When they leapt from their rubber raft on to the deck of a harpoon ship, clutching a letter requesting the Japanese to desist from slaughtering whales, Benjamin Potts and Giles Lane did not expect a warm welcome.
But the two anti-whaling activists – Mr Potts an Australian, Mr Lane from East Sussex – were shocked by their subsequent ordeal in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. The pair, who were released yesterday after being detained aboard the Yushin Maru II for two days and three nights, claimed the crew tried to throw 28-year-old Mr Potts overboard.
He said: "As soon as we boarded, we were rushed by the Japanese crew. They seized us. Two guys picked me up by the shoulders, and the gunner, the guy that shoots the whales, picked up my legs and they attempted to tip me over. They were unsuccessful because I held on to a guard rail."
Mr Potts and Mr Lane are members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the American-based anti-whaling group known for its militant tactics. Sea Shepherd – along with Greenpeace – is on its annual mission to tail and harass the Japanese fleet, prevent the ships from catching as many whales as Tokyo would like, and gain itself some publicity.
Sea Shepherd's previous protests have included fouling the whalers' propellers, throwing noxious substances on deck and placing themselves between harpoon and whale to protect the whalers' prey. This week they decided on a different tack – one they thought was reasonable.
Mr Potts and Mr Lane, 35, were given the task of delivering a letter to the captain of the Yushin Maru II, informing him that he was breaking international law and requesting that he leave the Antarctic. Their instructions, they say, were to depart immediately afterwards. But Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which oversees the whaling hunts, claims toothbrushes, a change of clothes and a flask of rum were found in the men's backpacks.
After the initial scuffle, the pair say, they were tied up on deck – first to a guard rail, then to a mast – for about 20 minutes. "The ship turned sharply to port, and we were soaked," Mr Potts told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, after an Australian ship returned them to the Steve Irwin, Sea Shepherd's recently renamed flagship.
They were then taken inside and questioned by the second officer, who demanded to know why they were there. While the officer, who spoke some English, was civil, "the captain was furious and wouldn't speak to us", according to Mr Potts.
For the next two days, amid top-level diplomatic negotiations between the British, Australian and Japanese governments, he and Mr Lane were held captive in a cabin. Meanwhile, the captain wrangled with Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd's leader and skipper of the Steve Irwin, about the conditions for their release.
The men said they were given bunks with clean sheets, were allowed to take showers and were fed rice and green tea. But they were refused permission to radio the Steve Irwin, and were starved of information about what was happening.
Mr Lane said that he and Mr Potts planned to continue making protests. "The treatment that we received was trivial in comparison to the suffering that the whales experience at the hands of the whalers," he told the Press Association.Reuse content