Captain Paul Watson is tossing the red wine in his glass and talking about Libya.
“I guess the only different part of this operation will be the knives,” he says. He’s sitting at the corner of a large table at a vegan restaurant in Chelsea with some members of his crew for a dinner that’s been thrown in his honor by Animal Planet, which broadcasts his show Whale Wars, and plans to shoot a new season around his campaign to save the blue fin tuna off the coast of Libya.
Watson looks the activist-pirate part. He wears a white buccaneer-style blouse (he purchases them from a yoga supplier) that flows over his belly and matches his silver-white hair. Many years ago Watson was a co-founder of Greenpeace, but he felt the group didn’t go far enough so he splintered off and formed the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society, and has attracted a following for his fearless pursuit of poachers. A few years ago, he was shot in the chest by a member of the Japanese coast guard (only his Kevlar vest saved him); Bridgette Bardot, Anthony Keidis, Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, and many other A-listers sit on his board.
While best known for his battle against whaling, recently he’s had his sights on protecting the giant blue fin tuna, which conservationists worry could become extinct. Last summer, Watson estimates his crew was able to save 800 blue fins, each of which he estimates go for $70,000 in the fish markets of Japan.
This year will be different. Since the protests and military intervention started in Libya, Watson and other marine conservationists have been concerned. One side effect of the no-fly zones imposed by NATO is that it will be difficult for international fishing monitors to patrol Libyan waters because they won’t be able to use their helicopters. The result, Watson fears, will be a free-for-all for blue fin poachers. But the vacuum will give him room to operate as well: The strained Libyan military won’t be chasing him and his crew away, like they have in the past.
One worry is refugees. There may be so many in the waters that if Watson picks them up it could deter him from his mission to save the fish.
“I don’t know where we might be able to take them,” he says.
So, what about these knives?
“Oh, they’re great,” he says. “When our divers get in the water they don’t even need to cut or swing them around. They just swim and these knives cut through the nets like butter.”
Where did he get them?
“Oh, Australian aborigines,” he says. The knives were a gift, a weapon for Watson and his 40-member crew to use to free the big tuna.
As a radical’s radical, Watson lives in extremes. He says he only sleeps four hours a day (“Unless I’m with a woman, then it’s eight”) and now eats one meal every 48 hours (“It’s great for my energy”). For dinner he devours a pepper-crusted tempeh steak and talks about the hunt ahead.
“You can’t appreciate how vast these waters are,” he says. Often, the poachers he’s trying to find are thousands of miles away. His crew members sit across the table and eagerly listen in.
“I tell people that it’s like driving from Los Angeles to New York and trying to find three Winnebagos, and you don’t know what they look like,” Watson says.
“But you always find them, Paul,” a crew member says.
“Yeah,” Watson says, downing the wine and pouring himself another glass.