Paul Watson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Paul Watson

Paul Franklin Watson, environmental activist, author, reality TV star (born 2 December 1950 in Toronto, ON). Paul Watson is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) and a pioneering, polarizing figure in the conservation movement.

Paul Franklin Watson, environmental activist, author, reality TV star (born 2 December 1950 in Toronto, ON). Paul Watson is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) and a pioneering, polarizing figure in the conservation movement. Watson is primarily known for his high-profile campaigns to protect marine life. His controversial doctrine of direct action consists of aggressive, sometimes violent tactics. He has won numerous awards, and in 2000, Time magazine named him one of the environmental heroes of the 20th century. However, he has also served jail time, and his many detractors have labelled him a vigilante and eco-terrorist.

Early Life and Influences

Paul Watson was born in Toronto, Ontario, but grew up in St. Andrews-By-The-Sea in New Brunswick. He was the eldest of seven children to father Anthony Joseph Watson and mother Annamarie Larsen.

His affinity for the sea and the protection of animals took root early. In his book Seal Wars, he recounts how, as a boy, he lost his “best friend,” a wild beaver named Bucky who was presumably caught in a trap and killed. Watson avenged the loss by destroying all the traps he could find. The eco-warrior, as he later called himself, emerged before high school.

Watson’s mother died in 1964, when he was 13. Shortly after, his father relocated the family to Toronto. In his book Ocean Warrior, Watson recalled that, “at an early age, [he] ran off to sea to be a sailor,” joining the Canadian Coast Guard in 1968 in British Columbia and then shipping out the next year on a Norwegian freighter that took him to “exotic ports.” Returning to the West Coast, he wrote for the counterculture publication Georgia Straight and joined a protest to block United States nuclear testing in Alaska by sailing into the vicinity of the test zone (the move helped to delay the test briefly, and the site was later abandoned for nuclear testing).


Paul Watson maintains that he was a founding member of the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, a claim the organization has denied. What is not debatable, however, is the fact that Watson was an early member of Greenpeace, which formed in 1971 to protest American nuclear testing in Alaska. However, a bitter disagreement with the board over Watson’s militant tactics led to his acrimonious departure from the Greenpeace board of directors in 1977. The ensuing long-running feud (he called them the “Avon ladies of the environmental movement”; they accused him of being a terrorist) led to Greenpeace retroactively denying Watson’s claim as a co-founder of the organization.

Direct Action

Paul Watson traces his conviction of the need for more militant tactics to a single incident while still with Greenpeace in 1975. The protests of the time were strictly non-violent, inspired by the peaceful protests of activist Mohandas Gandhi. In 1975, Watson and other Greenpeace members confronted a Soviet whaler off the California coast, acting as human shields between the harpoons and whales. According to the book Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate, Watson saw the Soviet ship’s captain look at him and draw his finger across his neck as if slitting a throat: “I then understood that Gandhi’s method was not going to work for us.”

As a result, he abandoned any notion of peaceful protest and developed a doctrine of direct action — essentially a declaration of war against whatever he considered illegal poaching or exploitation. Tactics such as the use of smoke and stink bombs and the violent ramming of vessels were acceptable.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

In 1977, following his break with Greenpeace, Paul Watson formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) to protect marine life. He has long maintained that his commitment to both marine life and direct action lay in his experience with a dying whale during the 1975 Greenpeace operation against the Soviet whaling fleet. In an article in the Guardian, Watson recalled making an existential connection with the whale, which could have crushed his small boat but chose not to after looking into his eyes:

I felt indebted to him for sparing my life.

But I also saw something else in that eye, and that was pity.

Not for himself nor for his kind, but for us. . . .

It is from what I saw in the eye of that whale that has led me to devote my entire adult life to the defence of the whales and the other creatures of the sea.

In a poem, “Planet of Whales,” he wrote: “Leviathan’s solitary eye haunts me still. / I am obsessed and driven mad with anger.”

Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, therefore, would be the “most aggressive, no nonsense and determined conservation organization in the world.” Its logo is a modified version of the Jolly Roger pirate flag with a shepherd’s crook. Publicity would be a crucial tool for the SSCS. “There isn’t any point in ramming a whaler if you can’t tell the world that you did so,” he wrote in Ocean Warrior. “In a media culture, a thing just doesn’t happen until the media covers it.”

Ramming the Sierra

In 1979, Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd (an old North Sea trawler) tracked down the Sierra, an infamous pirate trawler, off the coast of Portugal. According to estimates by conservationist Nick Carter, the Sierra killed more than 25,000 whales as it roamed the oceans, changing name and registration to avoid detection. Watson rammed the Sierra, inflicting serious damage. It barely limped to the safety of Portuguese naval vessels and underwent extensive repairs at Lisbon, Portugal. According to the SSCS, “the Sierra was sunk at dockside by a single limpet mine that blew a small hole in the hull” on 6 February 1980.

The incident made the SSCS a media superstar, confirming Watson’s theory that global media would be attracted by the violent confrontation and publicize their cause around the world.

Against All Opposition

Since 1979, the society has continued its work across the world. In 2015, the SSCS website listed some two dozen past and current operations, protecting seven different types of marine animals — bluefin tuna, seals, sea lions, whales, turtles, dolphins and sharks — as well as coral reefs.

In Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate, Watson stated that he has “confronted the Japanese, the Soviets, the Norwegians, the Faroe Islanders, the Maltese, the Spanish, the Cubans, the Canadians, the Americans, the Australians, the Ecuadorians, the Costa Ricans, the Taiwanese, the Icelanders, the English, the Irish, the South Africans, the French, the Mexicans, the Namibians, the Italians, the Tunisians and even the Makahs, a Native American tribe.” He makes no allowance for traditional hunting methods or indigenous people’s rights, having confronted the Makah people of Washington State over their whale hunting. Watson also stated,“I don’t really want to know about the ethnic origins, culture, nationality or gender of whoever is destroying marine life. . . . I do not discriminate in my opposition to people behind those engines of death.”

Canadian Seal Hunt

Paul Watson is best known in Canada for his virulent opposition to the East Coast seal hunt. His audacious campaign began in his Greenpeace days with the media savvy events that would become his revolutionary trademark.

Watson called the harp seal hunt the greatest slaughter of marine mammals on the planet. He first challenged the sealers in 1976 and returned in 1977, when he charged into the fray with blazing rhetoric, rolling cameras and French actress Brigitte Bardot. His tactics proved highly effective, as pictures of the previously obscure hunt attracted disapproving attention around the world, eventually launching international boycotts of Canadian seal products and seafood.

When four sealers went down with their ship in 2008, Watson issued a statement acknowledging the men’s death as tragedies but stating that “the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seal pups is an even greater tragedy. . . . [the sealers] are vicious killers who are now pleading for sympathy because some of their own died while engaged in a viciously brutal activity.” His remarks prompted Green Party leader Elizabeth May to resign from the Sea Shepherd advisory board.

In 2015, four decades after his first foray, Watson again launched a storm of controversy by attacking superstar singer Rod Stewart on social media for modelling a seal fur coat while in Newfoundland.

Whale Wars

Paul Watson’s campaign against Japanese whalers is perhaps his most intense. Japan maintains their whale hunt is legal under the International Whaling Commission’s exemption for “lethal research” for scientific purposes, which Watson considers a cover for industrial whaling. Beginning in 2008, the Animal Planet network began airing Whale Wars, featuring dramatic footage of Sea Shepherd missions against Japanese trawlers operating in Antarctica. Episodes feature names like “Fight to the Death,” and a dramatic, breathlessly narrated opening: “A war rages in the far reaches of planet Earth. . . .Both [the whalers and the sea shepherds] claim to have the law on their side. These are their battles. This is their war.” Critics found the depictions one-sided, with little presentation of the Japanese point of view.

Legal Troubles

Though much of the media coverage is sympathetic, Paul Watson and the SSCS have had legal setbacks in the courts. In 1997, for example, Watson was arrested by Dutch police near Amsterdam for the attempted sinking of a Norwegian vessel in 1992; he served 80 days in jail. In 2008, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized the SSCS ship Farley Mowat for attempting to disrupt the seal hunt.

In 2012, German authorities arrested Watson on an international warrant issued by Costa Rica for attempted shipwrecking, an offense that carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Released to house arrest after a month behind bars, he fled and spent the next 15 months at sea, avoiding prosecution. He currently lives in Paris, France, despite being placed on Interpol’s list of international fugitives. Watson has filed a petition against Costa Rica with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In June 2015, the SSCS was found in contempt of a US court injunction to keep at least 500 yards (457 m) away from Japanese whaling vessels and agreed to pay a fine of US$2.55 million.


Paul Watson has had four wives, all of whom were active in the animal rights movement (and one of whom was a Playboy model). Watson married his fourth wife, Yana Rusinovich, on Valentine’s Day 2015 in Paris, France. He has one child, Lilliolani Paula Lum Watson, born in 1980.


Outstanding Courage in the Field of Animal Protection, Fund for Animals (1979)

Lifetime Achievement Award, Ark Trust (1998)

Earth Trustee Award, Earth Society Foundation (1999)

George H. W. Bush Daily Points of Light Award, Points of Light (1999)

Named one of the top 20 environmental heroes of the 20th century, Time (May 2000)

Star Award to Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for Outstanding Organization, SPEAK (Supporting and Promoting Ethics for the Animal Kingdom) (2001)

Conservationist of the Year, Orangutan Foundation (2001)

Induction, United States Animal Rights Hall of Fame (2002)

Gold Medal for Humanitarian Service, Winsome Constance Kindness Trust (2007)

Wildlife Warrior Award, Australia Zoo (2008)

Defence of Marine Life, Asociación de Amigos del Museo de Anclas Philippe Cousteau (2010)

Outstanding Commitment2Action, Humanity4Water (2010)

Médaille de l’Étoile Polaire Jules Verne Aventures (2012)

Further Reading