The black ship is moored on the Brisbane river, taking on provisions for a two-month campaign against the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica. Once a Scottish fisheries patrol vessel, it now flies the Jolly Roger and belongs to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an aggressive, controversial, publicity-hungry environmental group that physically assaults whaling ships, and has been accused of eco-terrorism by both the Japanese government and Greenpeace.
The volunteer crew, male and female, drawn from a dozen countries and wearing matching black T-shirts, busy themselves on the dock with cranes, drums of fuel, and crate after crate of fruits, grains and vegetables. This is a vegan ship and in a sense this is the ultimate vegan hunting expedition.
Somewhere off the coast of Antarctica, in the storm-lashed, iceberg-ridden vastness of the Southern Ocean, the biggest, wildest place left in the world, the Japanese fleet is shooting whales with explosive-tipped harpoons, winching them out of the ocean still alive and screaming, electrocuting them, processing the meat for commercial sale to the Japanese public, and claiming that it is all in the interests of science. Since 1986 there has been an international moratorium on whaling but it makes an exception for lethal scientific research and Japan uses this loophole to take 1,000 whales a year, including endangered fin whales, humpbacks and pregnant females, from an area of ocean officially designated as a protected whale sanctuary.
The Sea Shepherds, making an equally dubious legal claim, say they have the authority to enforce international conservation laws by attacking whalers. Their tactics include fouling propellers with entangling lines, hurling aboard nausea-inducing stink bombs and cellulose powder to make the decks slippery, and direct high-speed ramming. Since it was founded in 1977, Sea Shepherd has rammed and disabled well over a dozen whaling and illegal fishing vessels on the high seas, and scuppered others in ports by sneaking aboard and opening valves to let in seawater, and on occasion by blowing holes in the hulls with limpet mines.
On the backs of the volunteers' T-shirts, listed with dates, are the names of the 10 whaling ships that Sea Shepherd claims to have sunk – all without injury or loss of human life, and all without being convicted of a crime in any court of law. Perhaps more surprising, given that the volunteers tend to be inexperienced at sea, poorly trained and extraordinarily prone to bungles, mishaps and disasters, is the fact that none of the Sea Shepherds themselves has been killed in any of their campaigns.
The founder, lord and master of Sea Shepherd is a 58-year-old Canadian called Paul Watson. Rosy-cheeked and chubby, with a white beard and shaggy white hair, he sits in the captain's quarters firing off press releases, soundbites and statements from his ever-present laptop and telephone. He has just announced that Daryl Hannah, the Hollywood actress and environmental activist, will be sailing with Sea Shepherd this year. She will be going only as far as New Zealand, well short of the expected clash with the Japanese fleet in the Southern Ocean, but far enough to put Sea Shepherd and the whaling controversy in the global news cycle.
'People say I manipulate the media,' says Watson, who speaks calmly with an undertone of anger and lofty scorn for anyone who doubts or opposes him. 'Well, duh. We live in a media culture so why on earth wouldn't I? What we do is provide the media with the kind of stories they can't resist, even if they really try, and this is how we bring attention to what's happening to the whales, the seals, the sharks and the other marine conservation campaigns we're involved in. The oceans are dying in our lifetime and it's not for want of laws and regulations. The problem is enforcement. Governments are not enforcing the laws, so we have to.'
Watson is a bold figure, the nearest thing the environmental movement has to an action hero, and he is revered by his supporters, who include Mick Jagger, Martin Sheen, Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan, William Shatner, Orlando Bloom, Edward Norton, Christian Bale and a number of other celebrities, who collectively supply most of Sea Shepherd's funding. John Paul DeJoria, the hair-products magnate behind Paul Mitchell Systems, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the campaigns and custom-fitted Watson's luxurious sleeping quarters on the otherwise spartan ship. By his desk Watson keeps a small statue of Hayagriva, a wrathful scowling deity, that was given to him by the Dalai Lama with a letter of support.
Watson's staunchest enemies seem to be government officials from whaling nations (Norway, Denmark and Iceland are at it too on a small scale) and other more mainstream conservationists. Dr Sidney Holt, formerly of the International Whaling Commission and a chief architect of the 1986 moratorium, has called Watson's involvement an 'absolute disaster' for the cause: 'Almost everything he has been doing has had blowback for those who want to see an end to whaling. In too many cases, playing piracy on the ocean, and creating danger for other ships, is simply not liked.'
Greenpeace, which has called Watson a violent extremist and an eco-terrorist, will no longer comment on his activities, despite the fact that Watson was one of the founders of Greenpeace in 1972 and the first officer on its early campaigns against whaling and the clubbing and skinning of baby harp seals on the Canadian ice floes.
In 1977 Watson was voted off the Greenpeace board of directors for being generally troublesome, arrogant and difficult to work with, for opposing the incoming president Patrick Moore (who has since gone to work for the nuclear and forestry industries, as Watson loves to point out), and for refusing to apologise for an incident on the Newfoundland pack ice. Watson grabbed a club away from a sealer and threw his pelts and the club into the sea, which was deemed a violation of Greenpeace's non-violent principles, bad publicity and an impediment to the organisation's ability to raise money. Later that year Watson founded Sea Shepherd and the two organisations, despite their shared goals, have been locked into a bitter sibling rivalry ever since.
'I once called them the Avon ladies of the environmental movement, and they didn't like that, but the real problem is that Greenpeace has turned into a gigantic self-perpetuating bureaucracy,' Watson says. 'They spend millions of dollars every year on advertising and direct-mail campaigns simply to raise more money. People feel good about giving money to Greenpeace. But holding up protest signs, taking pictures and "bearing witness" while whales are getting killed in front of you doesn't achieve anything at all, which is why I abandoned those tactics more than 30 years ago.'
In 1975 Greenpeace decided to confront a Soviet whaling fleet in the Pacific. Watson and a cameraman got into an inflatable Zodiac and sped out between the harpooners and a pod of sperm whales, hoping to form a human shield, but the harpooners simply fired over their heads. Then came the defining moment of Watson's life. He has told the story countless times and still gets emotional telling it again: 'They harpooned a female in the head. She screamed, and it's a sound like a woman screaming, and then this huge male slapped his tail on the water and hurled himself at the Soviet ship. They harpooned him and he fell back and swam right at us and reared up out of the water. We thought, "This is it, he's going to slam down on us, it's all over." But he didn't. He pulled back at the last moment and spared our lives, and as he slid back into the water we saw his eye, which was the size of a dinner plate, and in that whale's eye I saw recognition, compassion, empathy, an understanding. Something passed between us and it changed my life for ever.'
Watson has a well-established tendency for bending the truth to his purposes, but the cameraman, Fred Easton, remembers the incident in the same way. It moved Watson to write a 1,600-line poem, which begins, 'Leviathan's solitary eye haunts me still / I am obsessed and driven mad with anger.'
His first taste of vengeance came in 1979, when he went after a notorious pirate whaling ship called the Sierra, which was barred from many ports in the world for violating anti-whaling laws and non-payment of fuel bills. Most of its crew had outstanding arrest warrants, the ship kept changing its flag, and it was thought to have killed at least 25,000 whales.
It took Watson a year to hunt down the ship, and then he rammed it at full speed and ripped open its hull. The Sierra limped into port and its owners spent $1 million on uninsured repairs. Then it sank at the dockside after Sea Shepherd operatives blew holes in its hull with limpet mines. Watson went on to sink three Norwegian whaling ships, two Icelandic whalers in Reykjavik harbour and half the Spanish whaling fleet. So why hasn't he been convicted of a crime?
'Because all those vessels were operating illegally and criminals do not generally want to go to court, and because we have the legal authority to do what we do,' Watson says. 'The United Nations World Charter for Nature, section 21, empowers any nongovernmental organisation or individual to uphold international conservation law in areas beyond national jurisdiction and specifically on the high seas.' This is true but nowhere in the charter does it state that these laws can be enforced by ramming, disabling or sinking ships, and nowhere in the world are these activities considered legal.
The real reason Sea Shepherd has been able to get away with so much is that international law is vague and weak and rarely enforced on the high seas, and it is also why Japan is able to get away with its scientific research claim, and why Norway, Denmark and Iceland are able to ignore the moratorium completely. Watson is also a keen scholar of the law and a shrewd tactician. 'The Brer Rabbit ploy has been quite effective for me,' he says. 'When a country is talking about prosecuting me, I demand to be charged and put on trial and offer to pay my own airfare. They know that I'm going to bring a lot of international media with me and put their whaling programme on trial, and they decide it's better to keep quiet and do nothing.'
In 1983 Watson turned his sights on the Canadian seal hunt. He used his ship to blockade the port at St John's, Newfoundland, and announced he would ram any sealing ship that tried to leave. When the authorities threatened to storm his ship, he counter-threatened to sink it at the mouth of the harbour and thereby create an impassable barrier. Having brought the hunt to a near-standstill and cost the sealing industry millions of dollars, he then sailed away under cover of fog. The next year he returned with Brigitte Bardot and arranged for the famous photograph of her with a helpless, adorable baby seal. There was an international outcry and the seal hunt was banned for 10 years.
Now it is back with a vengeance. This year the Canadian government has issued a quota for 300,000 seal pups to be killed, and Watson will be there as usual to disrupt the hunt. Then he will take his ship down to the Galapagos to hunt shark-fin poachers. As the top predator, sharks are vital to marine ecosystems. Remove the sharks and you remove the check on the population of secondary predators, which then explode in numbers and wipe out the fish below them on the food chain. We, as a species, are currently killing 100 million sharks a year, mostly for shark-fin soup in Asia.
Watson is not exaggerating when he says the oceans are dying in our lifetime. Grotesquely wasteful industrial fishing practices – bottom trawling, longlining, driftnetting – are the main culprits, followed by pollution and the decimation of sharks and other predators. The United Nations says that 70 per cent of the world's major fisheries are now fully or over-exploited, and if the trends continue, all the world's fisheries are expected to collapse by 2048.
In Watson's eyes, this is a crime that makes the Holocaust pale by comparison. He considers whales to be more intelligent than people, because they know how to live in harmony with their environment, and sees humankind as a viral menace to the planet, although capable of reforming and saving itself before it is too late.
Watson works 18-hour days and he doesn't take days off. In his spare time, such as it is, he writes books, essays and poetry, and trounces allcomers at Trivial Pursuit. He has a photographic memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, biology, current affairs, literature, poetry and pop culture. Needless to say, all this hasn't been easy on his personal relationships. Watson has been married and divorced three times and now has a steady girlfriend and a patched-up relationship with his daughter, Lani, from his first marriage, who works as a videogame producer in Seattle. 'To follow one's bliss is in my opinion the single most important example a father or a mother can set for their child,' he once wrote. 'I would never abandon my dreams for domestic enslavement.'
In short, Watson is a perfect man to lead a crusade: utterly fearless, ferociously determined, untroubled by doubt and already convinced that he will die for the sacred cause. To each new batch of wide-eyed volunteers, he imparts the same Lakota Sioux wisdom – hoka hey, it's a good day to die – and he has little compunction about risking their lives to save a whale or create a news story.
'If you're not willing to risk your life to save a whale, you don't belong on this ship and you won't get past our vetting process,' he says. 'But you also have to look at our record. We've never hurt anybody. We've never been convicted of a felony. We've never been sued. We don't destroy property unless it's been used in the commission of a crime. They can call us terrorists but it's really preposterous. To me an eco-terrorist is someone who brings terror into the natural environment, like a whaling fleet with explosive-tipped harpoons coming into a whale sanctuary to kill a thousand whales.'
The Japanese whaling programme is run by the government-subsidised Institute of Cetacean Research. It has produced no peer-reviewed scientific papers, and neither the International Whaling Commission (IWC) nor the scientific community takes seriously its claim to be conducting research in Antarctica. The IWC and numerous governments around the world have condemned and denounced Japan for its whaling, but none of them has initiated any legal proceedings, or moved to close the loophole.
The mounting diplomatic pressure on Japan has only strengthened its resolve to dig in its heels and assert its national pride. As the world's largest consumers of seafood, the Japanese do not want foreigners telling them what they can and can't take out of the ocean, especially as fisheries collapse and stocks get scarcer. So far, the main obstacle to the Japanese whaling programme has been the fact that the Japanese people don't much like eating whale meat. It contains mercury, and is not part of the traditional diet or culture. Whale meat was almost unknown in Japan until the food shortages hit after the Second World War, and the US general Douglas MacArthur encouraged them to start eating it.
Now, despite aggressive government marketing campaigns and subsidies, only one per cent of Japanese say they eat whale regularly. There is a huge glut of whale meat stockpiled in freezers and every year, when the fleet returns from Antarctica, it gets bigger. As a result, the whaling programme is losing money and public support. This year, for the first time, Sea Shepherd has a Japanese volunteer, a young woman who doesn't want her name used or her face to appear on camera.
In 2008 Watson persuaded the Discovery Channel to send a television crew to make a reality show documentary about his Antarctic campaign. It turned into a seven-part series called Whale Wars, which became a big hit in America and is about to be shown for the first time in Britain. Life aboard Watson's ship, as it dodges icebergs, crashes through enormous seas and howling storms, and finally reaches the Japanese fleet, makes for highly compelling television, although not for reasons that Watson can be proud of.
The dramatic tension comes mainly from watching his amateurish, incompetent, bickering crew make an incredible, agonising series of blunders. You watch it on the edge of your seat, shaking your head and clasping it from time to time, waiting to see what will go wrong next and if it will get someone killed.
Ultimately a kind of tragic absurdity shines through the whole enterprise. Greenpeace went down to Antarctica too. Its volunteers held up their signs and took pictures as whales were slaughtered all around them. When the Sea Shepherds finally arrived, the whaling stopped because the Japanese were too busy defending themselves or running away. For all their bungling, Watson and crew did succeed in saving the lives of some 500 whales. The Japanese went home with only half of the 1,000 whales they had assigned themselves.
For the whales in the Southern Ocean sanctuary, whose brains are bigger than ours, not just in size but in proportion to bodyweight, who are known to be self-aware and experience suffering and grief, the best protection currently on offer is this ragtag crew of clumsy, mutinous vegans and their Ahab captain, sailing down to the bottom of the world in an old black ship and making a reality television show as they go.
'Whale Wars', Mondays from April 27, Discovery Channel discoverychannel.co.uk/whalewars