The president of a militant anti-whaling group has vowed to "do whatever it takes" to disrupt a Japanese fleet planning to harpoon nearly 1,000 whales in the waters off Antarctica.
Sea Shepherd, notorious for its aggressive tactics, has two ships and one helicopter stalking the Japanese vessels in the Ross Sea, south-east of Australia. Japan, which has been whaling in the area since mid-December, aims to catch up to 935 minke whales and 10 endangered fin whales this summer, supposedly for scientific research purposes.
The Canadian-based conservation group, which Japan has denounced as an "eco-terrorist" organisation, is promising a major confrontation. But first it has to find the fleet, which it says is using a new satellite tracking system to elude it.
Sea Shepherd has offered a $25,000 (£13,000) reward to anyone who can provide the ships' coordinates. It has also appealed to the New Zealand government, whose air force has filmed the fleet, it believes. But it has not yet received "anything conclusive", Paul Watson, the group's president and founder said yesterday.
"We've covered a lot of ground so far," said Mr Watson, the captain of the flagship vessel Farley Mowat. "But it's a large area. The Ross Sea is 700 miles across."
Sea Shepherd's tactics, which include ramming, disabling and sinking ships, have put it at the forefront of the anti-whaling movement. "We're not down here to run up banners and sing protest songs," said Mr Watson, speaking by satellite phone from the Farley Mowat. "We're here to obstruct and harass and intimidate, to do whatever it takes to disrupt the illegal slaughter of whales.
"As far as we're concerned, this is a criminal operation by Japan, and we are upholding international conservation law.
"We look on this as a policing action, not a protest action. They are no different from elephant poachers or bank robbers."
Despite international opprobrium, Japan is determined to maintain its activities in the Southern Ocean, and from next year will add endangered humpback whales to its quota. It circumvents an international moratorium on commercial whaling by exploiting a loophole that permits whaling for scientific purposes.
In dramatic clashes off Antarctica last year, Sea Shepherd managed to disrupt Japan's operations, but was then outrun by the whaling fleet. This year it has a new, fast ship - the Robert Hunter, a former Scottish fisheries vessel - which it believes will be able to keep pace.
The Farley Mowat, meanwhile, has new weaponry including a hydraulic "tin opener" - a solid steel ram with a bulldozer-strength blade, which Mr Watson said would help to keep Japanese vessels at bay. It also has water cannon, to repel people trying to board.
Mr Watson founded Sea Shepherd in 1977 after a split over tactics with Greenpeace, of which he was a co-founder. Since then he claims to have sunk 30 ships, all in port.
Asked how far he was prepared to go this time, he said: "All of my crew are asked before they come on board whether they are prepared to risk their life to protect the whales. If they answer no, we don't take them. We are all ready to risk life and limb."
Greenpeace has also embarked on its annual operation in the Southern Ocean, where it will try to come between the Japanese whalers and their prey. Japan has called a special meeting this month of the International Whaling Commission, and is hoping to get the 21-year-old moratorium lifted.
But 26 anti-whaling nations, including Australia, have said they will boycott the meeting. Last month Australia banned Japanese whalers from its ports and urged them to use restraint in clashes with protesters.
The Farley Mowat is, in effect, a pirate ship, after being stripped off its registration in Belize. Under maritime law, that means it can be stopped and even sunk by an official vessel from any country.
The Robert Hunter, which is British-flagged, faces the same fate. Britain has given Sea Shepherd a month's notice that it plans to deregister it, following an approach by Japan. "They're taking away our flag, even though we've not broken the law," Mr Watson said.
The Sea Shepherd fleet, which set off from Hobart in Tasmania on Monday, can remain at sea for three weeks before it has to refuel and pick up fresh supplies.
Career of an eco-warrior
Paul Watson, who grew up in the Canadian coastal town of St Andrews, New Brunswick, began his eco-warrior career at the age of nine after local trappers killed one of his "beaver friends". He set about destroying traps in the area and began disrupting duck and deer hunts.
After joining the Canadian coastguard he went on to co-found Greepeace and in 1974 helped organise the group's first campaign against whaling. During a confrontation with the Soviet whaling fleet he saw a sperm whale being harpooned and decided to concentrate on protecting marine life. In 1977 he resigned from Greenpeace, disillusioned at what he felt was their lack of appetite for direct action and formed his own highly confrontational conservation group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Mr Watson has a reputation for being one of the fiercest, if not most erratic, conservationists alive. His ship, the Farley Mowat, is the seventh Sea Shepherd vessel he has commanded.
Jerome TaylorReuse content