Whalers call truce with protesters to rescue activists in Antarctic fog

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The Independent Online

In surreal scenes off Antarctica, a Japanese whaling ship joined the search for two missing anti-whaling activists, after which both parties resumed hostilities.

The men, members of the militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, were rescued yesterday, eight hours after losing sight of the group's flagship. They had been drifting in thick fog and had lassoed an iceberg to protect themselves. Their inflatable dinghy was damaged when it collided with a whale processing ship, the Nisshin Maru, as they tried to foul its propeller.

The Nisshin Maru, part of a fleet harpooning whales in the Southern Ocean, responded to a radio call from Sea Shepherd, requesting help in finding John Gravois, an American, and Karl Neilsen, an Australian.

Just before they went missing, protesters had dumped six litres of the corrosive butyric acid on the ship's flensing dock, where whales are cut up. In what Japan denounced as "piratical, terrorist acts," one crewman was hit in the face by an empty acid container and another had acid squirted in his eye.

After the men were plucked from the ocean by Sea Shepherd's flagship, the Farley Mowat, its captain, Paul Watson, called the Nisshin Maru to thank the crew. "They were very professional," he said. "They just said they'd wait for us [to resume the protest]."

Mr Watson, the Canadian-based group's founder and president, told them: "I guess we're back on schedule, and we'll be pursuing you again."

Sea Shepherd had only just found the fleet, after searching for it for several weeks and even offering a $25,000 reward. Three Zodiac dinghies confronted the ships, forcing them to abandon a chase for a pod of whales.

Mr Gravois said that after their fibreglass hull got cracked, they lost sight of the Farley Mowat. Unable to use their radio, he and Mr Neilsen tied their boat to the iceberg."When they found us, it was a feeling of the most extreme relief that you can imagine."

Japan condemned the dumping of the acid. Hideki Monoruki, an official at the Fisheries Agency, said Sea Shepherd's actions were "very dangerous". Protesters in Zodiacs also used nail guns to fasten plates over the Nisshin Maru's drains, which spill whale blood out into the sea.

Japan circumvents an international moratorium on commercial whaling by exploiting a loophole allowing whaling for scientific purposes. It plans to catch up to 935 minke whales and 10 fin whales this year.