CANBERRA - Anti-whaling activists said on Monday they had chased the flagship of Japan's whaling fleet out of waters near Antarctica after tracking it with high-tech bugs planted by two protesters who boarded the vessel last month.
Captain Paul Watson of the hardline Sea Shepherd group said he was confident the Japanese would not make even half their quota this year of almost 1,000 minke and fin whales after protesters tagged the fleet during a boarding at sea in January.
"This is the third day now they have not killed any whales. After next month they will not be able to continue and I'm pretty confident they have not taken more than 400 whales so far this year," Watson told Reuters.
Watson said two crew from his protest ship Steve Irwin covertly planted tracking devices on the harpoon ship Yushin Maru No.2 when they boarded it mid-ocean on January 15, sparking a three-day standoff as they were held on board.
"They weren't kept locked up, It seems strange, but they were able to move about the ship," Watson said. He also hinted other homing devices had been planted on some or all of the six-ship fleet, either at sea on in port before leaving Japan.
"It's not just the Yushin Maru, which they're probably ripping to pieces right now," he said. "We were able to do more than one. We're pretty much able to track the entire fleet."
Despite a moratorium on whaling, Japan is allowed an annual "scientific" hunt, arguing whaling is a cherished tradition and the hunt is necessary to study whales. Its fleet has killed 7,000 Antarctic minkes over the past 20 years.
But activists say the scientific hunt is a cover for commercial whaling and have vowed to stop the annual slaughter.
The Steve Irwin located the Japanese fleet in the vast Southern Ocean three days ago after being forced to abandon the chase for 10 days to refuel and switch crew in Australia.
The activists intercepted the whalers 80 miles north of the Shackleton Ice Shelf, inside Australia's self-proclaimed southern whale sanctuary, which Japan does not recognize.
"They are not going to make their quota this year. We are more than half way through the season and they are running. There is a lot of ice and fog, a lot of sleet and snow," Watson said.
Australian Benjamin Potts and Briton Giles Lane who boarded the harpoon ship were eventually taken off by an Australian customs vessel sent south to monitor the fleet and gather evidence for a possible international legal challenge by Canberra.
Australian police have warned Watson's group against more boardings as the Steve Irwin was in turn tracked by an ocean going trawler, the Fukuyoshi Maru No.68, which Sea Shepherd says is carrying Japanese Coast Guard officers.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani
© 2008 Reuters