IMAGE: ACTIVISTS LEAVE WHALING SHIP
AP
In this photo released by Australian Customs, two activists from Sea Shepherd climb aboard a tender from an Australian Customs ship as they leave Japan's Yushin Maru No. 2 on Friday.
updated 1/20/2008 2:08:20 PM ET 2008-01-20T19:08:20

Japanese whalers and the activists who have vowed to stop them ended the first round in their annual contest in isolated Antarctic waters, with each side unbowed and preparing for the next skirmish.

An Australian customs ship conducting surveillance of Japan's controversial hunt intervened at Tokyo's request on Friday and picked up two Sea Shepherd Conservation Society activists who leaped aboard a harpoon ship on Tuesday, and took them back to the group's vessel.

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said he and his volunteer crew aboard the ship Steve Irwin would immediately resume their campaign of harassment to stop the whalers. Their usual tactics include throwing bottles of greasy, stinking fluid onto the decks of the whaling ships and riding rubber boats into the space between harpoonists and their prey.

Japan said it was preparing to resume its hunt within days, which this season aims to kill almost 1,000 minke and fin whales for what it says are scientific purposes. Opponents say the scientific program is a front for commercial whale killing that is banned by an international moratorium.

"We will continue to intervene, harass, block and obstruct the whalers at every opportunity," Watson said in a statement that welcomed his crew members' safe return but vowed to give no quarter to Japan's fleet.

The whalers paused their hunting after the activists, Benjamin Potts, 28, of Australia and Briton Giles Lane, 35, leaped aboard the Yushin Maru 2 on Tuesday from a rubber boat after a chase through the frigid waters near Antarctica.

After the two sides argued over safety conditions for returning the pair to their home vessel, Australia offered the customs ship, the Oceanic Viking, as a way to end the stalemate. Customs officials picked up the activists from the Japanese ship in a speedboat before dawn Friday and later delivered them to the Steve Irwin, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

Strongly anti-whaling, Australia last month sent the Oceanic Viking to Antarctica to collect video and photo evidence that could be used to challenge the Japanese program in international courts. It will resume that work following Friday's operation, Smith said.

Japanese officials said the whalers were prepared for more attempts by Sea Shepherd to interrupt the whaling.

"The Sea Shepherd attacked our ship, then the two forcibly came on board," whaling spokesman Gabriel Gomez said of Tuesday's events. "Our crew was terrified. They were carrying backpacks and who knows, they could have been bombs."

Searchers found a change of clothes, toothbrushes and a flask of rum in the activists' backpacks, indicating they expected to spend some time aboard the Japanese ship and casting doubt on Watson's claim that the pair wanted to leave as soon as they had delivered an anti-whaling letter, Gomez said.

The dispute underscored the high-stakes nature of the contest fought each year in the remote and dangerous seas at the far south of the world, thousands of kilometers (miles) from the possibility of regular emergency or rescue services.

Greenpeace, which also has a ship in the region to battle the whalers but which shuns Sea Shepherd's more extreme tactics, claimed Friday to have hounded the Japanese whale processing ship out of the hunting grounds.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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