Former whaler to rescue wildlife

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A FORMER whaling boat was yesterday relaunched as a rescue ship for marine wildlife. The Ocean Defender will be within four days' sailing of any oil spill in British waters, writes Nicholas Schoon.

Its backers hope the 82-year-old vessel will act as a field station for oiled seabirds, where they will be given initial treatment before being sent to rescue centres to have their feathers cleaned. Sick seals can also be kept safely on board, according to the project's founder, Alan Knight. But since wildlife disasters are few and far between, most of the time the ship will be voyaging around Britain surveying dolphin populations.

It has also been equipped as a mobile exhibition centre and lecture hall, where schoolchildren can learn about wildlife conservation. The Ocean Defender was originally the Norwegian whale catcher Bjerk, which hunted blues and humpbacks around Antarctica. The 112ft ship crossed to Britain when Germany invaded Norway in the Second World War and then saw service as an Allied minesweeper. Since then, it has been a herring boat, a freighter and a pleasure yacht. The ship has cost about pounds 150,000 to refit and annual running costs are pounds 100,000. The money comes from Earthkind, a little-known animal welfare and environmental organisation.

The ship is being run by British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a group of scuba-diving enthusiasts interested in rescuing and conserving threatened wildlife.

Restored at Chatham Docks in Kent, it was unveiled to the world on the Thames in London yesterday - just as Norway's whaling season in the north-east Atlantic opens. The Norwegians intend to kill more than 300 minkes, smallest of the great whales, out of a population of about 70,000, despite international condemnation.