In pitch darkness and surrounded by growlers conservationists and whalers have clashed in Antarctic waters in a battle described as one of the most dangerous encounters in Sea Shepherd's history.
Captain of the Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker, Peter Hammarstedt, said he was forced to dodge Japanese harpoon vessels that crossed the Bob Barker's bows without their navigation lights on, in the early hours of this morning.
He said the harpoon vessels repeatedly came within metres of the Bob Barker towing heavy ropes designed to fowl the propeller.
A statement posted on the whaler's website accused the conservationists of attacking the Japanese vessels with flares and a laser beam.
The Bob Barker found the whaling fleet's factory vessel the Nisshin Maru at about 10pm yesterday and the clash followed a short time later.
The conservationists had traced the vessel to the only area in the icy waters not experiencing heavy weather after using a ruse to shake a harpoon ship that had been tailing the Bob Barker for weeks.
Captain Hammarstedt said it appeared the whalers were becoming more and more desperate and willing to resort to increasingly dangerous tactics to keep the conservationists from protecting whales in Australia's Antarctic whale sanctuary.
"Last night was definitely the most hairy, dangerous confrontation I've been involved in all my seven years with Sea Shepherd," Captain Hammarstedt said.
"We had an incoming blizzard so snow was making visibility very difficult. We were just 60 miles off the Antarctic coast in an area that is expanding and growing as far as the ice conditions are concerned because of the inset of winter, so there were growlers, which are dangerous bits of iceberg in the water.
"On top of all that we had two harpoon vessels each trailing about 300 metres of line in the pitch dark making very dangerous close quarter manoeuvring on us and cutting within 15 m of our bow, trying to ensnare our propellers.
"At times I certainly felt the ship was in peril, we had to retaliate using distress flares."
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research said the harpoon vessels had been trailing "avoidance lines" to keep the Bob Barker away from the factory ship and the Bob Barker had fired more than 40 flares and used a high powered laser beam on the harpoon vessels for nearly an hour.
"Japan's research whaling in the Antarctic is a perfectly legal activity," a statement about the incident put out by the whaler's said.
"The Institute of Cetacean Research strongly condemns the Sea Shepherd and its violent actions against the integrity and safety of Japan's whale research vessels and crews."The Institute of Cetacean Research intends to continue carrying out the research undaunted by their violence."
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