Sea Shepherd Essays

Ocean Realm Spring 2000

return to menu


To Vote or Not to Vote

That is the question

By Captain Paul Watson

I'm not much for politics. I don't like being told that I have a chance to change the system every four years with my vote. I'm tired of being told that it doesn't matter whom you vote for, just so long as you vote. The truth is that our vanishing wildlife, our diminished oceans, our disappearing forests will not be saved by some politician.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that change only comes through the actions of passionate and committed individuals. Never depend upon government or institutions to solve any social problem ? they never have and they never will. The oceans are not being protected by the navies of the world. Governments will not stop the slaughter of the whales, the seals, the sharks, the turtles, or the increasing pollution of the seas.

That work is being done by unsung heroes and grassroots groups who know better than to wait for action that will never come.

In Hawaii, dive shop owner Ken Nichols is rescuing turtles injured by monofilament fish line. In Washington State, Makah Elder Alberta Thompson is standing up for the whale despite persecution from her own tribal council. In California, diver Kurt Lieber is removing lost lobster traps, and surfer Peter Wallerstein is rescuing sea lions from entanglement in monofilament net. Because of biologist David Wingate, the storm petrel of Bermuda is not extinct.

Indeed, active conservation efforts are ongoing worldwide. Over the last three months, in Brazil, Alexandre Castro has been rescuing birds from an oil spill. Across the ocean on the beaches of Normandy, Sascha Regmann has been carefully cleaning crude oil from birds, exposing himself to toxic chemicals by doing so. In the Sea of Marmara, Kurdish conservationist Erkan Sevdiren has been picking up birds poisoned by a recent spill of fuel oil.

The list is growing. PhDs like Paul Spong, Roger Payne, Sylvia Earle, David Lavigne, David Suzuki, Jim Darling, and others are speaking louder and stronger. Artists like Christian Reese Lassen, George Sumner, and Bob Talbot, and filmmakers like Peter Brown, Jeff Pantukhoff, and others are reaching more and more people who are beginning to understand that nature is the ultimate expression of artistic merit.

Celebrities like Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, Steven Seagal, and many others are putting their status to use in protecting our marine environment. Directors like Dick Donner, Lauren Shuler-Donner, and John Badham are making films that actually change people's consciousness toward our ecology.

All over this planet, thousands of divers, surfers, whale-watchers, naturalists, conservationists, and unpaid environmentalists are walking the walk, and not just talking the talk. They are saving lives, protecting habitat, and taking on the industrial and corporate Goliaths.

I am writing this on board my ship anchored in the Bahia de Ballenas outside of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico. Yesterday, on March 3, the Mexican government announced that the planned Mitsubishi salt processing plant here would not go ahead. This was a victory brought about by Mexican grass-roots organizations backed up by individuals and non-governmental groups around the world.

Today, as I sat in a small inflatable and a hundred whales surfaced and frolicked around and under us, I had no problem understanding what motivates some individuals to act, even give their lives, for the preservation of nature and wilderness.

If not for Diane Fossey, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda would be extinct. If not for Karen Silkwood, the corruption of the nuclear industry would not have been exposed. If not for Joy and George Adamson, the lions of East Africa would not be as protected as they now are. If not for Chico Mendes, the global awareness of the rape of the rainforests would not be as great as it is.

All of these heroes were murdered for their passionate lives of compassion. They did not run for office, but they all made more significant contributions toward a better world than any politician has. Julia Butterfly Hill sat in a redwood for two years. David Chain was slain by a redwood dropped on him by a logger. This is serious commitment. We're not talking weekend warriors here.

Individuals all. Margaret Mead was right: that's where change originates.

And we all have the capacity within us to make a difference, to make this a better world where whales will be free to swim the seas unharmed, where sharks will be allowed to swim unmolested, where turtles need not have their flippers amputated because of fishline, where the fish will return in fantastic numbers again, and where once again we will be able to see a panoramic pod of dolphins stretching to the horizon.

What can you do? Plenty. The power at your fingertips can be obtained by simply mustering the confidence and the will to make a difference.

Back in 1979, after I had hunted down, rammed, and sunk the pirate whaler Sierra , I was speaking with one of my crewmembers on the dock in Lexioes, Portugal. His name was Alex, and he was nineteen years old, a passionate vegetarian and animal lover. Alex was especially upset about the treatment of laboratory animals, and he wanted me to do something about it.

``Alex," I said, ``I have my hands full fighting whalers at the moment. Why don't you do something about it?"

``What can I do about it?"

``Anything you wish. Just remember you don't need a college degree or permission from your parents to change the world."

When Alex returned to the United States, he took a janitorial job cleaning in a primate research facility in Silver Springs, Maryland. He took pictures and he exposed shocking acts of cruelty and unsanitary conditions. His evidence led to the arrest of the research director and incredible publicity exposing research on animals. Alex Pacheco founded his own organization named the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The largest animal rights organization in the world was founded by a kid who realized that he could make a difference.

People write and call me all the time to task what I am going to do about this problem or that problem. My answer is not a damn thing; I'm busy dealing with enough problems. Instead I turn the tables and ask them what they intend to do about it. The strength of an ecosystem lies in diversity. The strength of a social movement also depends upon the diversity of ideas and strategies within it. This is not to say that people should all go out and ram whaling ships, spike trees, burn bulldozers, or strangle Exxon executives.

To make a difference, we need only channel our own unique skills, talents, and abilities toward making this a better world. The approach may be judicial, artistic, educational, legislative, or direct action. The approach may be radical or it may be conservative; what matters is involvement and intent. Do what you do, not just for your own interests, but also for the common good of the planet tomorrow. Don't ask, ``What's in it for me?" Ask, ``How can I make this a healthier, saner, more happy world tomorrow?"

I know that the joy that I have received from protecting life in the oceans has exceeded anything that I could have found in religion or art. I can't think of anything more noble than having spent my life conserving nature and protecting lives. To know that a species will survive because you acted is a satisfaction indescribable unless experienced.

It even beats voting..


This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Ocean Realm magazine and appears here by permission.

P.O. Box 2616, Friday Harbor, WA 98250 (USA) Tel: 360-370-5650 Fax: 360-370-5651
Copyright © 2004 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. All rights reserved.