Earthrace Boat Rams Japanese Whaler and Sinks - 01/13/2010

If the boat above looks familiar, it is because a couple of years ago it appeared on these pages painted silver. On its second try it set the record for the fastest circumnavigation by a powerboat. On January 6 Earthrace turned up again in the news, this time painted black and called Ady Gil, and owner Peter Bethune was again at the helm of his carbon fiber vessel. This time he was affiliated with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which is trying to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean. Either with malice of forethought or with no forethought at all he managed to ram a Japanese whaler that he was harassing. The Sea Shepherd spokesperson says it was the other way around, but you can look at the video tape and judge for yourself.

Peter Bethune
Ady Gil skipper/owner Peter Bethune moves from circumnavigation record breaking to breaking his own vessel on the bow of a Japanese vessel. Now that his boat is sunk, what publicity stunt will he dream up next?

The clash last Wednesday off Antarctica between the Japanese whaler and the protest group was partly bankrolled by former game show host Bob Barker.

New Zealand's marine safety authority said it was launching an investigation into the clash and that Australia's equivalent body would be cooperating closely.

Japan kills about 1,200 whales a year during the December-February season say New Zealand news sources. Sea Shepherd sends ships to try to stop the Japanese hunt, which Tokyo says is for scientific research but conservationists suspect is a cover for commercial whaling.

Aggressive Conservationists

Sea Shepherd's aggressive and confrontational tactics have drawn criticism in the past from Greenpeace, which is seeking to change Japanese attitudes toward whaling by cultivating political allies in parliament. Sea Shepherd's efforts have spawned the Animal Planet TV series "Whale Wars," which has helped win the group high-profile patrons.

Among the group's financial backers is Barker, the former "Price is Right" host who recently gave Sea Shepherd $5 million. The activists named a vessel the “Bob Barker,” which was near the scene of the clash and rescued the crew of the stricken Ady Gil.

Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd's founder, vowed to continue to confront the whaling fleet. "The Japanese whalers have now escalated this conflict very violently," Watson said in a statement from aboard another Sea Shepherd vessel, the Steve Irwin, which he is captaining. The vessel, named for the late Australian conservationist, was about 570 miles (900 kilometers) away from the Ady Gil.

ady_gilcrew.jpg Ady Gil crew aims green laser flash at Japanese whaler.

Whale Wars

"We now have a real whale war on our hands now and we have no intention of retreating," Watson added.

Barker, 86, a longtime animal rights advocate, said “Watson thought he could put the Japanese whaling fleet out of business if he had $5 million. I said, 'I think you do have the skills to do that, and I have $5 million, so let's get it on,' so that's what we did."

Both sides involved in Wednesday's incident gave conflicting versions of what happened.

Bloody Whale
Research, Japanese fisherman-style. “I’ll take my filet with a little wasabi, please.”

Two Whale Tales

Sea Shepherd said the Shonan Maru deliberately rammed the 78-foot (24-meter) Ady Gil as it sat idle in the water near Commonwealth Bay. Representatives of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which oversees the whaling fleet, said the activists caused the incident when the carbon fiber and Kevlar trimaran veered into the Shonan Maru's path.

The whaling institute said the Ady Gil came "within collision distance" of another ship on Wednesday, the Nisshin Maru, and repeatedly dangled a rope that could have entangled the ship's rudder and propeller. The Ady Gil's crew lobbed small projectiles designed to release a foul smell, and the whalers responded by firing high-powered hoses to keep the Sea Shepherd vessels away, the institute said in a statement.

Whaler-Killer’s Version

Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for the whaling institute, said the Ady Gil was moving toward the Shonan Maru and the crash occurred because of an apparent miscalculation by the activists. He said video shot from the Shonan Maru shows the conservationists' boat moving toward the whaler just before the collision.

"The Shonan Maru steams to port to avoid a collision. I guess they, the Ady Gil, miscalculated," Inwood told AP.

Greg McNevin, a Greenpeace International spokesman in Amsterdam, would not comment on the incident directly, but said his group stopped sending ships to the Antarctic to confront whalers in 2008 in order to focus its efforts on changing opinion in Japan.

Mother Whale with Calf
Mother whale and calf being hauled aboard Japanese “research” vessel.

Greenpeace is Non-Violent

"We don't condone violence in any form, no matter who does it," McNevin said. "Greenpeace's position was that we would only place ourselves between the whale and the harpoon."

Animal Planet spokesman Brian Eley said Sea Shepherd has no editorial control over "Whale Wars" and that it pays the group a nominal fee for space on its vessels and for meals and incidentals.

Asked if producing the show raises the risk of violent confrontation, Eley replied: "Our production crew did not direct or control Sea Shepherd's actions. We have documented what happened, and our viewers can make their own judgments."

Australia and New Zealand — both opponents of whaling — have maritime safety authority in the region where the Japanese hunt occurs, and they have urged both sides to show restraint in the frigid waters, warning that they are far away from rescue if anything goes wrong.

"The government is very concerned at this collision," Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said. "We condemn any dangerous or violent activity that takes place in the southern oceans. Safety at sea is an absolute priority in this dangerous and inhospitable ocean area." New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully deplored the clash and urged both sides to "put a greater premium on human life in such a harsh environment." He said would take up the issue with Japanese authorities.