US & World

Activists pursue Japanese whalers by helicopter

An aggressive conservation group searched Antarctic waters by helicopter Thursday for a key Japanese whaling ship, renewing its relentless pursuit of the hunters just one day after one of its boats was wrecked in a clash.

The chopper from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's main ship was trying to find the Japanese fleet's whale processing ship and resume attempts to harass the whalers into giving up their hunt, the group's founder and ship captain Paul Watson said.

The group's two other vessels - including the futuristic trimaran Ady Gil that was struck Wednesday - were tied together in another location, near Commonwealth Bay.

Activists were removing fuel and other potential pollutants from the Ady Gil in anticipation of its sinking, Watson told The Associated Press.

Wednesday's clash was the most serious in about a decade of altercations between activists and Japanese whalers in Antarctica, experts said.

Each side blamed the other for the crash and showed no 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. These acts should be strongly condemned," Yasuhisa Kawamura, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Tokyo. "Violence will not contribute to the final solution of this issue."

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

New Zealand and Australia launched an investigation and renewed oft-repeated appeals for both sides to show restraint, warning that both human lives and Antarctica's pristine environment could be at risk.

Japanese Ambassador to New Zealand Toshihiro Takahashi met with senior officials in Wellington to protest the crash, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.

It is not clear what, if any, legal action could be taken.

Don Rothwell, an international maritime law expert at the Australian National University who has advised the government on whaling, said it was possible Sea Shepherd could sue the whaling ship's master for negligence. But the whalers could also try to have the Ady Gil charged with terrorism at sea for trying to foul its navigation systems.

Any case would be problematic because the sovereignty of the waters where the clash occurred is not clear cut, and because the remote location means resolving the claims and counterclaims of each side would be extremely tough, Rothwell said. He said a court in New Zealand would be the most likely venue because that is where the Ady Gil is registered.

"I am not suggesting they were completely at fault yesterday, but Sea Shepherd operate really at the very outer edge of the law and it is amazing what they get away with," he said.

Wednesday's clash was the most serious yet between the two sides, Rothwell said, and with no clear way to resolve the issue, the confrontation could easily escalate further.

Japan kills about 1,200 whales a year in Antarctica during the December-February season. Sea Shepherd sends ships to try to stop the Japanese hunt, which Tokyo says is for scientific research, but conservationists claim is a cover for commercial whaling.

Sea Shepherd's aggressive and confrontational tactics have drawn criticism in the past from Greenpeace, which used to send ships to try to interfere with the hunt but now is seeking to change Japanese attitudes toward whaling by cultivating political allies in parliament.

Sea Shepherd is generally seen as belligerent in Japan and has garnered little sympathy. Two major newspapers put photos of the clash on their front pages Thursday. "This is what harassment leads to," said one of the captions.

But Sea Shepherd's efforts have spawned the Animal Planet TV series "Whale Wars," which has helped win the group high-profile patrons including former "Price is Right" TV host Bob Barker, who recently gave Sea Shepherd $5 million. The activists named a ship the Bob Barker, which rescued the Ady Gil's crew after the collision.

The Bob Barker tried to tow the Ady Gil on Thursday, but the damaged boat took on more water each time it was moved, Watson said. Crew were removing diesel fuel, the boat's two engines and other items in case it sinks.

He said Sea Shepherd did not intend to scuttle the boat, but that it was expected to sink when rougher weather arrives.

"That is our priority right now; to make sure there is no pollution from that vessel," Watson said.

Animal Planet spokesman Brian Eley said Sea Shepherd has no editorial control over "Whale Wars" and that it pays the group a nominal fee for space on its vessels, meals and incidentals.

Asked if producing the show raises the risk of violent confrontation, Eley replied: "Our production crew did not direct or control Sea Shepherd's actions. We have documented what happened, and our viewers can make their own judgments."

Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles; Eric Talmadge, Malcolm Foster and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo; Lauri Neff in New York, and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.