Whalers aid in Antarctic rescue of environmentalists
Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor of The Times
Japanese whalers and a group of self-styled environmental “pirates” called a
temporary truce today to save the lives of two activists who spent seven
hours adrift in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean.
A dinghy carrying the two campaigners from the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society got lost in fog during a violent confrontation with the Nisshin
Maru, a Japanese factory ship which is hunting a thousand whales in the
name of “scientific research”.
It was the latest incident in an increasingly dangerous struggle being fought
in the watery wilderness of the Antarctic.
Sea Shepherd dinghies attempted to bolt metal plates over outlets in the hull
of the Japanese ship, to prevent the outflow of the blood of butchered
whales. The Japanese government said that two sailors suffered minor
injuries after being struck or splashed in the eyes by canisters of butyric
acid, a harmless but noxious “stink bomb” fired from the anti-whaling ship.
“We wanted to remind them what rotting whale flesh smells like,” Jonny Vasic,
the international director of Sea Shepherd, told The Times by
satellite telephone from the ship, Robert Hunter.
“When they see us, they run, and when they’re on the run they can’t kill
whales. Whales are living, not dying, when we are around.”
The two activists got lost in fog after their satellite navigation and radio
equipment failed. Sea Shepherd called off their “action” and began to search
for the missing dinghy, with the help of the Nisshin Maru. The two
men, an Australian and an American, were found unharmed after seven hours.
They later said they had tied their boat to an iceberg for protection from
icy winds and to stop them drifting away.
Sea Shepherd is lead by Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace who broke away to
form his own more radical group. Its confrontational and sometimes violent
tactics are opposed even by those who denounce Japan’s whaling programme,
such as Greenpeace and the governments of Australia and New Zealand.
“It really puts the cause of conservation backwards,” Ian Campbell, the
Australian environment minister, said last month. “I implore Captain Watson
to comply with the law of the sea and not do anything to put at risk other
vessels on the high seas and therefore human life.”
The flagship, Farley Mowat, is equipped with a “hydraulic can opener”
which could seriously damage the hull of another vessel. Hideki Moronuki of
the Japan Fisheries Agency said: “This accident caused by Sea Shepard is an
illegal act and very dangerous not only for the Japanese fleet but for
“They are threatening people’s lives. We strongly protest and request them to
stop immediately. Their conduct is that of pirates – we call them
Sea Shepherd justifies its actions with the claim that the Japanese are
themselves breaking the law by hunting endangered whales. The Nisshin
Maru carries out its hunt in the name of scientific research, but almost
all the 1000 animals targeted this year will find their way on to the
“It’s like taking the gun out of the hands of a bank robber, or stopping an
ivory poacher,” said Mr Vasic. “These are criminals perpetrating illegal
Today’s confrontation was the climax to a five-week chase in which two Sea
Shepherd vessels, the Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter,
attempted to find the Japanese whalers in millions of square miles of ocean.
Sea Shepherd claims that the Japanese Government has been tracking its two
boats using satellite imagery and passing on the information to the whalers
to help them evade detection.
In desperation, the organisation offered to pay US $25,000 to any member of
the Australian or New Zealand military who leaked the co-ordinates of the
fleet. Both countries have been tracking the Japanese fleet, and last week
New Zealand evacuated a sick whaler by helicopter.
But the organisation says that it will not be paying out the reward, having
found the whalers yesterday through its own efforts. “After five weeks it
was getting very discouraging,” said Mr Vasic. “We had a hunch where they
were based on past experience, and we hid out in an ice field where it’s
difficult for them to track us because they can’t identify the wake.”
To complicate matters further, a ship owned by Greenpeace is also making its
way towards the area, having been given the co-ordinates by Sea Shepherd.
The two Sea Shepherd votes are literally pirate vessels, having been struck
off the shipping register of the countries under whose flags they were
sailing. The government of Belize deregistered the Farley Mowat last
month, and the British authorities are in the process of striking off the Robert
Under the law of the sea, unflagged vessels can be boarded and seized and
their crews arrested.