Whaling activist sunk own boat 'as a publicity stunt'

It was one of the most dramatic moments in the annual hostilities between the Japanese whaling fleet and members of the militant conservation group Sea Shepherd: the ramming of a protest boat, which sank in the icy waters of the Antarctic.

But all was not as it seemed, according to the Ady Gil's captain, Pete Bethune, who claimed yesterday that Sea Shepherd deliberately scuppered its own boat last January as a publicity stunt. Acting on orders from the group's founder and president, Paul Watson, Mr Bethune boarded the vessel with two fellow activists and opened compartments and hatches to let in water, he said.

The allegation was denied by Mr Watson, who released emails revealing that Mr Bethune, a New Zealander, had been expelled from the organisation. The group posted a video on its website which appears to confirm that Mr Bethune let the Ady Gil sink while it was being towed back to port by another Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker.

However, the sabotage claim and the public war of words between the two former comrades seem certain to damage Sea Shepherd's credibility.

Mr Bethune told Radio New Zealand that the Ady Gil, a high-tech trimaran owned by a Californian businessman of that name, had been salvageable. Of the alleged plot to scupper it two days after the collision, he said: "It was all done in secret. I was ordered not to tell any of the crew, not my family, and especially not Ady Gil. I was ashamed of it at the time, and I'm ashamed of it now." Accusing the Sea Shepherd leadership of "apparent moral bankruptcy", Mr Bethune said Mr Watson wanted to "garner sympathy with the public and to create better TV".

The Ady Gil sank after being hit by a Japanese factory ship, the Shonan Maru II. Sea Shepherd claimed the Japanese vessel deliberately rammed its boat, shearing off its bow. The Japanese blamed the protesters, saying they abruptly slowed down while crossing the path of the ship, which was unable to stop.

A month later, Mr Bethune was arrested by the Japanese, after boarding the Shonan Maru II to confront its captain over the incident. He spent five months in jail in Japan, pleaded guilty to trespass, assault and other charges, received a suspended sentence and was deported.

A possible reason for Japan's leniency, it has emerged, is that Mr Bethune blamed Mr Watson, saying he ordered him to board the ship and carry out other illegal actions. As a result, Mr Watson is now on Interpol's Blue List, which means border authorities are notified that he is a "person of interest".

At the time, Sea Shepherd said the Ady Gil sank after its tow line snapped and it began taking in water. Mr Watson insisted that Mr Bethune, as skipper, had made the key decisions. "Pete is on camera saying, 'yes, I guess we're going to have to let it go'," he said.

During Mr Bethune's trial, Sea Shepherd distanced itself from him, which it later said was a ploy to help him secure a light sentence. According to the group, it spent more than US$500,000 (£314,000) on his defence, but later discovered he had given "false information" to Japanese police.

For his part, Mr Bethune claims he was not expelled from the group, but quit in disgust. His version of events appears to be supported by Mr Gil, who told Radio New Zealand that Mr Watson used publicity stunts to attract funding and Mr Bethune was pushed into sinking the boat.

The bitterness between the two former colleagues is clear from their emails, in which Mr Watson accuses Mr Bethune – who was at the Ady Gil's helm when it was struck by the factory ship – of not having control of his own vessel. He also says Mr Bethune failed to show courage in custody, unlike other Sea Shepherd activists detained in the past in Canada and Norway.

Mr Bethune, meanwhile, writes that three of his fellow Ady Gil crew members can support his account, and are prepared to sign affidavits and undergo lie detector tests.

The row is a serious blow to Sea Shepherd's image. Chris Carter, a former New Zealand Conservation Minister, told Associated Press that Mr Watson's credibility and the group's anti-whaling programme had been "compromised" by Mr Bethune's claims.

The rivals

Paul Watson

A veteran of marine activism who has spent years roaming the oceans attempting to save life in the sea, the 59-year-old started early. Aged nine, the young Canadian destroyed traps intended to catch beavers, according to the Sea Shepherd website. He claims to have been one of the founders of Greenpeace and embarked on a series of voyages to try to prevent nuclear testing. He was part of the Greenpeace campaign against whaling, confronting the Soviet whaling fleet. He left Greenpeace in 1977 in a disagreement over the use of direct action campaigns and set up the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He freely admits to damaging property in pursuit of his goals but says that in more than three decades of confronting whalers and sealers he has never injured a person.

Pete Bethune

Pete Bethune was the captain of the powerboat Ady Gil when it and a Japanese whaling vessel collided and sparked the series of events that led to the bitter falling out with Paul Watson. The 45-year-old New Zealander was convicted in July by a Japanese court after throwing a bottle of butyric acid – likened to a stink bomb – over a whaler.

Mr Bethune climbed aboard the Japanese vessel, intending to arrest its captain for attempted murder and bill him for the sinking of the ship. Instead he was arrested and taken to Tokyo for trial. At the trial, the prosecution showed a video shot by the whalers that appeared to show him whooping with delight after throwing the liquid. Mr Watson, who was not before the court, said at the time that Mr Bethune was "being used as a political football by right-wing nationalists in Japan".