Wanted in two countries for his actions to save endangered marine wildlife, the Sea Shepherd founder is now under the unofficial protective custody of France, where he manages an extreme conservation group that makes Greenpeace look like pikers.
PARIS — Is a stranded pirate still a pirate? Living as a refugee in France since July 2015 — after a prison stint in Germany, an escape to the Netherlands, and 15 months of exile at sea — the stirring Sea Shepherd founder set anchor, at least temporarily. As the target of an Interpol Red Notice, by request of Japan and Costa Rica, and with two outstanding arrest warrants against him, the marine wildlife conservationist knows that if he takes off again, he runs the risk of arrest.
It's not on the high seas that we find him, but on the banks of the Seine. With his white hair and black sweatshirt, he's hard to miss. His heavy eyelids and trimmed beard make him look like a captain from a Jules Verne book.
At 65, Watson has come to terms with being drydocked under the unofficial protection of French authorities. "I was on the water for 50 years," he says. "If they think that forcing me to stay here will stop Sea Shepherd, they're wrong." It should be added that Watson has found a way to make the return to port much more bearable. A year ago in Paris, he married Yana, a 34-year-old Kazakh who has lived in France for 15 years. The old seaman went overboard for this mermaid who, like him, is 100% vegan and an animal rights activist.
Yana is his fourth wife, and the first with whom he has a daughter. He survives on proceeds from his copyrights and writing, while managing Sea Shepherd, whose mission is "to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species." The couple has settled down near Toulon, not far from Marseille where the Brigitte Bardot is docked — one of nine ships in the Sea Shepherd fleet.
The headstrong captain can be an excellent communicator when it comes to defending those he sees as his "clients": whales, seals, turtles, otters, sharks, fish — all massacred by overfishing. "We have already wiped out 90% of all the fish," he says. "We've lost 30% of the oxygen produced by phytoplankton. If the ocean dies, we die."
He remembers how as a child and the oldest of six motherless siblings, in a small fishing port in New Brunswick, Canada, he would seek out and destroy leghold traps that were set by beaver hunters. Later, in 1975, then a member of Greenpeace, he was deeply disturbed by the sight of a sperm whale being slaughtered by a Soviet whaling fleet. Two years after he left Greenpeace, he founded Sea Shepherd.
The fearless captain has now become a kind of Robin Hood of the seas, relentlessly tracking and sinking every poacher he can find. His first famous feat was in 1980, when the whaler Sierra went under in the port of Lisbon. Since then, Sea Shepherd boasts having sent 10 ships to the bottom and saved tens of thousands of whales all over the world. Costa Rica has initiated a lawsuit against Watson for "endangering the lives of others" after his troops foiled illegal shark finning. And it's far from being over: Another dozen campaigns will be initiated soon.
Between Greenpeace and Watson, the divorce is final. Greenpeace regards his organization as extreme, opportunistic and unmanageable. Watson counters by saying that the excessive bureaucracy within Greenpeace is undermining its sincerity.
"Greenpeace is all about business," Watson says. "At Sea Shepherd, we have 2% of their budget, but we use it effectively, because we are flexible. We are on the ground. We have passionate volunteers." To join Sea Shepherd, he says, you only have to answer one question and obey two rules. "Are you willing to risk your life for that of a whale? The rules: We do not hurt anyone (though we can attack a vessel), and we do not negotiate with the enemy."
A demanding guru
Watson is the embodiment of Sea Shepherd and his reputation as a guru, alongside the romantic pirate imagery, attracts a youthful crowd in search of thrills. "When you join the NGO, it's true, you join Paul," says Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France. "The DNA of the movement is inseparable from what he is: inspiring, combative, intransigent and — for some — troublesome. But he's also a very positive person, who inspires confidence and leaves people a lot of freedom."
Watson is less a megalomaniac prophet than a warrior monk, says well-known French environmentalist and Nicolas Hulot. Out of "respect for his fight," Hulot has protected the Canadian refugee, welcoming him to his home in Brittany and Corsica for his honeymoon. "He entered into resistance," Hulot says. "He did not allow his troops to compromise. Undoubtedly, he will enter the pantheon of heroes of ecology."
Needless to say, Watson found December's COP21 global climate summit in Paris as exciting as a sea without wind. "Business as usual," he says. "There is no binding commitment. It does not even mention the oceans. The salvation will not come from leaders. They lack vision, long-term perspective."
A U.S. citizen, Watson supported Barack Obama in 2008 but not in 2012, because of the Patriot Act's extension. This time, he supports the self-described socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders. Don't even talk to him about Hillary Clinton. "She's a new Margaret Thatcher," he says. "She's entangled with Monsanto. She is no different from the Republicans."
Few find favor with the misanthrope, except for his role models like Dian Fossey, Pierre Rabhi and David Suzuki. "People do not realize the seriousness of the situation," Watson says. "Or rather, they do not care." It reminds him of his father, a cook, "who knew he had to stop smoking but still died of lung cancer."
What good is it then, to continue? "The question is not whether we will win or lose the battle, or if the world will survive," he says. "We fight because it is the only right thing to do." Asked whether he will one day lay down arms, he answers, "No one ever retired in my family. I don't see why I should be the first."