SYDNEY – A space-age powerboat sent to harass Japanese whalers was rammed and sliced in two in its very first clash on Wednesday, activists said, dramatically escalating hostilities in icy Antarctic seas.
The futuristic Ady Gil trimaran, which holds the round-the-world speed record for a powered vessel and was enlisted by activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for this whaling season, received "catastrophic damage" and was sinking, they said.
All six crew, who earlier hurled stink bombs at the whalers to disrupt their annual hunt, were rescued unharmed by Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker ship.
Activists described the collision as unprovoked but Japan lashed out at the the group, accusing them of "extremely dangerous" behaviour.
"The Shonan Maru No.2 suddenly started up and deliberately rammed the Ady Gil, ripping eight feet (2.4 metres) of the bow of the vessel completely off," a Sea Shepherd statement said.
"The Ady Gil is believed to be sinking and chances of salvage are very grim," it added.
But the Japanese Fisheries Agency said the Ady Gil came abnormally close to the Shonan Maru No.2 and suddenly slowed down while crossing in front of it. "These acts of sabotage that threaten our country's whaling ships and crew were extremely dangerous," it said in a statement. "It is totally unforgivable." Japan slams protestors
Videos released by both the Japanese and the activists show the sleek, black powerboat and the Shonan Maru No.2 colliding as the whaling ship targets it with water cannons.
There was no major damage to the Japanese ship and no Japanese crew members were injured in the collision, the fisheries agency said.
The whalers accused the Ady Gil's five New Zealand and one Dutch crew of trying to tangle the Nisshin Maru's rudder and propeller with rope, and aiming a "green laser device" at its sailors, as well as launching stink bombs.
"The Sea Shepherd extremism is becoming more violent... Their actions are nothing but felonious behaviour," Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research said in a statement.
Sea Shepherd activists have harassed the Japanese fleet over the past six hunting seasons and claim to have saved the lives of hundreds of whales.
Paul Watson, captain of Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin ship and a spokesman for the group, said the annual pursuit had now turned into a "real whale war".
"The Japanese whalers have now escalated this conflict very violently," he said.
"If they think that our remaining two ships will retreat from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in the face of their extremism, they will be mistaken.
"We now have a real whale war on our hands and we have no intention of retreating."
Australia said it had no plans to send a vessel to monitor the escalating situation some 1,300 nautical miles south of the Tasmanian capital Hobart as it urged both sides to show restraint.
"It's critical for safety at sea to be the highest priority and for absolute and utmost restraint to be exercised by all parties in this very remote and inhospitable region," Environment Minister Peter Garrett said.
The wave-piercing, carbon-and-kevlar Ady Gil, bankrolled by a Hollywood businessman, was one of the world's most celebrated vessels. In 2008, under its former name Earthrace, it smashed the world circumnavigation record by two weeks.
"This is a substantial loss for our organisation," said Watson. "The Ady Gil, the former Earthrace, represents a loss of almost two million dollars.
"However the loss of a single whale is of more importance to us and we will not lose the Ady Gil in vain. This blow simply strengthens our resolve, it does not weaken our spirit."
Watson also accused the Japanese of using surveillance flights to pinpoint the anti-whaling vessels and send pursuing ships, setting back their campaign by weeks.
The activists, who set off from Australia a month ago, finally caught up with the whalers before dawn near Antarctica's Commonwealth Bay.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a small but militant environmentalist group which specialises in "direct action" to halt marine environmental destruction.
"When people call us pirates I don't really have a problem with that -- we're pirates of compassion in pursuit of pirates of profit," Watson told AFP in 2007.
An international moratorium on commercial whaling was imposed in 1986 but Japan kills hundreds each year using a loophole that allows "lethal research" on the animals.
Japan makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on dinner tables, and accuses Western nations of not respecting its culture.