People call him a "radical" but I think my friend Paul Watson was a pretty routine guy until the age of 8 when he joined the Kindness Club in eastern Canada and took to saving crabs.

Today he says he has heard he'll be charged with attempted murder -- an asinine idea even by standards of the most gung-ho prosecutor.

Watson is skipper of the Sea Shepherd, a 200-foot vessel manned and womaned by a crew of nine environmental activists who most recently tangled with the police of the Faeroe Islands, between Iceland and Norway. The activists were challenging an immemorially traditional hunt of pilot whales there.

A few days ago I got a phone call from my tree buddy, Benjamin White (he has a tree care company), who would have been on the Sea Shepherd except his first daughter was born too late for him to get aboard. He sounded worried:

"I got a call this morning from Paul Watson, on the Sea Shepherd off the Faeroes. He said, 'Ben, we've been in some tight spots, but this is different. We're under fire. Get on the phone and call the State Department and the Danish Embassy and anybody else you can think of. I'm afraid somebody is going to get killed. If you don't hear from me in a couple of hours we're in real trouble.' "

In fact, nobody was killed or grievously injured, but this is the first time I know of in which unarmed environmentalists were fired on. Admittedly the bullets were three-inch-long plastic shells that exploded into tear gas, but a few years ago a reporter was killed by one.

I reached Watson toward midnight yesterday at Vancouver and asked what happened before the tear gas bullet whizzed by his head.

"We were being followed by a Faeroese inspection vessel, the Olavur Halgi, that launched some inflatable boats and caught up with us about 3 a.m. the morning of July 12. I was on the bridge, but walked off to the side and hollered down, 'What are your intentions?' There had been no radio contact and no word of any kind before I said this. I saw a police officer raise a shotgun, and I said, 'What are you going to do, shoot us?' and the only response was the man fired. The bullet went three inches past the side of my head and exploded. I could still see, just a lot of stinging and watering of the eyes."

The Danish Embassy phoned Copenhagen (the Faeroes are Danish islands) and the Faeroese authorities the next day and got their version. Spokesman Bent Skou said he learned the police boat confronted the Sea Shepherd just inside a 12-mile limit and told Watson he was under arrest, but that he replied, "You think so? Ha, ha. Full steam ahead."

The Faeroese said the Sea Shepherd squirted salt water through hoses on the police. The police then fired tear gas bullets and grenades, but the Sea Shepherd crew threw them in the sea. The crew also fired warning rockets over the police boat, the embassy reported, and fired line rockets (which pull a thin nylon line behind them) to entangle the propellers. The police felt themselves under a life-threatening attack, they said. The Faeroese chief constable, M. Nepper-Christensen, said he will consider this week what charges to lodge against Watson, but will not try to have him extradited.

"Extradited?" said Watson from Vancouver. "No, I don't suppose he will, since no court would go along with that without a hearing, and any hearing would get him laughed out of court. I've heard I will be charged with attempted murder. We are unarmed and always have been. Their boat had machine guns and other weapons, though as far as I know, tear gas is all they fired. To keep them from boarding us we did fire rockets and we did try to snag their propellers. But the whole crew heard me shout to take care none of these measures should risk hurting a policeman."

A camera crew was on board, headed by Jeff Goodman of Plymouth, England, who said he had a contract with the BBC to make a documentary. Reaching him at his home, I asked for his account. It agreed with Watson's and White's.

"I was with them for seven weeks. I never saw a single gun. I did see very clearly the Sea Shepherd was prepared to stick up against killing the whales. They were prepared to put themselves between the whales and the hunters.

"Our tape of the whole incident records Watson hollering to take care not to hurt any policeman. There was no verbal contact from them. Without any verbal announcement he fired, it appeared to me right at Watson's head. I think Watson's words were 'We don't want to hurt anybody.' As for the hoses, it got them wet, but there was no force to speak of.

"I felt the police were just doing what they had been ordered to do, but whoever ordered them was overreacting, endangering both crews. If one of those tear gas bullets hit you it would take your head off.

"It struck me as extraordinary that any people would go to such violent lengths to protect whale killing."

I phoned Alan Thornton in London; Thornton's Environmental Investigation Agency Ltd. has been a leader in trying to stop the Faeroese kill. He said chemical pollutant chemical levels in the whale meat are sufficiently high (3.4 parts per million in one sample, though the safe level is 0.4 parts) that the Danish government recommends eating it no more than once a week.

"They kill the whole pod -- pregnant females, babies, everything. In past centuries this was a godsend to them, and they ate every bit. But now it's a nostalgic indulgence. The Faeroes have a very high standard of living. The distribution system is extremely wasteful. It's a traditional thing with them, nothing more. But for them it's like motherhood and apple pie. In conversations with the Faeroese, I can see great progress has been made in the last couple of years in understanding the whale kills should stop -- their awareness has increased drastically."

Ross Rogers at the State Department said the Faeroese have the possibility of asking for an "aboriginal exemption" from mandates against whale killing -- a provision intended for fairly primitive people who need the meat to subsist. The Faeroese have not applied for the exception, possibly not wishing to be thought of as savages gnawing blubber, I suspected. Rogers said the State Department has films of the Faeroese kill "that we've all ruined our lunches watching." The State Department has not been involved in the Sea Shepherd case.

The incident still baffles Watson.

"I was quite taken off guard. It was an amazing thing, coming from the police. There was no warning at all, and though they say otherwise, nobody made any such attempt before firing. I saw the flame come out of the barrel, and that was the first warning. One of the tear gas bullets pierced the half-inch-thick glass of the starboard light. We only fired the warning rockets and lines after I saw one of the police aim at a crew member."

After his novitiate in the Kindness Club (kindness to animals, a group founded by a Canadian provincial premier's wife), Watson was one of the founders of Greenpeace, another group of activists, before establishing the Sea Shepherd projects. Yesterday he hoped to take his 6-year-old daughter to visit the fair in Vancouver, but he's also working on a British Columbia project to save wolves, and later there will be a trip to roll up nets of Japanese who are major killers of whales.

"It does get wearying after so many years, but I don't see any other way except protest and confrontation. It loses its sense of adventure and is almost like just any other job. It always surprises me to see that people think of me as some kind of radical. I've never considered myself anything but a conservative.

"There was one guy, a first mate of a vessel we kept from killing whales a couple of years ago. He was asked on television if he thought education was the answer and he said no, the thing that changed him was seeing guys putting themselves unarmed between the whales and their killers. That got to him, and he said he'd like to sail on the Sea Shepherd. He was a harpoonist, too. Things like that make you keep on, hoping you make a difference."