Animal Planets 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 vessels 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 its like working with the maddest maverick in animal rights.
Out: Did gender play any role on board? My editor mentioned youre 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?
Im 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! Its 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 cant 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 theyre out of sight and out of mind for most.
How many of these campaigns have you been involved with?
Ive 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 Ive 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 wont stand passively by and let these crimes happen unopposed. I see a hero, but I dont doubt that the poachers see both him and our fleet of ships intimidating.
Do you agree with his tactics?
Whole-heartedly. Whats the point in having laws if theyre 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 dont cause injury and only damage the property thats being used to commit a criminal offense, Im in total agreement. A whaling ship cant 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 doesnt contain sex, violence, celebrity or scandal, it doesnt print. I dont 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. Its 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.
Whats the most harrowing experience you've had working with Sea Shepherds?
That was definitely our last campaign to Antarctica to stop Japans illegal whaling there. Weve been to the Antarctic five times, but this was the first year they killed a whale in our presence. Usually theyre too busy running away from us. But wed cost them too much money (almost $70 million in lost profits each year), and they decided to test our resolve. As one of the harpoon boats tried to transfer the dead whale onto the factory ship, our ship got in-between, and a collision occurred. Our ship listed over almost 15 degrees to port and I was almost sure that we were going to drown! But nothing compares to the 22 minutes of agony experienced by the whale they killed. And that puts everything into perspective for me.
There's a scene where you and another crewmate, Pottsy, exchange some heated words. Did you guys eventually make up? How often would you find yourself getting into a debate with people? I would imagine that in such a constantly heightened environment that people would constantly be at each other's throats.
Pottsy and I did make-up. Tensions between the crew can be high on the ship because we spend 40 days at sea with over 40 other people. Were obviously all very passionate and sometimes we have our disagreements. But in the end, were all on the ship for the same reason and bind together when it counts.
One more thing about the fight with Pottsy: In the reality show, many of the characters assert that falling into the water is practically as dangerous as falling into a pit of lava -- that the frigid water will kill you in a matter of minutes. In your fight, you said you thought this was a wild exaggeration. Do you still believe that the danger of going overboard was overstated?
Not overstated, no. Were in one of the most remote areas of the world and the nearest hospital is almost a week of sailing away. If you were to fall off the M/Y Steve Irwin, youd be as good as dead. I was referring to falling out of one of the small boats while wearing both a wetsuit and a survival suit. It would be far from good, but Im sure that Id survive it. One day when we were dead in the water and half the crew took an Antarctic swim off the ship in our swimsuits. It only lasted for a few seconds, but Im still here today.
Whats been your favorite moment working with Sea Shepherd?
One of the best moments for me came when we were chasing the Nisshin Maru, the big factory ship of the Japanese whaling fleet. It was day two into the chase, and a big pod of whales surfaced between us and the whaler. There were literally hundreds of minke, humpback and pilot whales. The whaler was powerless because we were there and it felt so right. Those whales were safe from the harpoons because wed intervened. That made the entire trip worth it. That year, the Japanese whaling industry fell 500 whales short of their quota. Every one of those lives saved is a victory, and that experience reminds me of that.
Can you explain exactly what a quartermaster does? What are your primary responsibilities aboard the Sea Shepherd?
A quartermaster stands watch on the bridge and assists with the safe navigation of the vessel. I've done a few stints on the bridge, but my passion is in the galley, where I prepare three vegan meals a day for a crew of forty. We don't serve any animal products on the ship (no meat, milk or dairy) because it would be hypocritical if we sailed to the bottom of the world to save animals at the same time as have them in our freezer. Animals have the same capacity to suffer as humans do, and I see a lot of parallels between how we treat animals and the oppression of people based on their gender, ethnicity and sexuality.
Are you willing to give up any teasers about Season Two?
Season Two will trump the first season! The whalers were increasingly violent towards us, and not only rammed our ship, but also attacked us with high-powered water cannons and acoustic weapons. You'll see more danger, but most of all, you'll understand why whaling needs to be stopped and why it requires our involvement to do so.
Whale Wars airs every Friday at 9pm EST on Animal Planet.Send a letter to the editor about this article.