The Pacific streamed with blood from the whale and Paul Watson, the soft-looking defender of the orcas and other great leviathans, bobbed about helpless in his inflatable boat.

Salvation hadn't worked. Watson had meant to float his boat and his body between the whale and the harpoonist, but was eight feet too late.

He was just behind when the harpoon struck and the whale rose up in death, spurting blood by the barrel and gazing steadily at Watson.

Watson gazed back. The last seconds quickly passed in a bond between man and beast that will last (by my calculations) longer than either one of them.

The 28-year-old Canadian is one of those oddballs that can't really take the blood so casually spilled, the by-product quite worthless from the tons of meat that bring a fine price. It makes him grind his jaws and turn violent, and I half expected him to say (like Faust) that one drop would save his soul. Half a drop.

In any case, this slaughter of 1975 has never left his eye, his brain, his bone, and may be the proximate cause of Watson's violence on the sea last month when he rammed, with every ferocity he could summon, an unregulated whaler off Portugal.

He expected, or at least did not discount, death.

He knew the ship he meant to destroy had a crew of 39, mostly black South Africans, and all of them might drown as the result of his act, and he went at them with everything he had, and he succeeded in one thing (and maybe more): that ship has killed its last whale.

The question, of course, is whether your own notions of what is good -- such as saving whales -- have any validity. And, even if your own aims are virtuous, and (if they do) whether they justify any such violence as ramming a ship at sea with quite possible loss of more than 40 men's lives. You can't just go off half-cocked and still respect yourself.

It's just at this point you notice you can argue in any direction indefinitely with splendid logic.

And it's just here you confess the power of the past, all those billion coordinates of events and hunches and words that the brain no longer remembers actively, but which shape a life and dictate action. Watson didn't argue much with himself, I gathered:

"You can say what if this, what if that -- " he said, raising his arms and looking both tired and beyond arguing. "The fact is that not one man on either ship was hurt. No loss of life, not even a sprained finger."

Several additional facts (facts according to Watson) may be relevant:

The rammed ship, the Sierra, has been operating for years under various flags of convenience (many two-bit nations will register any ship and ask no questions) killing whales contrary to world agreement. The minor nations providing their registry are not signatories to the international agreements.

The rammed ship obeyed no regulations of the International Whaling Commission, slaughtered females and small whales, contrary to international agreements, killed any whale it could find in any waters, including species protected by international agreement.

There is no international force whatever to prohibit such "pirate" or unregulated whalers, or to punish them for even the grossest flaunting of international agreements. The real power behind the Sierra is a Japanese corporation, but various dodges conceal that fact, including registry of the ship.

Watson did not damage (ram) the Sierra by stealth or sabotage. He gave clear signals, approaching it, he intended to ram it. He first grazed the bow sufficient only to jolt.

He circled the ship, after grazing the bow, to give any crewmen below-decks time to come on deck, then he rammed straight into the whaler's side.

He used no guns and carried none. He allowed ample time for the crew to radio for help and to ready lifeboats.

Before taking off from his own Portuguese port to search for the Sierra and disable her, he told the crew of his own ship (the Sea Shepherd) they faced either death or life in Portuguese jails if they came along on this mission to disable the Sierra. As a result, only two other men went with him. They are Peter Woof, Australian, and Jerry Doran, Hawaiian. The Sea Shepherd crew numbered 20 unpaid volunteers when it left Boston this summer to search for the Sierra. The rest of the Sea Shepherd crew decided not to be aboard for the ramming of the Sierra.

"People sometimes say I have a suicide complex," Watson said. "Well, in fact I enjoy being alive, more than most people. But people can't believe a man will risk death to save whales. That's what they can't understand. So they think I'm crazy or that I attach no value to my life."

As for the violence, Watson recounts that he has been on the receiving end of it more than once. Once he handcuffed his belt to the winch that was hauling up seals. The belt finally broke, dropping him in icy water. He was thrown on deck face down and kept there in icy weather till he went into shock, and while he was in the cold water men hollered at him, "Drown, you goddam bastard."

He was a founder of Greenpeace, he went on, in 1969, an activist environment-saving group from which he was expelled in 1977 for what was called his violent actions.

"That man was clubbing seals," he said.

"I got his club and threw it away. That was the extent of my violence. But he was acting lawfully -- clubbing the baby seals to death is lawful, and seizing the club is not lawful. So they dismissed me for doing what Greenpeace was founded to do -- saving sea mammals. Greenpeace is less effective because they lost their guts.

"I don't care how much money you can raise. A million bucks won't buy you a man who will face the clubs or harpoons unarmed. But that's what it takes."

He said people whine at him that he has no right to "make yourself both judge and jury and executioner." But he doesn't buy that:

"Informed judgment of reasonable and humane people is the jury, and that verdict has been in for a long time. What is lacking is a police force to make the verdict stick. I guess I plead guilty to being a vigilante, but I can tell you something, if there are no police then vigilantes will appear because crime will never be given a free rein."

But again, if nobody thinks the crime (the killing of endangered whales) amounts to a row of beans, nothing much will be done, for all the screaming of environmentalists.

Watson is bitter, as many are who believe in protecting whales, at the Japanese government which allows the whale meat to be imported and sold in Japan.

"It will bring $20 a pound in some cases," Watson said. "And what is so wonderful about whale meat. The main thing is whales have enormous penises and a lot of Japanese men who want to increase their size think that eating whale meat will do it for them."

Whale protection groups have expressed amazement that for so minor an industry, economically speaking, the Japanese state is indifferent to rising environmentalist protest against and contempt for Japanese policy, with its by-product of anti-Japanese feeling, and efforts at banning the import of all Japanese fisheries into America.

Watson came to Washington under the auspices of some environmental groups, who support him on his Sea Shepherd (he has no official home, but thinks of Vancouver as home) and who provided the $40,000 it cost to track down and incapacitate the Sierra. The cost figures are Watson's.

He has a friend who lived six months on the Sea Shepherd and knitted him a startling gray sweater that must weigh 25 pounds from a special kind of unwashed wool.

"She believes in me," he said. He had the sweater over his arm in the heat.

In Bermuda the Sea Shepherd took on a cat, who was about to be destroyed as one of the world's too-numerous cats. Watson found her a home ashore before leaving Boston on the Sierra violence -- "No reason the innocent cat should suffer."

He was born and grew up in New Brusnwick, then to Ontario, and off to sea at 15, then to college for two years at 20.

He later moved on to Vancouver where he went to college, working as a longshoreman or sailor in his off time. He joined the Canadian Merchant Marine, which is a civilian outfit and not military as in the United States, and gradually he became interested in protecting animals.

"There isn't time in a life to work on eagles, elephants, everything. I loved the sea from the time I was a boy in New Brunswick, and now it's been my life. My work is going to be sea mammals, especially the whales and porpoises. If we can't save them, we can't save the sea, and if we can't save the sea, we can't protect ourselves. I don't want to live in a world without whales. I had to ask myself what I could do to save them, beyond signing a lot of petitions.

"Until an international police force is established to protect the whales, I can tell you this, we're going out there."

In 1977 Watson said he and five others pooled their own money for a trip investigating elephant poaching in Africa. He says the corruption he found, of African officials engaged in the illegal killing of elephants for ivory, rather disgusted him, and he said there are men (not Africans) with whole vaults of ivory, delighted at the decline of the elephant and the consequent rise in ivory prices.

He was able to raise money, he said, to buy the Sea Shepherd for somewhat more than $100,000, and has found support (financial and otherwise) from Cleveland Amory and other environmentalists, enough to keep body and soul together and steam ahead with the work. The Sierra, he added, was one of only a handful of unregulated whalers.

The six-by eight-foot hole in her hull, plus the 45-foot-long dent that bent her frame, has put her out of commission for good, Watson believes, and he thinks the effect on other unregulated whalers will be decisive. Already, he said, the pirate whalers are finding it impossible to get insurance, as they formerly did, because insurance companies think it too risky a venture for them.

What legal actions will follow the ramming is not yet clear. Watson believes nothing will happen, and the loss of the ship will be ignored rather than a court appearance that might unravel the Japanese interest in the operation.

Watson, in any case, does not really care:

"I don't care really what people say. The whales that would have been killed by that ship, will still be saved, no matter what anybody says." And that was his original aim.

"Sometimes, when I first went to sea, we'd see a whale and the sailors would be excited. We had an old captain; he said he remembered the days you saw whales everywhere, in tremendous numbers."

Once he was in a Canadian Merchant Marine vessel, out in an inflatable boat, and was supposed to be returning to the vessel but turned aside to admire some huge oreas.

"The captain chewed me out afterwards, and asked if I didn't know the whale could swallow a man whole. That whale could have. Though there are no records of a whale ever having done it. I have found them gentle. I have had the largest whales come at me with their mouths open, but they turn aside.

"I know of Zodiacs (inflatable small boats) picked up by the tail of a great whale, five feet in the air, and set gently down.

"They have the largest brains of any living creature, but unlike us they don't have hands, and they can't manipulate their environment. But that doesn't mean they aren't intelligent, they may be more intelligent than we are. A century from now people will be reading books written by whales, when their language is learned and translated so humans can understand it.

"Who knows how much we could learn from them? About the sea and all that has gone on in the sea?"

Watson does not eat meat or birds. Sometimes he eats fish at sea because he cannot get fresh vegetables.

Melville's "Moby Dick" was a book that rattled him when he was younger. Its whale was larger than life, as Watson's are. But in recent years Watson has been denounced by many, some of whom may disagree with his values, and some of whom may find both his single-mindedness and his courage a reproach to their talkative lives.

I alluded once to Achilles in a backward way and he didn't perk up. Maybe never read "The Iliad" or maybe thought Achilles was a hot-headed jackass?

Who avenged the death of Patrocclus his friend, and who lit into Thetis who warned him (and she was a goddess) his anger would lead to his death. All but spit at her, you know, saying it was okay to die after dealing justice to the unjust. Better than sitting on his great rump meakly, beside his crowned ships, a burden -- and so on.

Kids still read it, in a lot of schools. It's usually when they get to the para neusi koronisin, the crowned ships, that everybody starts looking out the window and grunting out a cough and the tears start running down.