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Reality on the High Seas
  • April 18, 2012 : 09:04
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The Steve Irwin didn’t reach the Faroe Islands until August 3. It had been detained for two weeks in Scotland by a court order related to a lawsuit filed by a Maltese fishing company whose bluefin tuna nets the crew had cut the previous year in the Mediterranean. That is quintessential Sea Shepherd—its passion for saving animals sometimes leads to blunders that prevent it from saving animals. Over its four seasons, Whale Wars may have earned the organization international attention, but the show’s focus on less-successful moments—footage of a small boat flipping over as a crane lowers it onto waves is shown repeatedly—has made Sea Shepherd a joke too. A 2009 episode of South Park parodies the show and the group, with “fat liar” Paul Watson graphically harpooned and a cartoon Larry King calling the group “incompetent vegan pussies doing absolutely nothing and trying to turn it into drama.” Such treatment doesn’t matter to Sea Shepherd: It’s attention, and that’s what Paul Watson wants.

“My job is to make people angry,” he says, sitting in his office as the boat circles the islands through large waves. “I look on being a conservationist as being like an acupuncture needle. You go in and you stimulate a response, you create drama, you get people thinking about things. Controversies create discussions. Discussions bring about change.” As the boat rolls, a rusty grind knife—found by his crew while diving amid whale bones and now affixed to a piece of wood—falls with its mount off the wall. Watson practices direct action, a way to create change that stands in stark contrast to the approach of other groups, such as Greenpeace, the organization Watson co-founded—though he was later voted off its board after a dispute with its president. Watson is rarely animated, and his frustratingly passive demeanor makes him seem like the least likely activist aboard the ship. He appears on the bridge to take watch shifts sometimes, but otherwise his work is invisible, as is his compassion for his crew. When the ship’s cook asks him at breakfast one morning if they can celebrate the departure of six crew members the next day with a party, he says, “No, I don’t think so,” but, at the urging of Aultman, later changes his mind. After the party, the crew members depart, waving goodbye to their friends, hugging and even crying. Watson isn’t there.

But Watson has his crew’s attention and admiration, and this is clear when he holds court with the crew members who sit with him at meals, eating off mismatched plates and bent silverware, drinking filtered water from chipped mugs. He tells raucous or awkward jokes. “How many shots of the heli do you guys have?” he asks a camera operator one day, adding, “You’re just waiting for the crash.” The camera operator replies, “No, I’m in it.” Watson also shares conspiracy theories. President Richard Nixon, he says one day at breakfast, was cast from office by a shadow conspiracy because of his strong record on the environment. The smooth edges of his stories suggest they’ve been told many times, just as answers to questions are often nearly identical to the succinct, direct, incendiary statements he’s written in press releases on SeaShepherd.org. Soon after his arrival in the Faroes, Watson published an open letter to the Faroese people, insisting “that culture and tradition must never be a justification for cruelty and slaughter. When it comes to killing, we draw the line on compromise.” Shortly after, the Faroese government released its own statement, emphasizing that it supports “dialogue, freedom of speech and the right of all citizens, both in the Faroe Islands and elsewhere, to express their views and also to organize peaceful protest,” but said it would neither talk nor cooperate with Sea Shepherd, citing “its aggressive approach to campaigning, which puts both human lives and property at risk.”

Watson frequently notes that no one has ever been killed or seriously injured on his watch, in part because volunteers are more cautious than professionals. He supports his officers’ decisions and fires crew members who step out of line, such as by saying the wrong thing on camera. “I do think that there’s still a culture in Sea Shepherd that just wants to speak the party line and hide the emotion from us,” executive producer Bronstein says. “I think you can see it in the show.”

When it’s time to exchange crew members, the Steve Irwin joins up with the Brigitte Bardot, its crew anxious to embrace friends. The Bardot’s crew has a tight bond, thanks to the confined space of the trimaran, which circumnavigated the world in less than 75 days in 1998, a record. Its walls are fiberglass, and there is no hiding, no privacy; when someone is in the bathroom, others count how many times they flush. For the journey to the Shetland Islands, where new crew members await, the Whale Wars camera operators will have to free up the bunks used to store their gear. Duncan Brake and Jillian Morris are among the Bardot’s inhabitants, but they are “Animal Planet,” as Sea Shepherd members refer to the reality-show crew. The Bardot arrived in the Faroe Islands two weeks before the Irwin, docking at small towns and giving tours to adults and kids—and also dealing with hostile residents, including the drunken Faroese who awoke the crew in the middle of the night, screaming “Fuck Paul Watson,” and even tried to board the ship. The Bardot’s crew “managed to defuse any confrontation,” Brake says, and they had an assist from Whale Wars: One angry Faroese man trying to release the boat’s lines stopped when he saw first mate Peter Hammarstedt, a Sea Shepherd and Whale Wars veteran. Morris says, “They’ve all seen the show; they all love the show. It was funny because they’d be yelling obscenities at the boat and Peter would step off and they’d be like, ‘Oh nice to meet you.’?”

Brake’s and Morris’s experiences filming marine life around the world prepared them for this job, which presents highly unusual challenges. “If we’re boarded, what’s going to happen? Are we going to be physically attacked? How are we going to deal with that?” Morris says. Their relationship—they’re engaged—helps them deal with one of the more devastating and unexpected challenges of the job. Working on Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic campaign for Whale Wars almost destroyed producer Denham’s marriage. “You start writing e-mails about how it’s difficult and you’re lonely. And then that taxes the person at home because they feel guilty that you have to do this job, and then they don’t know how to react,” he says. “Every single crew member will tell you that when they go home it takes them sometimes months to adjust. So you go home and you expect to have the same relationship you left with. But you’re not the same.” For the Faroes campaign Denham’s wife is onboard, and he insists he’d be unlikely to take the job again without her.

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read more: entertainment, tv, issue april 2012

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