SYDNEY — The anti-whaling ship the Bob Barker and a Japanese harpoon boat collided today in the icy waters off Antarctica — the second major clash this year in the increasingly aggressive confrontations between conservationists and the whaling fleet.
No one was injured in the latest smash-up, for which each side blamed the other.
The U.S.-based activist group Sea Shepherd, which sends vessels to confront the Japanese fleet each year, said the Japanese ship deliberately rammed the Bob Barker — named after the U.S. game show host who donated millions to buy it for the anti-whaling group.
However, Japan’s Fisheries Agency said the activist boat caused the collision by suddenly approaching the harpoon vessel No. 3 Yushin Maru to throw bottles containing butyric acid in an attempted attack on the Japanese ship.
The Japanese agency accused Sea Shepherd of “committing an act of sabotage” on the Japanese expedition, noting that it is allowed under world whaling restrictions as a scientific expedition. Conservationists call the annual hunt a cover for commercial whaling.
“We will not tolerate the dangerous activity that threatens Japanese whaling ships and endangers the lives of their crew members,” it said in a statement late today.
Neither side’s account could be verified. Video shot from the Bob Barker and released by Sea Shepherd shows the two ships side by side moving quickly through the water. The ships come closer together and the Japanese ship then appears to turn away, but its stern swings sharply toward the Bob Barker. The collision is obscured by spray, but a loud clanging noise can be heard before the vessels separate.
Today’s collision was the second this year between a Sea Shepherd boat and the Japanese fleet.
On Jan. 6, a Japanese whaler struck Sea Shepherd’s high-tech speed boat Ady Gil and sheared off its nose. The Bob Barker then came to rescue the crew of the Ady Gil, which sank a day later.
Sea Shepherd and the whalers have faced off in Antarctic waters for the past few years over Japan’s annual whale hunt, with each side accusing the other of acting in increasingly dangerous ways.
Sea Shepherd activists try to block the whalers from firing harpoons, and they dangle ropes in the water to try to snarl the Japanese ships’ propellers. They also hurl packets of stinking rancid butter at their rivals. The whalers have responded by firing water cannons and sonar devices meant to disorient the activists. Collisions have occurred occasionally.
Japan aims to take hundreds of whales each year — mainly minke whales, which are not endangered — under a program that is allowed despite the international moratorium on killing whales because it is done in the name of science. Critics say the scientific program is a front for commercial whaling, and much of the meat is eaten.
Today, the Bob Barker found the whaling fleet for the first time since the time of the Ady Gil clash, Watson said.
Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson said by satellite telephone today that the Bob Barker took up a position behind the Nisshin Maru — the Japanese factory ship where dead whales are hauled aboard and butchered — so the four harpoon vessels could not reach it, he said.
“The harpoon ships started circling like sharks,” Watson said from his ship, the Steve Irwin. “They were making near passes to the stern and the bow of the Bob Barker, then the Yushin Maru 3 intentionally rammed the Bob Barker.”
The Bob Barker sustained a 3-ft. long, 4-inch wide gash in its hull. Welders aboard the ship were already working on patching the hole, and the Bob Barker would resume its pursuit of the whalers, Watson said.
Watson said the Yushin Maru 3 appeared to stop moving after the collision and had not been seen by the Bob Barker’s crew to have moved since, suggesting it also may have been damaged.
The Japanese fisheries statement said the Bob Barker caused the collision by coming in too close to throw butyric acid — smelly, rancid butter that spoils whale meat — onto the Japanese vessel. “The No. 3 Yushin Maru immediately moved away to avert a collision, but it was grazed in its tail area,” the Fisheries Agency statement said.
The clash caused No. 3 Yushin Maru minor damage — its railing was slightly bent — but involved no injuries among crewmembers, the agency said.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which have responsibility for maritime rescue in the area where the hunt is usually conducted, say the fight between the two sides is becoming increasingly dangerous and have repeatedly urged them to tone it down.
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