Skip directly to content

Catching Thunder reviewed in the Spectator

on Sat, 12/30/2017 - 14:41

Sea Shepherd is a radical protest group made famous — or notorious — by the American cable TV series Whale Wars and by the support of numerous Hollywood celebrities and rock stars. Having previously concentrated on obstructing whale-hunting from Japan to the Faroe Islands, it now focuses on other devastating acts of marine plunder.

In Catching Thunder, written with Sea Shepherd’s active co-operation, the Norwegian journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter tell the story of a 10,000-mile sea chase, lasting 110 days, in which the organisation sought to bring to justice a Spanish vessel illegally trawling for highly endangered toothfish in the Southern Ocean. The result is an uproarious adventure — one predicated on the protestors’ ferocious sense of moral rectitude.

Sea Shepherd is run with Ahab-like persistence by Paul Watson, a Canadian who left Greenpeace in 1977 when he decided they were not hardcore enough.

I happened to be in Hobart, Tasmania in December 2009 when their vessel the Ady Gil — a contraption that would have looked more at home on a Batman set — was readying itself for a mission which would end in disaster the following month, when it was rammed by a Japanese whaling ship, the Shonan Maru 2. Renowned for being vegan eco-warriors, the young crew might have been getting ready for Glastonbury as much as preparing for inevitable confrontation on the high seas. I met one adherent who seemed wild-eyed with his cult-like mission. ‘He’d take a bullet for Watson,’ I was told.

Later, in 2016, I was sent on assignment to interview Watson at the Cannes film festival. I’d already encountered him in Paris the previous year at the CO21 climate conference, where he told the audience, in a chic hotel, how his life had changed after he’d looked into the eye of a hunted whale. It was mesmerising. He makes no bones about his courtship of celebrity, believing in any means necessary to his end.

Hence his provocative appearance at Cannes. His fearsome vessel the Sam Simon, moored offshore, was painted in grey camouflage style, with the addition of shark-like teeth to the prow. As I boarded by rope ladder, I was told by the captain, with some satisfaction, that a police launch had just visited, after complaints from local hoteliers that the ship’s presence was upsetting their guests.

Watson, a buccaneering presence, was keen to show me the watch Pierce Brosnan had given him, and to boast about sending Pamela Anderson to lobby Putin over the export of whale meat to Japan. This was world politics as a movie cast; and indeed Watson presides over his organisation — and over Catching Thunder — as though he were a mastermind from a James Bond film, directing from afar in his places of exile; or a maritime version of Julian Assange or the Scarlet Pimpernel — a righteous fugitive from erroneous justice.

Sea Shepherd’s story has already attracted literary attention. In his lively book Blood and Guts, published in 2014, the Australian writer Sam Vincent acted as an embedded journalist on one of the organisation’s anti-whaling missions, during which his eyes were opened to a certain Conradian craziness, evoking shades of Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard, in Apocalypse Now. (In a neat case of typecasting, Sheen himself is a prominent supporter of Watson, and one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels is named after him. During a stand-off with Canadian sealers in 1995, Sheen kept the sealers at bay in an hotel, allowing Watson to make his escape).

Read full review here

Catching Thunder: The True Story of the World's Longest Sea Chase
Eskil Engdal, Kjetil Sæter
Zed Books
ISBN 9781786990877
Paperback, £12.99

Contact Yale Representation for more information.