Activists pursue Japanese whalers by helicopter

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SYDNEY (AP) — Conservationists monitoring Japanese whalers in the Antarctic said Friday that they remained committed to protecting whales despite a dangerous clash this week that resulted in one of their boats sinking.

Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said the Ady Gil sank overnight while it was being towed to a French base in Antarctica for possible repairs.

He said the crew removed all the oil and fuel before the vessel went under.

On Wednesday, the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru plowed into the Ady Gil, knocking the bow off the wave-piercing trimaran speedboat that was one of the society’s trio of vessels trying to harass the hunters out of business. A Sea Shepherd volunteer suffered two cracked ribs from the crash.

Each side blamed the other and Australia and New Zealand, the closest nations to the latest confrontation, have announced investigations into the crash. But Watson scoffed at government calls for restraint from both sides in the conflict.

“We’re not going to restrain ourselves from protecting these whales and we’re not going to restrain ourselves from upholding international conservation law,” Watson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Japan kills about 1,200 whales a year in Antarctica under what it says is a scientific program allowed by the International Whaling Commission despite a broader moratorium on killing the mammals. Critics say the program is a front for illegal commercial whaling, and Sea Shepherd sends ships to Antarctica each season to try to stop the hunt — an effort portrayed on the Animal Planet TV series “Whale Wars.”

The whaling is conducted in international waters, but usually within the huge patch of ocean that is designated as Australia’s maritime rescue zone and that Canberra considers a whale sanctuary.

But rules governing Antarctica are not clear cut. The frozen continent and the oceans around it are administered by agreement between nations, and there are conflicting claims about sovereignty. The remoteness of the area also makes policing the international waters extremely difficult.

“There is very little ability for a sort of police force to just turn up on the scene to separate the two sides” when then is a dispute such as Wednesday’s clash, said Don Rothwell, a professor in international law at the Australian National University who wrote a recent report for the government on Antarctic whaling.

It was possible Sea Shepherd could try to sue the whaling ship’s master for negligence in Wednesday’s clash, he said. But the whalers could also try to have the Ady Gil charged with terrorism at sea for trying to foul its propellers with rope — a tactic Sea Shepherd openly says it uses.

Japan said it had asked countries that let the conservationists register their ships or use their ports to help curtail the group’s aggressive acts. Sea Shepherd leader Watson said Australia should send its navy or a customs vessel to stop what he calls illegal poaching.

But Wednesday’s clash was unlikely to produce any useful change in policy, and had actually raised the chances of a further escalation in the whaling face-off, said Rothwell.

“This is the great fear at the moment,” he said.

“Sea Shepherd is using very strong language, talking about a war with the Japanese,” he said. “Increasingly, the Japanese have become more aggressive in their responses — we can expect that there will be more clashes.”

Sea Shepherd says the Ady Gil was sitting idle and the whaler deliberately rammed it. Japan says the activists’ boat was moving toward its ship and a miscalculation on their part caused the collision. Neither side’s version — which happened near Commonwealth Bay about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) south of Australia — could be independently verified.

“I’ve never been so close to death in my life,” Laurens de Groot, a 29-year-old Dutch member of the Ady Gil’s crew who was not injured, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone on Thursday. “While I was standing on the roof and that harpoon ship was coming in at full speed, you think: ‘This can’t be real, it’s not really happening.'”

Neither side showed signs of backing down.

“The series of sabotage acts by the Sea Shepherd were very dangerous and risked the life and safety of the Japanese crew members,” Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura told reporters in Tokyo.

Watson vowed his group would not step back, saying “We now have a real whale war on our hands.”

He said a helicopter from the group’s main ship, Steve Irwin, was launched Thursday to try to find the Japanese fleet’s whale processing ship and resume attempts to disrupt the whalers.

Acting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there were no immediate plans to send a government vessel to the region.


Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Eric Talmadge and Malcolm Foster in Tokyo contributed to this report.