With his bushy white beard, stout figure and cargo pants, Captain Paul Watson looks more like a hard-edged seaman than the star of one of television's more popular reality shows. But at a busy restaurant in downtown Los Angeles this spring, the 59-year-old at the center of "Whale Wars" was being confronted by his new identity as a celebrity.
After being seated, Watson was promptly greeted by a waiter, who presented him with a tray full of vegan hors d'oeuvres. "Compliments of the chef," the waiter said. "He's a big fan of your show."
Indeed, the controversial Canadian activist's profile has risen dramatically because of the success of his Animal Planet show, which documents his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's travails in the waters off Antarctica as it battles Japanese whaling fleets. Since the show's inception in fall 2008, the program has become the channel's second-highest-rated program and last season averaged over 1 million viewers an episode, according to the channel.
On the third season of "Whale Wars," which premieres Friday, viewers will again see Watson and his crew throw themselves into harm's way to protect whales from being killed for research or consumption. The crew endures attacks by long-range acoustical weapons, which send out high-decibel blasts that can cause disorientation and nausea.
Former "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker donates $5 million to the Sea Shepherds, which allows them to buy a third vessel. And one crew member, Captain Pete Bethune, gets arrested after boarding a Japanese whaling vessel and attempts to make a citizen's arrest. (Bethune is imprisoned in Japan, where his trial is expected to conclude soon.)
It's the type of real-world drama that has made the "Whale Wars" a hit for the channel, believes Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet. The show was born in February 2008, a time when Animal Planet was being rebranded to attract broader audiences and compete with non-animal-centric programming.
"Animal Planet had been a family-friendly destination, and 'Whale Wars' was a great example of where we wanted to go into competitive adult TV," said Kaplan by telephone. "It covered a controversial subject that's really important in the world. It's a character-based adventure drama set in one of the most magnificent places on Earth — like 'Deadliest Catch' meets 'Moby-Dick.'"
At the heart of the show, of course, is Watson, who was raised in a fishing village in eastern Canada. After becoming one of the youngest founding members of Greenpeace at 18, he left the environmental organization to found Sea Shepherd at age 26.
But it was in 1975, when he was fighting a Soviet whaling fleet off the coast of California, that he really first felt a connection to a whale. Sitting in a small boat, Watson positioned himself between a whale pod and the larger vessel.
"We were able to block them for about 25 minutes, and then this harpoon flew over our heads and hit one of the whales and she screamed and rolled over in a fountain of blood," he recalled while sipping a cup of mushroom soup. "The largest whale in the pod then struck the water with his tail, and they harpooned him at point-blank range. And he screamed — a whale screams just like a person does, it's amazing."
As the whale was flailing about, Watson caught the animal's eye as it was coming out of the water.
"I looked into his eye and what I saw there really had a significant impact on me, because I saw understanding," he recalled. "That the whale understood what we were trying to do. He could have killed me that day and he chose not to. It was a realization — when I looked into that eye, I saw pity for us, not for him. That we could kill so thoughtlessly and ruthlessly, and for what?"
The show's new season opens, Kaplan said, with a deliberate focus on Watson and explores his animal activist roots.
"Paul, I think, is a really complex person and very unique," added Jason Carey, executive producer of the show and vice president of production for the channel. "Some people are on his side and others aren't, and that's a dynamic piece of the show. Viewers can watch and make their own judgment."
Indeed, Watson has been a polarizing figure. Greenpeace severed ties with him for his aggressive tactics — which have included sinking illegal whaling boats.
"Our clients are whales, not people," he said brusquely. "As long as we don't hurt anybody and we stay within the bounds of the law, [it's fine]."
The show's rebellious spirit seems to fit in with the public's growing interest in outdoor adventure reality programming, like Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch," which even Kaplan admits presents stiff competition for "Whale Wars."
"I think the crossover in viewership is pretty significant," Kaplan said. "We wouldn't put the show on the same night as 'Deadliest Catch.' I would like to think that if it was on the same night we'd win, but we don't intend to try."
Watson, meanwhile, sees salient differences between the shows, which are sometimes perceived as rivals. (A recent "South Park" episode linked the shows in a spoof titled "Whale Whores.")
"I take a look at 'Deadliest Catch' and I go, OK, that's a fishing show. We've got these guys going out into the most remote areas into really bad weather risking their lives to catch crabs," he said. "And I said, OK, we're a conservation show. I got men and women from around the world going into an even more remote location in even nastier weather, up against very violent opposition in order to save whales. I just felt that had to be more intriguing than catching crabs."
Watson's fascination with his job — clearly evident in the fast-paced manner he discusses the day-to-day challenges of being an environmentalist — is what has kept him on the hazardous high seas for months at a time.
"Are there moments where I'm fearful? No. I've been doing it all my life. It's just like a routine kind of thing," he said nonchalantly. "I'll be doing this until I die. I don't think you really have to retire from what you do."