Probably it's because we are a water planet, and that what happens to the seas is important for the fate of the planet. The oceans are where most of the extra heat generated by Climate Change goes, where the effluent and waste of humanity ends up, and where the effects of our littering of the planet is most obvious.
But I also suspect it's psychological.
Maybe, as the late Douglas Adams suggested, we are just such reactionaries that we don't just regard coming down from the trees as our greatest evolutionary mistake, but actually leaving the oceans?
Or maybe also it's that with human civilisation out of sight over the horizon the ocean represents the primordial wilderness to which we long to return.
Just possibly it's because for certain (usually male) environmentalists taking to the water allows us to play with the sort of machinery denied to us in our Jeremy Clarkson baiting land-based existence. Having had the fun of piloting a Greenpeace rigid inflatable at high speed past the Millennium Dome a la James Bond I probably qualify here.
5. Sea Shepherd I
|Copywrite Sea Shepherd Conservation Society|
However if this is true, his Captain Ahab persona certainly seems to vanish when he sets foot on land, and he's been perfectly pleasant when I've met him - back in the days when he dared set foot on land.
His much repeated story of coming eye to eye with a harpooned whale really does seem to be a moment of personal catharsis, even if it has become a cliché in the retelling.
The original Sea Shepherd was the ex-trawler that Watson bought after he was kicked out of Greenpeace for rampant egotism in 1977. It's bows reinforced with concrete, Captain Watson took the ship to sea to hunt down pirates.
A bit of history is needed to set the scene. As the seventies drew to a close the International Whaling
The most notorious of these was the Sierra. It flew whatever flag it chose, it ignored IWC quotas and it killed - or more frequently didn't kill - with cold harpoons. It dumped most of the dead whale back into the sea and sold the choice bits to Japan. By 1979 it had been operating, under various names, for over a decade and had exterminated an estimated 25,000 whales.
Watson set out to find the Sierra, and after an unscheduled stop to swim with turtles, found her and chased her into the Portuguese harbour of Leixoes, where the authorities offered protection. When it looked like the Portuguese were going hold the Sea Shepherd back, but let the Sierra get away, Watson and a skeleton crew rammed the Sierra and sank her just outside the port and then escaped out to sea.
The Portuguese Navy came after them and eventually Sea Shepherd was impounded. After an (allegedly) bribed Judge ordered her to be handed over to the Sierra's owners, Watson scuttled her in harbour in December 1979. The Sierra meanwhile underwent a million dollars worth of repairs only to suddenly be sunk by a limpet mine planted by persons unknown (it says here...).
So the Sea Shepherd's duel with Sierra ended, with both vessels at the bottom of the sea, but for better or worse Watson continues to lead his personal navy in pursuit of the whalers.
For me it was Johnny Morris's Animal Magic, which possibly explains my lack of gravitas on the subject. Morris was an amiable Welshman, who once blamed the decline of Western civilisation on all the sex and violence in wildlife programs, and who campaigned against the Newbury Bypass when in his eighties. Alas he didn't have a boat so he can't appear in this list.
Instead let's talk about Jacques Cousteau, who with his various film and television appearances from the fifties onwards introduced a generation to an amazing world of adventure.
Having spent the Second World War inventing the aqualung and fighting a covert war against the fascists, he then spent a few years in the navy before renting a old British mine sweeper called the Calypso, from a reclusive Irish millionaire, for the princely sum of one franc a year.
Along with his red beret, the ship became Cousteau's trademark. He wasn't particularly Green at first. He dynamited a coral reef and massacred a school of sharks whilst making his first film The Silent World. But he got better, and in 1960 was successful in stopping the dumping of radioactive waste in Mediterranean.
Thanks to the Calypso, Cousteau's adventures took him to up the Amazon and down the Nile. He explored the Antarctic and hunted for Atlantis and basically had the sort of adventures you can only have with a ship.
I can't say I watched too many of his programs myself, being a little young when he was popular, but I remember really wanting the Revell model kit of this ship.
Cousteau's adventurers continued until his death in 1997. His beloved ship though had been dealt a near terminal blow the year before when it was accidentally sunk by barge in Singapore harbour. She has subsequently been raised and restored, although this appears to be one of those restorations where they basically build another ship that looks like the original.
3. Arctic Sunrise
The vessel had also been used by the French government to construct an airstrip in Antarctica, which Greenpeace had opposed.
From 1995 the ship had a series of adventures around the world in support of Greenpeace's campaigns. It was rammed by Japanese whalers twice and was impounded by Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane nuclear base.
Then in September 2013 it went north of the Arctic Circle to oppose drilling by the Russian oil company Gazprom, which had teamed up with Shell to drill for oil off the coast of the melting Arctic ice cap.
Greenpeace had already boarded a Gazprom rig twice, but when the Arctic Sunrise circled for a third attempt Russian coastguards wielding guns and knives seized the vessel and its and arrested the crew for piracy.
The Russian authorities even seemed to agree. But then, on the same day the latest IPCC report told us exactly why we shouldn't be drilling for oil anywhere, they remanded the international crew for two months whilst they decided if they could get away with charging them with piracy.
A massive international campaign finally saw the crew released just after Christmas, but the Sunrise itself remains in custody.
2. Rainbow Warrior
That was a vessel called the Phyllis Cormack that was renamed Greenpeace for a trip to the Aleutian islands to 'bear witness' to nuclear tests for a group called The Don't Make A Wave Committee.
How a pretty disorganised bunch of hippies then went on to become an international campaigning organisation is a long story, but basically in the early years Greenpeace was more of a banner than an organisation and anyone who had the means and motivation could get a group together and use the name.
By 1978 there were 20 odd Greenpeace groups and very little to bind them together except a set of ideals. However none of them had anything that floated and so what passed for the international part of the organisation (officially to become Greenpeace International the next year) bought an old Scottish fishing boat and renamed her the Rainbow Warrior.
The ship participated in various campaigns and evacuated the population of the radioactive Marshall islands before heading to Auckland harbour ready for a new campaigns against French nuclear testing.
The attack was the work of the Action unit of the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service. Known as the 'Barbouzes', which loosely translates as 'bearded ones', on account of their dodgy disguises, they were originally formed to track down OAS terrorists opposing the French decision to give up its Algerian colony. The OASs got the better of the Barbouzes then, tracking them down and attacking them in their secret base. The Barbouzes didn't fare much better with the Kiwis. Whilst bombing a bunch of hippies proved easy enough, evading the New Zealand police didn't.
The yacht that brought in the explosives was apprehended Australia, with (allegedly) the two divers on board,
but had to be released as Australia had no anti-terrorism law that could hold them. A French nuclear sub then spirited them away. A spy who had infiltrated Greenpeace New Zealand was tracked down in Israel but fled before being arrested, whilst two agents who helped with the logistics were caught and given ten years for manslaughter, but were free two years later after being transferred to a French gaol.
New Zealand never really forgave it's ally the United States for not condemning the bombing, and instead pursued a far more lucrative line of building a non-aligned, anti-nuclear alliance amongst Pacific nations.
The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was subsequently raised, but as the ship was beyond repair she was sunk as an artificial reef. Greenpeace subsequently acquired another Rainbow Warrior which, after twenty two years service was retired in 2011 to be replaced by Rainbow Warrior III, a state-of-the-art electric and sail powered purpose built ship.
1. The Beagle
Of course Darwin didn't do it all single handedly. But whilst we can't ignore the work of Alfred Russell Wallace who spurred on Darwin and had figured out Natural Selection independently, and Gregor Mendel who gave us genetics, neither of them ever went on a voyage anything like that of The Beagle.
The circumstances of how Darwin ended up on ship are ironic, to say the least. The ship's Captain was Robert Fitzroy, one of the foremost sailors of his day and the aristocratic nephew of Viscount Castlereagh, the Home Secretary responsible for the
Castlereagh ended his life by slitting his own throat. The previous Captain of the Beagle had also committed suicide so Fitzroy was worried topping yourself was either hereditary or an occupational hazard, and so wanted someone along with more conversation than the average Jack Tar to keep him sane.
Darwin though was the wrong choice. A zealously religious Tory, Fitzroy was aghast when Darwin presented his Godless theory to the world and turned up at the 1860 waving his bible and ranting against the heresy. When he eventually realised he'd lost the argument and that he had inadvertently helped to give birth to this monstrous theory he became depressed and......well, you can guess how it ends.
The Beagle herself ended up being used first to chase smugglers around the coast of Essex before being moored in the River Roach as a coast guard ship. She may even still be there, with various bits
Not that the physical remains really matter. The Beagle is now immortal thanks to Darwin's book of her voyages. There is nothing like The Voyage of the Beagle. If Newton had written of his laws of motion after crossing Africa in a canoe, or if Einstein had described discovering Relativity whilst trekking across the Antarctic then we may have something comparable, but as it the tale of exploration, adventure and the research that led to possibly the most important scientific discovery of all time makes it a unique read.
After Darwin, biology became the most exciting branch of science. Physics then had a good century, but now, with a planet on the edge of an environmental Apocalypse, we need another Darwin.