Sea Shepherd 'rammed' Nisshin Maru
Japanese whalers release vision they say shows the activist vessel Bob Barker ramming them. Sea Shepherd accuses the Japanese of lying.PT2M45S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2f34v 620 349 February 26, 2013
Out among the tabular icebergs that break off the Amery Ice Shelf, the Co-operation Sea is wildlife-rich and pure.
A ship-borne traveller might see Antarctic fur seals at rest on coastal pack ice, or killer whales nosing through the waters as emperor and adelie penguins porpoise away. Further out, minke, humpback and fin whales feed up on krill as clouds of seabirds compete for leftovers.
The region, about 4500 kilometres south-west of Perth, has been home to members of Australian Antarctic expeditions for more than 50 years.
Colliding … vessel Bob Barker and the Sun Laurel. Photo: AFP Photo /Institute of Cetacean
Valuable science is done there - such as this week's joint discovery by Australian and Japanese researchers of a new source of the global oceans' driver, Antarctic bottom water.
It is also where the whaling conflict long threatened to ignite.
In 1992, members of an Australian expedition were the first to photograph the blood-drenched flensing deck of the factory ship Nisshin Maru in a brazen hunt off Davis station, which led to a diplomatic protest.
North of Davis, Japanese whalers killed the first endangered fin whale to be harpooned in the Antarctic in 30 years. The 19-metre male was shot in a whale sanctuary that Japan does not recognise, on February 3, 2006.
In recent years, as the whalers hunted in these waters, Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd ships traversed them repeatedly in pursuit.
Then, this week, the conflict boiled over, in the battle of the Co-operation Sea. Ships clashed on a naval scale never before seen in Antarctica, the so-called ''land of peace and science''.
By week's end, there was one clear winner. It wasn't Japan, nor was it Sea Shepherd. It was the whales.
The whalers were repelled by a stubborn and damaging activist blockade that prevented them from hunting or refuelling.
At the same time, a Japanese legal net appeared to tighten around Sea Shepherd's ''pirates'', as Tokyo confirmed its determination to go whaling indefinitely.
The showdown between the two sides came in the 26th season of Antarctic whaling by Japan under its disputed scientific permit and the ninth campaign by Sea Shepherd.
Nisshin Maru arrived in the Antarctic later than usual after a partial refit and was found by Sea Shepherd after a 17-day chase from waters south-east of Tasmania. Just as the factory ship was found, a harpoon ship managed to kill one minke whale off Davis station on February 15.
''For Japan to choose that as a site is deeply offensive,'' the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said.
For the next fortnight Nisshin Maru, three harpoon ships, a security ship and refuelling tanker Sun Laurel prowled Co-operation Sea, dogged by three Sea Shepherd vessels. There were nine ships criss-crossing this wild domain, circling each other for tactical advantage.
Push came to shove when Nisshin Maru tried to refuel twice as the non-ice class tanker steamed among scattered icebergs and was blocked by Sea Shepherd ships.
The first time, Nisshin Maru collided with its tanker and all three activist vessels. Metal grinding on metal in videos released by both sides left no doubt of the danger and damage caused in failed attempts to break the blockade.
Tensions were then stoked by the sudden appearance of the Japanese Defence Ministry's 12,000-tonne icebreaker Shirase, as ships assembled for another refuelling attempt in which already battered Sea Shepherd vessels were sandwiched again between the bigger ships.
Shirase loomed within radar range of Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin for more than a day and its military helicopter flew over Sun Laurel, prompting Burke to demand an explanation. He was told by Japan that neither Shirase, nor its aircraft, gave support to the whalers or the Sun Laurel.
But its appearance spotlighted the federal government's decision not to send its own ship south to monitor a potentially serious environmental accident, or worse, in Australia's designated search and rescue zone.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, rejected out of hand the government's capacity ''to police every ocean in the world''.
With Australia's case against Japan expected to be finally heard at the International Court of Justice later this year, Burke insisted the government wanted to settle the matter ''in the court, not the car park''.
As for Japan, in the aftermath of the battle, its Fisheries Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, underscored the strength of his country's commitment.
''I don't think there will be any kind of an end for whaling by Japan,'' he told AFP. ''Japan is an island nation surrounded by the sea, so taking some good protein from the ocean is very important. For food security, I think it's very important.''
A spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, Glenn Inwood, fleshed this out, telling the ABC that Japan wanted to do more than scientific research in the Southern Ocean.
''It wants to undertake a limited, very limited commercial hunt on abundant whale species for food for Japanese people,'' Mr Inwood said.
As the activists trailed the whalers north out of the Co-operation Sea, they had time to ponder their own future.
A stinging US opinion casting Sea Shepherd as the ''very embodiment of piracy'' appeared to bode well for Japanese attempts to legally ensnare the group's assets in the US.
Their founder, Paul Watson, at sea for seven months to avoid extradition to Japan, faced no immediate prospect of setting foot safely on land again.
He maintained his sense of humour, however. ''I'm not really a pirate,'' he said. ''I just play one on TV.''
Andrew Darby is the Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media and the author of Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling.