Yachtsmen spot pirate whaling

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Yachtsmen crossing the Atlantic have found evidence which suggests a pirate whaling operation is underway, in defiance of the 10-year-old international moratorium on slaughtering the marine mammals.

There have been reports of whale carcasses attached to buoys and of others floating with what appear to be harpoons sticking out of them.

Brad de Lange, Australian skipper of the yacht Globina, told The Independent yesterday that he saw a pod of whales surrounding a yellow buoy on 31 May - one day's sailing from San Miguel Island in the Azores.

As his boat neared the group, all but one submerged and swam away. The breathing of the remaining whale was much quicker than the others, and it appeared to be attached to the buoy.

Initially baffled by what they had seen, the yacht's crew later concluded the whale had been left wounded and tethered to be picked up later. "What annoyed us is that it was such a horrible death for the thing," said Mr de Lange. "We hope whoever is behind it is found and stopped."

Herb Hilgenberg, a radio ham in Burlington, Ontario, heard from five yachts last month which reported floating whale carcasses in mid-Atlantic waters south west of the Azores. The first of these reports, on 12 May, said the whale was attached to a lit buoy.

Mr Hilgenberg, who gives transatlantic yachtsmen safety advice on winds and weather forecasts, said the yachts were sufficiently far apart to be sure that they were reporting several carcasses and not just one.

Jeff King, English skipper of the yacht Tuesday Girl said: ''I've been hearing reports by radio from other yachts of whales floating around dead with poles in them. We saw a decomposing carcass ourselves, covered in seabirds."

The reports were relayed to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, a small campaigning group based in Bath, by Bill Herbert, who runs a boat from the Azores which takes tourists to watch live whales and dolphins. The society believes the explanation for the sightings is a large, well planned pirate-whaling operation - but it has no idea where it is operating from.

The International Whaling Commission has no policing and enforcement powers. The pirate whalers could only be legally tackled once they came into port, providing the country they landed at had the necessary legislation in place - and most don't.