Losing Sidney: Part II

By Dr. Roger Payne

As I pointed out in the first part of this series, Sidney Holt was the natural leader of most aspects of the movement to end whaling. But I have not yet seen recognition of one of his many unique contributions — his willingness to work with organizations and individuals that most other scientists lacked the courage or imagination to engage with. In my opinion, this was, in a very basic way, the most important facet, the secret weapon, the leading role that Sidney Holt played throughout the 60 years his contributions guided and dominated the Save-the-Whales movement.

That generosity and vision cost him. For example, if anyone ever deserved the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership (referred to by many as the Nobel Prize for Conservation) it was Sidney Holt. Yet he never received it.

Why not? I’ve known many conservation leaders from Sidney’s time, and can think of no one who made as great a difference, and certainly no one who did more than Sidney. So why, exactly, did he not receive the Getty prize?

I believe it was because of the inability of most card-carrying scientists to appreciate the importance of what Sidney did so well: work with non-scientists. This was his special strength. He was brave enough not to flinch from challenging such a ridiculous bit of elitism as insisting that only scientists do science. For example: He championed Joan MacIntyre, a brilliant organizer once described to me as: “Do you mean our touchy-feely activist sister?” who was, nevertheless (and particularly with the help of a master like Sidney) able to found and organize an extremely effective cadre of whale lovers she christened Project Jonah. She also edited Mind in the Waters—a book of short essays, poems, fables, myths and stories about whales that had a strong effect on the public mind, but with which most scientists of the time were hesitant to associate.

She founded branches of Project Jonah in several countries. The one in Australia was, and is, particularly effective. It turned Australia from an unrepentant whaling nation that ignored entirely the growing interest of its citizens in saving whales into one of the most powerful anti-whaling nations. Australia focussed some of its best and brightest on understanding what the human relationship to whales could be, and how that could benefit not just whales but humanity, if only we, the human half of that equation, can summon enough bravery to embrace it.

At about the same time, Sidney formed a close friendship with David MacTaggart—the man who turned Greenpeace from a disparate bunch of enthusiastic activists to a major conservation power. Like Paul Watson (a founder of Greenpeace), David deeply understood how far you can stretch the legal envelope without being arrested. After he took up residence in Italy, one of the results of his friendship with Sidney was that Sidney too became a permanent resident of Italy.

About this time a self-identified group of IWC commissioners formed that called itself; “The Like-Minded Commissioners.” This group at least leaned towards more responsible management of whale stocks. The great disrupter was all too often the USA delegation, whose policies were so quixotic that no one could be sure it wouldn’t make an off-the-cuff change of position at some fatal moment. Nevertheless, the fact that when it showed-up it had to be included made Like-Minded-Commissioners’ meetings a bit like crossing a minefield. In efforts to set an agenda that might keep all of the Like-Minded Commissioners pulling in the same direction, Sidney, David, and Sir Peter Scott (founder of several major conservation organizations and son of the famous polar explorer, Robert Falcon Scott) met annually with a small group of NGOs that sent observers to each IWC meeting in order to discuss strategies and agree to some goals for the coming year’s IWC meeting.

Sidney also championed Lyall Watson, a writer of such books as Supernature: A Natural History of the Supernatural; The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects; and Supernature 2. Lyall once told me he had watched a child who had a ‘special ability:’ He could turn tennis balls inside-out. “I heard them pop when they inverted,” he said.

But Lyall loved whales and he wanted to find a way to persuade Japan to stop whaling. He realized that Japan had not ever responded positively to criticism from overseas and was unlikely to do so. Lyall felt that if he was ever to help change that situation, he had to understand the Japanese culture better. He made long trips to Japan and paid tutors to teach him about Japanese customs, even including a detailed study of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

From such an approach Lyall concluded that the impasse which prevented the IWC from declaring a moratorium on whaling was due in major part to Japan being unwilling to see the IWC establish a precedent for a thing like a moratorium. But on the other hand, he supposed that Japan might be willing to accept, and abide by, a zero quota on whales.

Just as the boy who could turn tennis balls inside out seemed a bit of a stretcher, the fineness of the differences between a moratorium and a zero quota had eluded the rest of us entirely! But Lyall had learned enough about the Japanese ethos to realize that the subtle differences mattered deeply in that culture. It was a critically important discernment that he discussed with Sidney, who spoke with Robert del Pesch, the Seychelles’ Ambassador to Great Britain’s Court of St. James, who appointed Lyall Watson as Seychelles Commissioner for a session. And that step is what finally led to passage of a zero quota.

Unfortunately, the press, consistently and unfailingly kept referring to it wrongly, as “a moratorium,” even though what the IWC passed is a zero quota, not a moratorium. So universal did this mistake become that you must now refer to “a moratorium on whaling” for anyone to know what you’re talking about. Sidney’s willingness to work with Lyall Watson created an understanding that the rest of us had missed.

Another group Sidney became involved with and of which I frequently heard scientists disapproving was the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

However, Sidney had realized the inestimable value of working with such an organization and he formed a fruitful association with IFAW founder Brian Davies. Brian was a master at writing begging letters illustrated with photographs of baby seals with pleading eyes—an approach that generated a flood of funds which turned IFAW into a major conservation force overnight.

Shortly thereafter, and without announcing publicly that he was doing so, Brian Davies got IFAW to fund several years of research by Sidney Holt, Justin Cooke, and Bill de la Mere. Davies did this out of respect for, and trust in, Sidney, who had pointed out that if funds could be found for modest salaries and travel support for Justin, Bill, and him, they could expose the scientific shortcomings of the papers coming out of the Obfuscation Machine that Japan’s tame, “whale biologists” were operating (a group later christened, memorably, by Paul Watson as the whale “biostitutes”).

Brian Davies recognized fully that if IFAW boasted that it was supporting the work of Sidney, Justin, and Bill, it would have brought waves of criticism on them from some of their hopelessly timid scientific colleagues, most of whom regarded cooperating with activist NGOs like IFAW with derision and disdain.

Sidney’s willingness to work with a group like IFAW had two major effects on conservationists:

1) It demonstrated memorably that the tut-tutting towards NGOs that so many scientists practiced was one of the bigger mistakes for a scientist to make. Sidney Holt led the vanguard that demonstrated what a major waste of intellectual resources such tut-tutting could be.

2) Sidney’s work with NGOs reassured many scientists who had gone on for Ph.Ds, but hadn’t dared work for NGOs to apply—a step that also benefitted NGOs in unrelated fields, as more Ph.Ds summoned the courage to join their staffs.

But that leadership cost Sidney dearly. Back then, anyone who worked with NGO activist organizations suffered heavy blows to their scientific reputation. Alas, that still applies in some quarters, even though it is has become obvious that scientists are the people most qualified to become involved in stopping, and possibly reversing humanity’s current rush towards self-destruction. Prior to Sidney’s efforts, many who dared to become involved in activism seemed only to find the courage to do so after they had earned enough laurels for their scientific work to become inviolable to jealous colleagues.

Yet, the craven fears of many (most?) scientists still prevent them from daring to enter the fray in the company of an activist—a failing that greatly limits the efficacy of the activists because their lack of direct understanding of the science leads them to make errors their opponents can seize on. And that seriously reduces their effectiveness. It is clear that NGOs would do their most valuable work better if more scientists had the courage to work with them. Today, that work is exactly what’s most needed to focus world attention on what we must do if we are to avoid our costliest environmental errors.

During the pinnacle of Sidney’s contribution to the whale question, his life partner was Leslie Busby, whose career is a clear example of why Sidney‘s willingness to work with people who lacked advanced credentials could be so successful. Leslie had no advanced degrees when she started working on whales and had studied neither whales nor whaling. However, she became what many, including me, consider as reliable as Sidney as a source of information—and that is high praise. If Sidney was elsewhere and you needed an accurate answer about some detail of what was happening with some delegation, and what the chances were of blocking it by some action you had thought up, the person to ask was Leslie. I am sure she will deny my claim of her excellence but that’s just her humility speaking.

I have saved until last what I consider to be Sidney’s boldest step in working with someone whom the more craven elements of the scientific community consider to be a pariah: when Sidney became Scientific Advisor to Sea Shepherd and began working with Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder and one of the three most important architects of bringing an end to whaling. I am happy to have had a role in helping get Sidney and Paul working together.

Sea Shepherd is, of course, best known for confronting Japan’s whalers on the Antarctic whaling grounds, and as the subject of the successful Cable TV series, Whale Wars. Both created such unrelenting embarrassment for Japan that it was Sea Shepherd that finally drove Japanese whalers to abandon Antarctic whaling. I had long thought it was important to get Sidney and Paul working together, but I bided my time, waiting for a moment when Paul did something I was sure Sidney would love. The moment came when Paul put a small band of Sea Shepherd crew aboard Japan’s Antarctic whaling factory ship—a caper he had pulled off several times before as it was all but guaranteed to make good press and provide footage that embarrassed Japan.

Paul always had film crews on board Sea Shepherd ships to film every Sea Shepherd campaign. He considered a camera the most powerful of all weapons.

The mission of the boarding party was the same as it had always been: to make its way to the bridge and demand that Japan stop whaling in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary.

Of course, Paul’s people were, as always, immediately taken into custody and locked up. (They were, however, treated fairly well—Japan’s whalers aren’t fools) and after a couple of days Paul received a message from the factory ship saying that he could have his people back, but only if he agreed to stop harassing the Japanese whalers.

To which Paul replied: ‘You’re negotiating about the release of hostages. That’s a terrorist tactic. I don’t want my crew back.’

As always, Paul held his ground. In the end the problem was resolved by Australia sending a ship out hundreds of miles to rendezvous with the Japanese factory ship and retrieve Paul’s crew. Once they were safely on board, Paul was glad to receive his crew back on board his Sea Shepherd ship.

Every time I thought of how completely unprepared for Paul’s first answer anyone raised in the Japanese culture would likely be, and how entirely such a response would escape full understanding, I knew Sidney would be delighted by Paul’s gambit. I emailed Sidney about it immediately and shortly thereafter received a press release announcing his acceptance of a position as scientific advisor to Sea Shepherd.

I suspect that that step, more than any other, was probably key to ending Sidney’s chances of receiving the Getty Prize, which is administrated by the World Wildlife Fund. How can the Panda fund give that award to anyone, even a distinguished scientist such as Sidney, if he champions a bunch of “pirates” like Sea Shepherd? What did it matter that the Sea Shepherds are not pirates and have since accomplished what all of the other organizations that championed whales (and there are, truly, hundreds of them) combined had failed to achieve?  How could the Getty Prize go to someone who broke so many rules, even if in doing so he had also demonstrated that Japan only ever responded to someone with Sea Shepherd’s kind of courage?

Even though Paul has never been arrested without later having the arrest reversed or modified, and even though his actions only hurt the illegal instruments of illegal fishers, and never once have caused physical harm to anyone, why not call him a pirate anyway?

Paul and I met in the late 1970s at an IWC meeting. Every year thereafter we both went to those meetings, until, owing to the cowardice of the IWC secretariat in the face of objections from the Japanese delegation, Paul was banned from even entering the IWC meeting venue. But Paul is bold, and defiant, so most years we got to see him anyway.

He would pitch up in his captain’s uniform at the cocktail hour, from which it would not have been de rigueur (or even cricket) to evict him, now, would it?! Whenever he came, those of us who admired his unmatched courage and activism would cluster around to hear about the latest Sea Shepherd exploits. One year he described ramming a pirate whaling ship; another year he told us how Sea Shepherd personnel had sunk two of the Icelandic whaling industry’s whale catcher boats. In still another, Paul related how he had personally invaded the Soviet Union in order to film how the Soviets were using the whale meat quota they received for feeding their aboriginal subsistence hunters. His film showed clearly that the meat was actually used to feed ranch-raised mink and sable that was made into fur coats.

That story is a lesson in why Sidney’s choice to work with Sea Shepherd was the right choice—and of how doing so demonstrates how bad it is when the establishment judges scientists who cooperate with activists. It makes me think of early geologists who scorned and refused to recognize the validity of the evidence Alfred Wegener found which showed that continents move. This caused a rejection of his work and of him personally by the majority of geology’s finest—a rejection so total that when I studied geology in the early 1950s at Harvard, it was anathema even to mention Wegener’s suggestion that continents move. Not because the evidence wasn‘t there, but because no one could imagine a force that could move a continent. OK but before Einstein, no one could imagine what was fueling the sun. But that didn’t mean the sun didn’t shine.

Such a failure of reason should have deeply embarrassed physical geologists. Instead, it just seems to have sparked a way to sweep their embarrassment under the rug. Yes, we now know that it’s tectonic plates that move, but some plates do carry continents, and those continents do, therefore, move, which is what Wegener reported. We needed to know about subduction of tectonic plates to understand what causes the movement he postulated, and that didn’t appear until after Wegener’s death. But it doesn’t mean that before geologists understood what moves them, continents didn’t move and that Wegener’s evidence that they do was therefore wrong. The observation that they move was correct. What moved them was the unknown.

I see an interesting parallel between the rejection of Wegener’s work and the rejection by much of the establishment of Paul Watson’s contributions. We may not understand, or like acknowledging, that Paul’s approach works, but it is incorrect to conclude that there is no way it could work. The evidence that it does is undeniable.

But I digress. Here’s what happened when Paul and a friend invaded the Soviet Union: they drove a rubber Zodiac onto a Kamchatka beach. As they carried their camera up the beach towards some cages housing mink and sable, they smiled and waved a friendly greeting to a pair of gun-toting guards patrolling the beach.

Clearly uncertain of what to do, the guards had a brief consultation followed by one of them running off down the beach—presumably to seek advice about how to react to this ‘invasion.’

Meanwhile Paul and his companion continued up the beach towards the cages where they found packages marked “Frozen Whale Meat” that were being thawed out next to the cages, for that day’s feeding of the sable and mink. They filmed them and the cages, until they saw the guard racing back, gesticulating vigorously. Paul and his companion then made a casual retreat down the beach to the Zodiac, while waving a friendly goodbye to the out-of-breath guard, now returned, and having quick words with his companion. Paul launched the Zodiac unhurriedly and headed towards the Sea Shepherd ship, lying out-of-sight, below the horizon, beyond the 12-mile limit.

As Paul hurried to cover those 12-miles, a Soviet gun boat emerged from an adjacent harbour at speed, and although Paul’s Zodiac reached the 12-mile limit before the Soviet coastguard vessel did, the soviets took him into custody anyway, along with his crew. But Paul had taken the precaution of hiding the relevant tapes and of bringing along some blank reels of video tape which he now surrendered ‘most unwillingly’ to the Soviet coastguard. Sea Shepherd later made a film from the true tapes and persuaded one of the IWC delegations to show it at the following year’s meeting. It proved that the Soviets were using their Aboriginal Subsistence Hunt quotas illegally.
Although Paul and his companion were taken ashore, they were soon released by what is believed by many to have been a direct order from Gorbachev, who had instituted Glasnost shortly before Paul’s caper, and had only just announced Perestroika. It was obvious that Gorbachev didn’t want to divert the world’s attention from those steps by punishing too severely a group of foreigners that had probably been described to him as the Russian equivalent of ‘a bunch of whale huggers.’ Gorbachev surely knew it would greatly increase the cost to the Soviet Union if the fact that they had lied for years about what the whale meat in their so-called “Aboriginal Subsistence Hunt quota” was actually used for became a political football. And he also knew, of course,  that when Karl Marx proposed that everything be owned in common by all, he hadn’t meant to include food for mink and sable so they could later be turned into fur coats for party apparatchiks.

With the unique exception of Leslie Busby, all of the main activist with whom Sidney collaborated—Joan MacIntyre, David MacTaggart, Brian Davies, Lyall Watson, and Paul Watson—were subjects of frequent displays of disapproval by scientists I knew. It was often the first thing my colleagues expressed when anyone’s name on the list came up. Yet, thanks to Sidney’s faith in the power of non-scientists to participate in solving the world’s problems, collaborations between scientists and activists eventually thrived.

Because of his distinguished career and ability to speak with unsurpassed authority about the whaling issue, Sidney was interviewed widely and often. On more than one occasion he was asked how, as a serious and respected scientist, he could justify working with activist groups such as Project Jonah, Greenpeace, and Sea Shepherd. He would reply along these lines: ‘My role is as a scientific advisor to these organizations. I do it because I think it’s important for NGOs to limit what they claim to be true to only what can be backed up with scientific truth.’ He would then pause a moment and add: “Surely you agree with that, don’t you?”

©Roger Payne

Get our Newsletter and stay up to date

32 Horton St, Gloucester, MA 01930
Hours: 9AM - 5PM
Email: info@whale.org
Phone: (978) 281-2814