Back in the early days of Greenpeace under the leadership of the late great Robert Hunter we resorted to plenty of unorthodox methods of locating whaling ships on the high seas. Strangely many of these methods actually worked. Stranger indeed has been our record of finding whaling ships on vast oceans armed with little else but our intuition and pure luck.
Bob Hunter used to call this karma. Bob was a Buddhist and a mystic and most likely a saint. He believed in reincarnation. I used to believe in reincarnation also but that was in a previous life.
But in May of 1975 we set out in a small little fishing boat of only 85 feet looking for the Soviet whaling fleet. They were operating in the North Pacific somewhere between the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands down to somewhere off of San Diego. We knew that they were somewhere within 200 miles because this was before the 200 mile limit law was introduced and the Soviets delighted in killing whales off the coast of the United States. It also provided a great cover for espionage activities and judging from the incredible array of electronics displaying antennas they were certainly doing more than just whaling.
We started out from Vancouver and journeyed north to the Queen Charlottes. We swam with Orcas in the Straits of Bella Bella and visited an abandoned whaling station in Rose Harbour, on the Charlottes. We saw whales but not a sign of the whalers.
We then headed south and Bob began to throw the I-Ching and in what was probably a first in the history of navigation we began to navigate by the messages received from the I-Ching readings.
This divided the crew into two groups, the mechanics or non-believers under the leadership of Patrick Moore and the mystics under the leadership of Bob Hunter. As a sailor and navigator I kept one foot in the camp of practicality and as a person who had experienced a vision quest under the guidance of Wallace Black Elk during the occupation of Wounded Knee, I had my other foot firmly planted in Bob’s camp of merry mystics.
Moore’s cynical scoffing was silenced a couple of weeks later when against all odds our ship the Phyllis Cormack sailed into the midst of the Soviet whaling fleet some sixty miles off the coast of Eureka, California.
That was the first ever encounter between whalers and whale defenders and the first time ever that humans placed their lives on the line to protect whales. Bob and I were the first people to block a harpoon with our bodies and it was a shot over our heads heard around the world.
On that day the anti-whaling movement was truly born. And the whale wars have been raging ever since across all of the high seas with a record of sunken whalers, foiled whaling operations, moratoriums, rammings and interventions.
We found the Soviet whaling fleet again in 1976 and again in 1977 this time in the vast area of the North Pacific a thousand miles north of Hawaii. Again we depended on the I-Ching and guidance from the First Nation Elders of the Cree, the Haida and the Kwakiutl.
In 1979, I set out from Boston in July on my first ship the Sea Shepherd. My target was the pirate whaler Sierra. She was out there, somewhere in the North Atlantic, somewhere north of the Equator and south of Great Britain.
How are you going to find her? I was asked this repeatedly. I had no idea other than a deep raging faith that I would and so I headed across the Atlantic towards the Azores and onto the Northern coast of Spain.
A few days out of the Azores we saw hundreds of loggerhead turtles swimming together. I had never seen such a sight before nor since. I stopped the ship to avoid running into them and the crew and I dove into the ocean to swim with the turtles. For six hours we stayed and swam with turtles and then they swam away all at once and we proceeded on an Easterly course.
The next day at high noon we spied a single ship. As we got closer it was clearly a whaler and as we got closer still I saw the large letter “S” on her funnel and knew it was the pirate whaler Sierra. It was July 15th and we gave chase and overtook her. I came with the intention of ramming her and ending her career but the seas were rough and I needed to control the ramming to make sure there were no injuries. Without that guarantee I could not take action and so we chased the whalers for another twenty-four hours all the way to the port of Leixoes in Northern Portugal.
With the Sierra in harbour I attacked and rammed the whaler twice, splitting her port side hull open to the water line and finishing her career.
Without the turtles delaying us, we would have missed the Sierra that next day. They were heading south and we were heading east and our courses came together at that time only briefly. Six hours earlier and we would have missed them. Six hours was the exact amount of time that we needed to be delayed and the turtles had delayed us that exact amount of time.
Bob Hunter was not surprised.
In 1981 when a Soviet frigate was bearing down on us preparing to fire, a large Grey whale surfaced suddenly between our two ships and so startled the Soviet gunner that he hesitated and the Frigate changed course to avoid the whale and this allowed for us to escape. The whale had literally shepherded us out of the valley of the shadow of death that day. Dr. Paul Spong one of the leading Orca scientists in the world told me once that “if you’re ever in trouble out there depend on the whales to show you the way.”
Last year in February we found the Japanese whaling fleet again against all odds. We searched for over a month but we surprised them, harassed them and forced them to flee. They were then hit by a devastating fire that completely crippled their operations and saved the lives of over 500 whales.
In June of 2007, I was invited to the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake in Quebec where the women of one of the longhouses presented me with two flags of the Five Nations of the Iroquois, one for our ship the Robert Hunter and another for the Farley Mowat. They also presented me with a spirit shirt and spoke of the turtle as my guiding spirit.
In November Maori musician Mihirangi from the Sea Shepherd Australia board of directors presented us to a Maori Council in Raglan, Aotearoa, to receive the support of the Maori and she raised the Maori flag up the mast of the Steve Irwin along with the flag of the Aboriginal Nations.
And now once again we are in the vast and remote Southern Oceans in search of the elusive whale killing fleet from Japan. How will we find them? The Australian government knows where they are but they’re not talking for fear of offending Japan. The United States Department of Naval Intelligence is monitoring our movements and relaying those movements to the Japanese whalers. The Japanese whalers have the full support of their government and military to track our movements. Even my old alma mater Greenpeace is not being cooperative but then again Bob Hunter and all my old shipmates who were once at the Greenpeace helm are regrettably no longer there.
What we have on our side however is a stubborn and persistent determination to defend and save whales. Yesterday a large humpback whale surfaced beside the Steve Irwin and seven times raised his long flipper into the air and seven times brought it down pointing in a direction due west as if to say go this way.
I thought to myself. What would Bob Hunter have thought of that?
And I knew the answer. “Follow the whale Paul, follow the whale!”
Captain PAUL WATSON is founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society www.seashepherd.org