SYDNEY – The anti-whaling ship the Bob Barker and a Japanese harpoon boat collided in the icy waters off Antarctica on Saturday — the second major clash this year in the increasingly aggressive confrontations between the two sides.
No one was reportedly injured in the latest strike. The U.S.-based activist group Sea Shepherd, which sends vessels to confront the Japanese fleet each year, said a small hole was torn in the hull of its ship, but it was above the water line and the vessel was not in danger of sinking.
Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson said by satellite telephone that the Japanese ship rammed the Bob Barker — named after the U.S. game show host who donated millions to buy it for Sea Shepherd — as it blocked the slipway of the Japanese fleet's factory ship.
Watson's claim that the Bob Barker was deliberately hit could not be independently verified.
Japanese Fisheries Agency official Takashi Mori said officials were trying to confirm details of a reported clash.
Saturday's collision was the second this year between a Sea Shepherd boat and the Japanese fleet.
On Jan. 6, a Japanese whaler struck Sea Shepherd's high-tech speed boat Ady Gil and sheared off its nose. The Bob Barker then came to rescue the crew of the Ady Gil, which sank a day later.
Sea Shepherd and the whalers have faced off in Antarctic waters for the past few years over Japan's annual whale hunt, with each side accusing the other of acting in increasingly dangerous ways.
Sea Shepherd activists try to block the whalers from firing harpoons, and they dangle ropes in the water to try to snarl the Japanese ships' propellers. They also hurl packets of stinking rancid butter at their rivals. The whalers have responded by firing water cannons and sonar devices meant to disorient the activists. Collisions have occurred occasionally.
Japan aims to take hundreds of whales each year under a program that is allowed despite the international moratorium on killing whales because it is done in the name of science. Critics say the scientific program is a front for commercial whaling, and much of the meat is eaten.
On Saturday, the Bob Barker found the whaling fleet for the first time since the time of the Ady Gil clash, Watson said.
The Bob Barker took up a position behind the Nisshin Maru — the Japanese factory ship where dead whales are hauled aboard and butchered — so the four harpoon vessels could not reach it, he said.
"The harpoon ships started circling like sharks," Watson told The Associated Press from his ship, the Steve Irwin. "They were making near passes to the stern and the bow of the Bob Barker, then the Yushin Maru 3 intentionally rammed the Bob Barker."
The Bob Barker sustained a 3-ft. long, 4-inch wide (1-meter long, 10-centimeter) gash in its hull. Welders aboard the ship were already working on patching the hole, and the Bob Barker would resume its pursuit of the whalers, Watson said.
Video shot from the Bob Barker and released by Sea Shepherd shows the two ships side by side moving quickly through the water. The ships come closer together and the Japanese ship then appears to turn away, but its stern swings sharply toward the Bob Barker. The collision is obscured by spray, but a loud clanging noise can be heard before the vessels separate.
Watson said the Yushin Maru 3 appeared to stop moving after the collision and had not been seen by the Bob Barker's crew to have moved since, suggesting it also may have been damaged.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which have responsibility for maritime rescue in the area where the hunt is usually conducted, say the fight between the two sides is becoming increasingly dangerous and have repeatedly urged them to tone it down.