News/Blog Breaking news, exclusive features & artist interviews

Ali Catterall
Interview by: Ali Catterall Friday 20 September 2019
Share this story

Sea Shepherd - Compassionate Pirates

“It takes a pirate to stop a pirate,” the American-Canadian founder of Sea Shepherd Paul Watson famously once said.

And in their time, his worldwide fleet of vigilante patrol vessels, including the ‘Brigitte Bardot’ and the ‘Steve Irwin’ have indeed chased, rammed, and in some cases even sunk whaling ships – all under the flag of their anarchic logo, a Jolly Roger. But these ocean-going activists have never once pursued anyone who didn’t deserve it. “We are pirates of compassion, hunting down and destroying pirates of profit”, says Watson. “We don’t break laws, we uphold them.”

An international, non-profit, direct-action environmental group, Sea Shepherd’s mission is simple: to defend, conserve and protect our oceans and all marine wildlife (“from the gentle giants of the sea to its smallest creatures”) – while enforcing international conservation laws. And when the United Nations World Charter for Nature fails to be upheld (“because of lack of political will, insufficient economic resources, or transnational boundaries that blur jurisdiction”) that’s when Sea Shepherd’s crew of volunteers sail to the rescue, whether chasing poachers, rescuing dolphins, confiscating illegal longlines, tackling microplastics, or successfully blocking BP from establishing new offshore drilling operations.

Originally launched in 1977 by Greenpeace co-founder Watson (after Greenpeace kicked him out for espousing direct action tactics that conflicted with their nonviolent approach), today the movement has a presence in more than 20 countries around the globe, working alongside INTERPOL, and partnering with national governments to  ensure the bad guys are caught – hook, line and sinker.

Naturally, their tactics haven’t made them very popular with certain people – or nations. The Japanese government, for one, has accused them of eco-terrorism – even passing anti-terrorism laws to make it a terrorist offence for activists’ ships to physically track whaling vessels. This, from the nation who, decades after commercial whaling was outlawed, has all but “declared war” on the whales in the Southern Ocean, in breach of the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling.

“We’re just a group of volunteers trying to do the impossible,” says Watson. And as Sea Shepherd’s Captain Alex Cornelissen says, “No other NGO, aside from Sea Shepherd, is doing anything to intervene.” But, slowly, it appears to be paying off: in 2017 it was reported that Sea Shepherd’s 12 years of direct action against Japan’s whalers had resulted in 6,500 whales saved, while Japan’s whaling quota has been reduced from more than 1,000 whales a season to 333 a year.

“Unless we stop the degradation of our oceans, marine ecological systems will begin collapsing and when enough of them fail, the oceans will die,” says Watson. “And if the oceans die, then civilization collapses and we all die.” And he has plenty of high profile supporters and funders who agree with him, including Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Pierce Brosnan, William Shatner, and Pamela Anderson – who has served on Sea Shepherd’s Board of Directors. In 2008, they joined forces with Lush cosmetics to raise awareness of shark finning; Lush produced 'Shark Fin Soap', all proceeds going to Sea Shepherd. Even the Dalai Lama has apparently sent a letter of support to their volunteers.

Sea Shepherd have their very own ink line too – and their own vegan tattoo studio in Amsterdam’s Museum District, in accordance with Sea Shepherd’s vegan philosophy. It’s run by Sea Shepherd’s Global Artistic Director, Geert Vons, the man behind the organisation’s iconic Jolly Roger logo. Sea Shepherd prefers to undertake ocean or marine-related tattoos, in tribal-style, colour or black and grey, and all proceeds from the studio go towards funding the movement’s campaigns.

Geert, who has tattooed the Sea Shepherd sailing crew during Antarctic campaigns, first volunteered with them over 25 years ago, while studying medicine and ancient classical Chinese and Eastern philosophy. As he told OnboardOnline in 2018, “Before the internet existed, I had to work really hard to find out how to get in touch. It was a different era, one where you had to write letters to people!” His Jolly Roger design proved an immediate hit with the organisation: “A good logo to me is a minimum of colour, lines and text to get the strongest look,” he says. “There is something really powerful in propaganda. If it’s for a good cause, you can direct or guide people.”

And the Jolly Roger appeals, he thinks, “to some very strong ‘archetypes’: the pirate, the rebel, the warrior! Who hasn’t played a pirate when they were a kid [or] rebelled against bureaucracy or ignored a red light in traffic when waiting too long? Everyone can relate to that.”

Sea Shepherd will be sailing into The London Tattoo Convention this September 27-28-29th. Pick up some special limited edition merchandise from their booth in SV1 - and lucky tattoo competition winners will take home a box of the new vegan ink range