SYDNEY — Japanese whalers blasted water from a cannon at conservationists who hurled bottles of rancid butter and paint during a clash today in frigid Antarctic waters, officials said.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society also accused the whalers of throwing hunks of metal and golf balls at its members, lightly injuring two activists in the fracas. Japanese officials said only a water cannon was used.
The group — which routinely harasses the Japanese whaling fleet during its annual hunt in the Antarctic Ocean — sent a helicopter and two inflatable boats toward a Japanese harpoon ship early today in heavy seas about 2,000 miles southeast of the Australian state of Tasmania, said Paul Watson, the group’s leader.
Japan, which has described the Sea Shepherd protesters as terrorists, plans to harvest up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales this season. Under International Whaling Commission rules, the mammals may be killed for research but not for commercial purposes. Opponents say the Japanese research expeditions are simply a cover for commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.
The whalers opened up on conservationists on one raft with a water cannon, knocking one man off his feet and leaving him with cuts and bruises, Watson told The Associated Press by satellite phone.
Another protester was hit in the face with a large chunk of metal lobbed from a harpoon boat. He was wearing a shield on his helmet, but still suffered bruises, Watson said.
The Japanese also aimed a “military grade” noise weapon that can cause deafness and vomiting at the Sea Shepherd crew, Watson said. Some felt its vibrations but were too far away to be otherwise affected, he said.
Toshinori Uoya, a Fisheries Agency official in charge of whaling, said Sea Shepherd members initiated attacks on the whalers and the Japanese used water cannon in self defense.
“It’s so aggravating to hear them making groundless accusations,” he said. “We acted only in self defense, to chase them away.”
Uoya said activists on two rubber boats hurled bottles containing rancid butter and paint onto the main harpoon vessel, Nisshin Maru, and its two accompanying boats, Yushin Maru and No. 3 Yushin Maru. They also threw ropes in front of the fleet, trying to block their way.
He said the Japanese government lodged a protest with the governments of Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands — where the Sea Shepherd’s vessel, Steve Irwin, is registered — and requested their cooperation to prevent violent protests.
Protesters aboard the ship, named after the late Australian conservationist and TV personality Steve Irwin, set off from Australia in early December for the remote and icy Antarctic Ocean, chasing the whaling fleet for about 2,000 miles before stopping two weeks ago in Tasmania to refuel. The group found the whalers again on Sunday and resumed their pursuit.
“I will not allow them to kill a whale while we’re here, and they know that,” Watson said today. “I’ll literally rip their harpoon off their deck if I have to.”