By Derek de Koff
Animal Planet's most popular show, Whale Wars, revolves around the highly controversial Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, following the antics of founder Paul Watson, a divisive and totally fascinating animal rights activist, whose main mission in life is to make whalers' jobs absolutely impossible. Aboard the MV Steve Irwin, he and a thatch of volunteers bombast whaling vessels with mischievous and often dangerous stunts -- splattering stink bombs across the vessel's decks, having crew members sneak onto the enemy ships in the dead of night, and occasionally ramming the vessels, to the considerable danger of people aboard either ship. We recently caught up with quartermaster Amber Paarman through email, and chatted her up about life on the sea, how to manipulate the media and what it's like working with the maddest maverick in animal rights.
Out: Did gender play any role on board? My editor mentioned you're the first queer person to be featured on Animal Planet' Are you gay or bisexual, and does that in anyway impact what you do aboard the Sea Shepherd?
Amber Paarman: I'm bisexual but I haven't noticed gender playing any role aboard the ship. We have a crew of 40 people from 14 different countries, with different cultures and backgrounds. Obviously, sexual preferences differ too. But we have more in common than differences and always pull together to get the job done: saving marine wildlife. The Cree had a prophecy that there will come a time when the Earth grows sick, and a tribe will gather from all cultures of the world to heal it. The Native Americans called them "Warriors of the Rainbow."
You didn't want to talk to me on the phone, preferring email instead. Why is that?
I'm currently in Sweden and only have a mobile phone that charges me an astronomical amount for incoming international calls. I should seriously consider changing my calling plan! It's more expensive than calling home from Antarctica on the satellite phone.
How did you first get involved with the Sea Shepherds?
I first saw one of their ships arrive at my hometown in South Africa. I grew up taking care of homeless cats and dogs and Sea Shepherd was the perfect opportunity to take my concern and activism for animals to a global level. The animals can't speak for themselves and need people like us to defend them. I think this is especially true of the creatures that inhabit the oceans because they're out of sight and out of mind for most.
How many of these campaigns have you been involved with?
I've been on two Antarctic Whale Defense Campaigns, an anti-poaching patrol in the Galapagos Islands and a campaign to stop the slaughter of baby harp seals in Canada. You can say that I've circumvented the world by sea, fighting to defend marine wildlife.
Is working alongside Paul Watson intimidating?
Working alongside Paul is inspirational. Paul recognized that there were all these laws in place to defend marine wildlife, but nobody was upholding them. Over 25,000 whales have been killed illegally since the global moratorium on whaling was passed in 1986. In Paul I see a person who won't stand passively by and let these crimes happen unopposed. I see a hero, but I don't doubt that the poachers see both him and our fleet of ships intimidating.
Do you agree with his tactics?
Whole-heartedly. What's the point in having laws if they're not going to be enforced? If I saw somebody kick a dog on the street I would get involved, so why should I react differently to illegal whaling? As long as we don't cause injury and only damage the property that's being used to commit a criminal offense, I'm in total agreement. A whaling ship can't feel pain, but the whale we filmed last year taking 22 minutes to die after being harpooned certainly can, and certainly did.
Paul Watson has famously said, "The nature of the mass media today is such that the truth is irrelevant." He tends to spectacularly manipulate the media in order to get his message across. If you believe in this philosophy, how can your responses be believed?
I think what Paul meant is that the media is first and foremost a business. The media sells stories. If a story doesn't contain sex, violence, celebrity or scandal, it doesn't print. I don't think Paul manipulates the media -- he plays by their rules. Because we have an all-black 'eco-pirate' ship with a crew willing to risk their lives to save animals, the media pays attention. It's too good of a story. See? Here we are, talking about it right now. But truth be told: the media is our most powerful weapon against the Japanese whaling industry. The last thing they want is exposure.