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One of the highlights of the 2008 Telluride Film Festival was Pirate for the Sea, a mere movie that infused my audience and me with a sense of justice and triumph.

This is no schmaltzy sports movie with underdogs, a hard-nosed coach, and snooty villains; it’s ten times better because it affects the real world. In this movie the underdogs are whales, fish, and the marine ecosystem. The villains are whalers and fishers who violate international law, smug in the knowledge that nobody ever polices them. The hard-nosed protagonist is Paul Watson, the charismatic captain of the vessels Sea Shepherd and Farley Mowatt, and president and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Raising Money and Awareness vs. Raising Hell

He can quote maritime law like the devil can quote the Bible
He can quote maritime law like the devil can quote the Bible

The movie tells Paul’s story, from his activist awakenings through some of his most recent triumphs. His first claim to fame was as the youngest founding member of Greenpeace. But eventually he came to realize that Greenpeace wasn’t doing the right kind of work. Greenpeace was good at raising money and awareness, but that wasn’t enough for Paul, so he left them. Fast forward to the current decade and you’ll find Paul behind the conn of ships that arrest illegal fishermen and harass whalers and shark finners. (See also Sharkwater, a documentary in which Paul and his crew steal the show.)

Pirate for the Sea features some of Paul’s more recent and notable accomplishments. For example, Paul recounts the time he saw a Japanese boat fishing illegally; he documented their illegal act and then he rammed them. The Japanese vessel filed a complaint, to which Paul immediately admitted guilt, offering his videotape as evidence. But when the court date came, the Japanese plaintiff didn’t show up. Turns out, they not only dropped the charges, they claim the incident never happened, no doubt afraid to have evidence of their illegal fishing practices revealed in a court of law.

One of the more disturbing sections of the film shows Canadian cullers killing baby seals. Those of us who are old enough remember this issue making headlines two decades ago. The negative publicity eventually led to U.S. and European bans on seal fur. But baby seals are still being killed for their pelts, thanks to new markets in Russia and Asia, and the Canadian government gives the hunt their official blessing. The seal slaughter is difficult to watch, but almost more galling is the blind and thoughtless hatred some cullers spew at the people in the Sea Shepherd crew.

Vigilante Justice

Seeing such hatred forced me to question my own vicarious association with Paul and his crew. Was there a dark side that Director Ron Colby wasn’t showing us? Is ramming ships, causing property damage, and interfering with legal (although abhorrent) hunting really a morally defensible position? Vigilantism may be well and good for Batman, but what about the deluded lynch mob who think of themselves as agents of justice? How do we know Paul isn’t making a mistake?

It will be good for the Sea Shepherd organization if someone keeps asking those questions. For me, Paul answered those questions to my satisfaction throughout the film. First, he knows his maritime law. He can quote the law like the devil can quote the Bible. He knows when someone is doing something illegal and is righteous and indignant in demanding that they stop. Second, he proudly claims never to have killed or injured another human being in pursuing his work. I confess I haven’t personally verified the claim. I am nevertheless glad to hear the emphasis that Paul puts on that statement, because it tells me he himself recognizes that it’s an important component to being a cop. The movie also points out that no national governments are doing anything to police the waters and enforce the U.N. charters, so if not for private citizens and organizations, there is no enforcement at all.

Standing Ovation

The final sequence of the film is a long chase involving a Japanese whaling ship called the Nisshin Maru (the same ship used in Matthew Barney’s film Drawing Restraint 9). I’ll leave it to you to discover the details, but suffice it to say that Director Ron Colby knows to end the movie on a high note. My audience and I felt proud, energized, and empowered. Pirate for the Sea illustrates how individuals can change the world (or save it). Granted, it requires something more than donating to glossy, well-meaning, bulk-mailing charities. But it doesn’t take much more than smarts and genuine determination.

I realized as the credits rolled that the film itself was practically invisible because the story it tells is so appealing and so gripping. Director Ron Colby seemed to acknowledge as much when the lights came up in Telluride. He admitted that most of the audience Q&A would be for Paul, whom he promptly introduced. In fact, the only question for Colby was “how can I get a copy of this movie.”

If you get the chance to see Pirate for the Sea, you may not be at a film festival, outdoors, sitting behind beautiful young people wearing black sweatshirts that read “Sea Shepherd Crew.” You may not have the back-of-the-brain excitement of realizing that the filmmaker and “star” are in attendance. And you may not experience the palpable emotion of an enthusiastic audience of 500. In other words, you may not like Pirate for the Sea as well as I did. But I still have to recommend the movie highly as one of the highlights of Telluride 2008.

  • Connee: I live in Arkansas...is there anyway I can get a copy of this movie or see it on line?? I may never get a chance to see it unless it comes available on some website for documentaries and it is important to get Sea Shepherd out there for the work they are doing!! Thanks, Connee Robertson March 31, 2009 reply
  • Mike: I have been searching for this documentary everywhere. Does anyone have any idea where I can get a copy?
    Thanks May 19, 2009 reply
    • michael: http://shop.seashepherd.org/store/product.aspx?p=138237%28base%29 January 10, 2010 reply