An anti-whaling group's boat and a Japanese whaling ship collided in Antarctic waters Monday during violent clashes over a pod of whales, conservationists and Japanese officials said.
The anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd said a 3-foot gash was torn into the hull of its ship, the Robert Hunter, by the Japanese ship Kaiko Maru during the clashes in iceberg-strewn waters far south of New Zealand.
Japanese officials accused the group of attacking the whaling ship Kaiko Maru "like pirates."
It was the latest high-stakes clash between Japanese whaling ships and Sea Shepherd activists, whose self-stated aim is to "harass, block, obstruct, and intervene against" Japanese ships hunting whales in Antarctic waters.
Hideki Moronuki, a senior official at the far seas fisheries division of Japan's Fisheries Agency, said Sea Shepherd's two vessels attacked the Kaiko Maru on Monday morning.
The Kaiko Maru issued a distress signal to try to get help from another Japanese whaling ship in the area, Moronuki said. No one aboard the Kaiko Maru was injured and there was no serious damage to the ship.
"The attack was like that of a pirate, with people on one boat throwing warning flares and a rope in an attempt to entangle our ship's propeller," Moronuki said. The Kaiko Maru was forced to stop, he said.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said the Robert Hunter was hit twice by the Kaiko Maru on Monday after the conservationists tried to stop the Japanese ship from reaching a pod of whales.
"Robert Hunter was struck in the stern. We have a 3-foot gash in the hull above the waterline," he said by telephone from the Farley Mowat, a second Sea Shepherd ship in the area. No injuries were reported aboard the Robert Hunter.
Watson said the Sea Shepherd ships had offered to respond to the Japanese ship's distress call, but it had not responded to the offer.
New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Center said it was aware of a distress call from a Japanese vessel, and that authorities were investigating.
Assault last Friday
Last Friday, two Sea Shepherd members went missing aboard a small inflatable boat for several hours during a confrontation with another Japanese whaling ship, the Nisshin Maru, before being found safe.
The conservationists had dumped a foul-smelling acid on the whaling ship, prompting Japanese officials to label them "terrorists" after two crew members were slightly injured.
Japanese ships left port in November for a six-month whaling expedition in the Antarctic as part of a scientific whaling program, conducted within the rules of the International Whaling Commission.
Tokyo is pushing for a limited resumption of hunts, arguing that whale stocks have sufficiently recovered since 1986 when a global moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced.
Many other countries and conservation groups say Japan's scientific program is a veil for commercial whaling.