It’s an annual ritual during the southern hemisphere summer: Japanese whaling vessels and environmentalists squaring off in the frigid waters off Antarctica.
Wednesday saw a dramatic escalation of the whale wars, with claims that a Japanese ship deliberately rammed a high-tech protest boat, slicing it in half.
All six crew were rescued, one with broken ribs, after the Ady Gil’s bow was sheared off during the collision with the Shonan Maru 2, a security vessel. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a militant United States-based group which has made a name pursuing and harassing the whaling fleet each season, accused the Japanese of an unprovoked “hit and run” attack.
A Sea Shepherd spokesman said it was fortunate no one had been in the bow, “or they certainly would have been killed instantly.” But Japan’s Fisheries Agency said the Shonan Maru could not avoid the collision after the Ady Gil, a futuristic speedboat, abruptly slowed down in its path.
The two sides routinely accuse each other of dangerous tactics during their cat-and-mouse games at the bottom of the world. Collisions have happened before, when protesters interposed themselves between harpoons and prey, although never resulting in such serious damage.
Earlier Wednesday, the activists threw “stink bombs” at the ships and dropped ropes in an effort to snarl their propellers. In the past, they have lobbed missiles including paint and rancid butter. The whalers have responded with water cannon, flash grenades (usually used for crowd control), and military-grade acoustic weaponry.
Just how effective Sea Shepherd’s tactics are is hard to gauge, but after last season the group claimed it had prevented the harpoon ships from killing whales on 27 days – meaning, it said, that the fleet failed to meet its quota for a fourth consecutive year.
Japan, which claims its whaling program is for research purposes, is targeting 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales this year, according to media reports. Whether Sea Shepherd will have the Ady Gil at its disposal for the rest of hunt is unclear. The boat, bankrolled by a Californian businessman with the same name, was taking on water Wednesday.