Japanese whalers have thumbed their nose at Australia's territorial sovereignty, sailing a harpoon ship inside the 12 nautical mile limit of the world heritage-listed Macquarie Island.
In a move that has infuriated anti-whaling activists, the vessel the Yushin Maru No. 3 was said to have come within five miles of the beach of Macquarie Island yesterday as it pursued the Sea Shepherd vessel the Bob Barker across the Southern Ocean.
But while the Government has criticised the Japanese whalers for intruding into Australian waters before, it was forced to tread more carefully yesterday, fearing too strong a response could jeopardise the release of three WA environmental activists from the custody of Japanese customs officials.
"We have asked our embassy today to reiterate to the Japanese Government that whaling vessels are not welcome in Australian territorial waters," a spokesman for Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said last night.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd fumed that the Japanese whaling security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 had entered Australia's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, even suggesting the crew of the ship could be charged if they attempted to enter an Australian port.
The Government confirmed yesterday that Japan had agreed to hand over the three activists, with the customs vessel the Ocean Protector being diverted from a routine fisheries patrol to rendezvous with the Japanese whaling security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 to pick up the trio.
The mission to retrieve the men, which should be done before the weekend, is expected to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard blamed the protesters for the trouble. "Let me make it clear the conduct of these three Australians in my view is unacceptable," she said.
She also cautioned other protesters against taking similar "illegal" action, saying there was no guarantee they would also escape prosecution by Japan.
"I feel very strongly about whaling, I know many Australians rightly do," Ms Gillard said. "But we are taking the most effective action we can against whaling through the International Court of Justice."
Greens leader Bob Brown said the activists were heroes and the Government was to blame.
"The Prime Minister says it (whaling) is illegal but she's pointing her finger at the three West Australians who've gone on board the Shonan Maru 2 for the difficulties they've caused her," he said in Hobart.
"Well, bad luck, Julia. You should have been taking much greater action to stop this happening in the first place."
Simon Peterffy from Bunbury, Geoffrey Tuxworth from Perth, and Glen Pendlebury from Fremantle, from the group Forest Rescue Australia, boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 early on Sunday off Bunbury in a commando-style raid to protest against Japan's whaling operations.
Geoffrey Tuxworth's father Errol said it was a huge relief to hear his son was headed back to Australia. Mr Tuxworth was not concerned about the cost of the rescue to taxpayers and said it was the sort of thing he payed his taxes all his life for. He doubted his son would have money to contribute to the rescue cost.
"Governments are there to help people in trouble," he said.
"I don't know where he (Geoffrey) would get the money from (to pay for the rescue) but surely the Australian vessel that's going down there, it's part of its job to go out to sea, and our tax money already pays for that sort of thing." He said he was still proud of his son despite his "very dangerous" actions.
Howard government frontbencher turned Sea Shepherd advisory board member Ian Campbell said taxpayers should not be too worried about the cost of the rescue, arguing Sea Shepherd was providing a free service by policing the Southern Ocean.