At a small pier at the bottom of Ann Street in Williamstown, a bayside suburb of Melbourne is a small letterbox with the words "Sea Shepherd" painted over it.
It is a remarkably open entry to what has been characterized as the Action Directe of environmental NGOs, given to scuttling whaling ships in harbor, shining laser beams into the eyes of whalers, throwing foul-smelling bottles of acid onto vessels it deems to be harming ocean life and destruction of fishing nets at sea, and other intimidating tactics.
To its fans, however, Sea Shepherd, whose world headquarters are on an island in the US state of Washington, is a crucial element in the campaign against overfishing, shark-finning, long-line trawler nets and other man-made campaigns by corporations and governments to empty the world’s oceans.
Next to the letterbox is an old shed that has seen much better times with an open gate leading to two ships, the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker, moored and being outfitted for a future yet unknown maritime mission. Security is extremely lax and in fact tours are offered of the MV Bob Barker every week while it is having a major fit-out.
What stands out to anybody making the effort to take the tour is how well organized Sea Shepherd really is. Although it has attracted many different nationalities, serving on one of the organization’s four ships, the members appear to be very highly motivated, coordinated, and ready to get into harm's way.
So are these people society's last real heroes, or degenerate ecoterrorists and criminals?
Sea Shepherd was formed in 1977 by an expelled Greenpeace board member and activist Paul Watson. Since its debut, it has always been on the vanguard of direct action. What is most controversial are its destructive tactics. It has been denounced by the governments of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the US, where the US courts have even prohibited Watson from going near his own ships.
Watson has continually claimed that Sea Shepherd actions have always been against criminal and illegal poaching operations. However, many critics claim that Sea Shepherd's direct action itself violates international law.
Although it has been claimed that Sea Shepherd's direct action against Japanese whaling ships has been counter-productive and strengthened the domestic resolve of the Japanese for whaling, the organization has used the media, an important tool, very skillfully. Critics have also claimed that Sea Shepherd material is not always truthful, but rather as Sea Shepherd sees it, as a necessary fiction.
Nevertheless, Sea Shepherd public relations has pushed the issues of seal hunting, shark finning, and whaling to the point where public opinion has swayed to the organization's side.
The recent Japanese detention of two crew members has raised public sympathy. Likewise the Discovery series Whale Wars on Animal Planet has helped to propel it into mainstream public acceptance. This to some point has protected its presence in countries like Australia, although internationally the Australian Government tries to distance itself.
There is a feeling that any action taken against the organization would lead to public outrage against any government contemplating to do so.
Sea Shepherd is supporting bans on marine animal poaching that governments have put in place, and in this sense is enforcing agreements that governments themselves due to political reasons are reluctant to do. However, Sea Shepherd's strategy is to stage events for the benefit of media exposure, where these often provocative direct actions have led to arrests and casualties.
Whether Sea Shepherd is an organization of selfless people committed to a cause or a group of high minded pirates depends upon who you ask. Watson himself strongly points out that it is not in the interests of his clients, the marine life of this earth, to harm anybody.
"You only have vigilantes when governments don't enforce laws," he said in an interview.
However the vegan crew members are performing a task that others like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have set themselves to – to seek to bring out the truth about what is happening in society to the public and prevent governments and corporations ignoring, or getting around laws that already exist. Every member of Sea Shepherd is doing their part to prevent whales, sharks, and seals from becoming extinct. They are tackling problems that most don't even know exist until it's too late. The crews challenge the status quo of our social existence, saying by their commitment and action that they will not just accept what they are told by governments.
Every time a crew member is arrested for trespassing, a Sea Shepherd ship is rammed, or a seal hunter punches a woman crew member, the establishment is challenged in a sort of Ghandian way.
Where government policy and operation is dominated by political and economic considerations which trample individual rights, direct action by organizations like Sea Shepherd is the only way to keep governments honest. Thus organizations like Sea Shepherd from the eyes of governments are considered an enemy. Just like Assange. Just like Snowden.
So paradoxically, support for Sea Shepherd is mandatory for anyone who treasures the rule of law, and the right of people to know the truth. Watson, who commanded the Sea Shepherd ship Whales Forever, was treated in a similar manner to Assange and Snowden. This cannot be seen more in the way the Norwegian Warship K/V Andenes was used in an effort to arrest him in international waters, which resulted in the ramming of the Sea Shepherd ship in 2012.
The recent World Court verdict against Japanese whaling can in many ways be credited to the actions of Sea Shepherd in the Southern Ocean and the publicity they managed to generate. It is redefining the means to achieving social justice – not just an organization but a movement completely funded by the public that will influence how society will be ordered far beyond the issue of whaling. In this way Sea Shepherd is one of the citizens' last hopes in maintaining civil rights against ever more compliance demanding governments.