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NZ warns of dangerous Antarctic whaling season

New Zealand warned Wednesday that the mood between Japanese whalers and protesters who challenge them annually off Antarctica is especially volatile this year, and urged both sides to show restraint to ensure no one is killed.

The whalers left Japan earlier this month for the Antarctic Ocean, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society boats have left New Zealand in pursuit.

Each year, protesters try to harass the whaling fleet into stopping a hunt that Japan says is part of a scientific program that allows an exemption from an international moratorium on the commercial killing of the animals.

The protesters say there is no reason to kill the animals to research them, and that the program amounts to commercial whaling in disguise because surplus meat of the killed whales is sold in Japan.

Clashes between the sides often take place, and last January a Sea Shepherd boat was sunk after its bow was sheared off in a collision with a whaling ship. Each hunting season runs from about December through February.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully on Wednesday appealed to both sides to adhere to the law of the sea and show proper regard for the safety of other human beings.

"Here you have a pretty explosive cocktail. You've got Japanese whalers going down there feeling somewhat angry about the developments last year ... you've got protesters going down there saying they're going to take a very robust approach," he said.

McCully said armed Japanese coastguard personnel are on the Japanese whaling ships this year, for the first time in three years.

"Anyone who looks at what happened last year has got to be fearful there will be a loss of human life under those circumstances," McCully told reporters.

His comments come a day after Sea Shepherd's protest vessel Steve Irwin sailed from the New Zealand capital, Wellington, to join the group's two other protest boats in searching for the whaling fleet.

Late last month, the Japanese fisheries ministry confirmed that armed coast guard officers would travel on the whaling ships for the first time in three years, in response to an activist's boarding of a whaler last February.

Strict gun control laws and Japan's pacifist constitution mean the use of weapons is strictly limited to self-defense. Coast guard officers can make arrests if someone boards.

Also Wednesday, McCully announced that New Zealand would not join Australia's legal bid at the International Court of Justice to stop Japan's whale hunt.

The two countries have led international condemnation of Japan's hunt, calling it an obvious front for commercial whaling, and New Zealand had previously said it may join the Australian action.

Instead, New Zealand will pursue diplomatic talks aimed at persuading Japan to end the whaling "at the earliest possible time," McCully said, adding that the court might require parties to the case to freeze diplomatic efforts. New Zealand would seek permission to "intervene" in the case, meaning it could make representations to the court without formally being party to it.

Australia announced in May it would start legal action in the International Court of Justice in The Hague arguing that the Japanese whale hunt is in contravention of international convention obligations.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said New Zealand's decision to not join the case and press on with diplomatic efforts was what Australia wanted.

Japanese officials have not released any details of the size or targets of the whalers' hunt this season. They seek to kill up to 950 of the mammals each year in Antarctic seas.