemming from the group’s sometimes violent encounters with sealers and from their brushes with the law had led to steady membership increases, and the scope and ambition of the society’s activities expanded as well. In the spring and summer of early 1979, Sea Shepherd members organized a virtual espionage ring that tracked the movements of the Sierra, Sierra (ship) a notorious “pirate” whaling ship whose crew had killed an estimated four hundred whales a year since the 1960’s. Registered in a variety of countries under flags of convenience, the Sierra operated outside the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission, International Whaling Commission and its crew was notorious for its disregard of widely accepted whaling regulations. The Sierra and other outlaw whaling ships routinely hunted endangered species of whales and observed no restrictions on the size or age of their prey. Operating along the African coast, the Sierra would sell its catches to Japan’s Taiyo Fishery Company, which would pay for the whale meat through a Canadian bank; the labyrinthine multinational character of the enterprise illustrates why no individual nation could put a stop to the Sierra’s illegal activities.

In late July of 1979, the Sea Shepherd located the Sierra off the North African coast and followed the ship to the harbor in Leixoes, Portugal. Just outside the port, the larger and faster Sea Shepherd, crewed only by Watson and two assistants, twice rammed the Sierra, rupturing the whaler’s side but causing no injuries to the crew. The Portuguese navy took the Sea Shepherd into custody, but the Sierra had incurred enormous damage and had to be towed to Lisbon for repairs. After Portuguese authorities threatened to seize the Sea Shepherd and give it to the Sierra’s owners as compensation, Watson and two friends sneaked into Lisbon harbor and scuttled the Sea Shepherd by opening its pipes.

The Sea Shepherd was soon avenged. In February of 1980, the Sierra was sunk in Lisbon harbor by an underwater bomb planted by a team from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson was not directly involved in the attack, however; he and several other principal Sea Shepherd members were in court in Quebec at the time, being tried for violating Canada’s Seal Protection Act—for spraying seal pups with harmless dye to save them from hunters. Watson was convicted; he was sentenced to ten days in jail and fined $8,300. The other defendants were fined a total of $28,000.

The publicity generated by the attack on the Sierra proved enormously costly to the whaling industry. Two of Spain’s five whaling ships were soon sunk in harbor by the same Sea Shepherd agents who had sunk the Sierra. Prodded to action by the international attention that had been called to outlaw whaling ships, the South African government seized and impounded two pirate whalers. Insurance rates for whaling ships skyrocketed as companies came to grips with a new, far more serious level of activist opposition. After Sea Shepherd members offered a $25,000 reward for the sinking of the outlaw whaler Astrid, the ship remained idle in a Canary Islands harbor, unable to sign a crew, and was eventually converted into a trawler.

Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took similar actions many times in ensuing years, actively confronting whalers, sealers, and drift-net fishermen and often ending up in court. By the 1990’s, the organization, which had grown to more than fifteen thousand members, was operating a fleet of antiwhaling vessels (including the Sea Shepherd II) and had established its own intelligence agency. By the early twenty-first century, it had two newer vessels, the Farley Mowat and Sirenian, operating active conservation missions. Opponents of Watson’s methods continued to portray him and his followers as fanatics and accused them of terrorist tactics; Watson, however, reiterated with pride that the society’s actions had never harmed a human being. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Environmental organizations
Conservation;marine life
Marine life, protection

Further Reading

  • Chisholm, Patricia. “Canada’s Earth Warrior: Controversial as Ever, Paul Watson Confronts Whalers on the High Seas.” Maclean’s, July 25, 1994, 40-43. One of Canada’s leading newsmagazines presents a sympathetic account of Watson’s crusade. Discusses the society’s organizational history and gives an overview of Watson’s 1990’s career.
  • “Cod Vanish; Grand Banks’ Defender Faces Jail.” Earth Island Journal 9 (Spring, 1994): 21. Account of one of Watson’s innumerable conflicts with Canadian authorities, who charged him with an attack on a Cuban fishing boat. Watson maintained his innocence, claiming that he behaved nonviolently to protect the lives of northern cod.
  • “Conservation Vessel Rams Two Ships in Pacific.” The New York Times, August 16, 1990, A11. Describes the Sea Shepherd II’s encounter with Japanese drift-net fishing vessels in the North Pacific. The incident resulted in the loss of more than thirty miles of monofilament drift net, which has been widely criticized for its broad destruction of marine animals.
  • Morris, David B. Earth Warrior: Overboard with Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1995. Portrait of Watson and his lifelong campaign to stop harpooning and indiscriminate use of drift nets. Includes a firsthand account of a seahunt with Watson.

  • Sea Shepherd Log. Second and Third Quarters, 1994. Entire issue is a riveting account of a harrowing encounter between the society’s largest ship, M/Y Whales Forever, and a Norwegian warship off the coast of Norway. Lavishly illustrated with remarkable full-color action photographs. Available at many major libraries; worth a search.
  • Stumbo, Bella. “Modern-Day Pirates Fight the Whalers.” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1987, I11-I25. Provides a lengthy, detailed picture of Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the mid-1980’s.
  • Watson, Paul. Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy. Los Angeles: Chaco Press, 1993. Watson’s field guide to eco-warrior strategy. Draws on the philosophies of such disparate figures as Sun Tzu and Marshall McLuhan as well as on Watson’s own experiences.
  • _______. Ocean Warrior: My Battle to End the Illegal Slaughter of Marine Life on the High Seas. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994. Autobiography by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s founder. Includes photographs and index.
  • _______. Seal Wars: Twenty-Five Years on the Front Lines with the Harp Seals. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2003. Eye-opening account of Watson’s campaign to save Canadian harp seals from slaughter.
  • Watson, Paul, as told to Warren Rogers. Sea Shepherd: My Fight for Whales and Seals. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982. First-person account of Watson’s years with Greenpeace and of the early history of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Concludes with a detailed recounting of the chase and ramming of the Sierra. Gripping, although inevitably partisan.

Canadian Activists Found Greenpeace

Animal Welfare Institute Launches the “Save the Whales” Campaign

Cousteau Society Is Founded

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Is Founded

International Whaling Ban Goes into Effect

United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets

Norway Resumes Whaling in Defiance of International Ban