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October 2005
The Passing of a Gentle Warrior: Benjamin White, 1951-2005
By Paul Watson

 

Ben White leading the WTO turtles, Seattle, 1999. Photo courtesy of the Animal Welfare Institute

After a short battle with cancer, Benjamin Lewis White died on July 29, 2005 at his home in Friday Harbor, Washington. He was only 53. With his passing, Mother Nature lost both a loving, compassionate son and a passionate defender of her honor.

In the quarter century I knew Ben, he was both a friend and foe. An ally and opponent locked into a complex social movement that is both unforgiving and contradictory. Our paths crossed and went in different directions only to cross many times over the years. Sometimes we walked together and sometimes apart.

I first met Ben in June of 1981. I had just docked my ship the Sea Shepherd II near his home in Alexandria, Virginia. Ben had come to welcome us and volunteer for the crew. He had never been to sea before but wanted to help us protect the whales. Although he was not a sailor, he was an arborist and as such, an expert with ropes and knots. Within a week of joining my crew, I promoted him to bosun and together we set forth to ‘invade’ Soviet Siberia and document evidence of illegal Russian whaling.

Miraculously, despite a stressful confrontation with the Soviet Navy and Army, we eluded capture and brought the evidence needed back to the States. We also brought back the added distinction of having been the first to invade the Soviet Union since World War II.

Two years later, he helped the Sea Shepherd II blockade a Canadian sealing fleet in the harbor before it could set sail. Out on the ice, we almost died walking over 13 miles of heaving, shattered ice floes in a vain attempt to escape capture. Together, we saved 76,000 seals that year. Ben and I also made preparations to engineer the sinking of half the Icelandic whaling fleet, and then went onto the Danish Faeroe Islands to confront the vicious killers of pilot whales.

In 1987, I appointed Ben expedition leader of our first campaign to document illegal drift netting activities in the North Pacific. In 1989, Ben and I were in the Amazon supporting the Kaiyapo Indians in their struggle against damming the Xingu River. That year we not only swam with pink dolphins, but took on the dolphin-killing tuna boats in the eastern tropical Pacific. 

It was also in 1989, in Costa Rica, when Ben and I had our first conflict over tactics. Ben became passionate about captive dolphins, an area I was reluctant to pursue for fear it would dilute our effectiveness in combating illegal activities on the high seas. This conflict created a division between us that escalated over the next few years. I understood Ben’s desire to help dolphins enslaved by the aquarium industry, but we did not have the resources to extend ourselves into this area. I had to keep our ships running and our focus narrowed to what we did best.

Ben’s motivation to help dolphins was one of genuine love. Toni Frohoff even quoted Ben in her book, Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond, as saying, “it is ironic that people take away from captive dolphins the things that people hold most sacred in their own lives: family and freedom.”

Ben had the heart of a dolphin. He saw them as family. For the last 15 years of his life, he represented numerous organizations in the field, including Last Chance for Animals, Friends of Animals, PETA and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Despite owning and running a tree care business and raising a family, Ben always made time to do his planetary duty. Risking his life in defense of nature and life was as necessary to him as breathing. He did what he did because it was the right thing and the only thing to do, and he did it with joy, with humor, with great courage and dignity.

It would take a book to describe what Ben accomplished during his short life and thus I can only touch on some of his achievements and experiences.

In many cases, Ben was behind the scenes and left the credit for others. He was instrumental in rescuing the orca Keiko from Mexico and freeing him to the wild. He was the mastermind behind the much-publicized invasion of the turtles that captured the media’s attention at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. He attended the International Whaling Commission meetings every year to lobby the delegates and he trained forest activists to climb trees and construct aerial protest platforms. He chained himself to the doors of the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC; dove into waters around the world to cut nets and free dolphins; and once entered a government sea lion trap near Seattle where he was captured for the benefit of the media.

Ben and I may have parted company as comrades in activism in 1991, but the movement is small and we found ourselves in the same places, working on the same issues over the next decade and a half. By coincidence we also found ourselves living in the same place in Friday Harbor.

I spoke with Ben shortly after he knew with an awful certainty that he was indeed dying. His voice was soft and forgiving and his eyes still sparkled with the wonder of the very thing he was about to lose.

There was not a trace of fear, only the complete acceptance of someone who had lived a rich and rewarding life and who in the end could die satisfied, without regret and without anger.

Ben’s path ended where all our paths must end. There is no escape from our mortality. But there is salvation, and that is the salvation of having lived a life that meant something.

I am thankful for the opportunities we had to work together and I am also thankful for our conflicts. We both learned from our alliance and from our disagreements.

I was at Ben’s wedding to Ann. I remember when his children were born. I remember him identifying tree species in Virginia. I remember him at IWC meetings. I remember him walking bravely across heaving ice floes. I remember him smiling in a boat on the Amazon. I remember that same smile behind bars and before a judge. I remember him behind the wheel of the Sea Shepherd II. And I remember him dressed in the armored suit of a turtle.

From Japan to the Bahamas, from the Solomon Islands to Mexico, from Iceland to Brazil, Ben’s work was global. He died with the international reputation as a champion of dolphins, whales, trees and people.

Ben lived. He loved. He defended what he loved. He leaves a lasting legacy both with his children and with his accomplishments.

Ben White was in my life for 25 years. I wish it could be another 25 years.

Captain Paul Watson is the founder and President of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a co-founder of the Greenpeace Foundation, and a national director of the Sierra Club. He lives in Friday Harbor, Washington.

 

 


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