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Robert Hunter, left, Nisshin Maru, right
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Kookaburra over the Nisshin Maru

South of Tasmania, north of the Balleny Islands, at 66’ 46”S, 169’ 52”E, at approximately 0530 on Friday the 9th the Sea Shepherd ships found and engaged with the Japanese whaling fleet. The Sea Shepherd helicopter, ‘Kookaburra’ flew over the fleet as the ‘Robert Hunter’ shadowed the whale-processing factory ship, the ‘Nisshin Maru’. The three hunter-killer ships with the ‘Nisshin Maru’ left the area, heading north.

The Sea Shepherd ships, acting on information received, approached the Japanese fleet from ‘below’, after swinging south and then back north through heavy sea ice to avoid satellite surveillance. ‘We came in the back door out of the freezer so to speak,’ said Captain Paul Watson. The Sea Shepherd ships have been searching for the Japanese fleet for five weeks and have covered thousands of square miles of ocean. The donation-funded and volunteer crewed ships are running low on fuel.

As the ‘Nisshin Maru’ ran from the ‘Robert Hunter’ the ship headed directly into the path of the Sea Shepherd flagship, the ‘Farley Mowat’. The ‘Robert Hunter’ launched three rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIBs), to confront the factory ship.

The objective of Sea Shepherd is to enforce international conservation law against illegal Japanese whaling operations in accordance with the principles established by the United Nations World Charter for Nature.

Two of the RHIBs were to engage in direct action with the ‘Nisshin Maru’, while the third was tasked to film the action. The RIBs delivered at least six litres of butyric acid onto the deck of whaling ship. Butyric acid is an oily, hard to remove, liquid that has an overpowering vomit-like smell. It is an excellent non-violent direct action tool.

The butyric acid cleared the deck of the ‘Nisshin Maru’, stopping whale butchery on board. The inflatable crews then blocked pump outlets that were clearing blood and fluid from the factory ship. These were sealed using steel plates that were nailed to the steel hull of the ‘Nisshin Maru’, using ‘Hilti’ explosive powered nail-guns.

While this was happening the ‘Farley Mowat’ warned the Japanese whalers to leave:

’Nisshin Maru, this is Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd vessel Farley Mowat. Please be advised that you are killing whales in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. You are targeting endangered species of whales in violation of international conservation law. You are killing whales in violation of the IWC global moratorium on commercial whaling. Please cease and desist your illegal whaling operations and leave the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. We are acting in accordance with the principles of the United Nations World Charter for Nature. The Charter authorizes non-governmental organizations and individuals to uphold international conservation law.’

At about 0900, a sudden weather change dropped dense fog and sleet over the area. The RIB that was crewed by the film team did not return to the ‘Robert Hunter’.

Sea Shepherd immediately ceased their pursuit of the whaling ship and began a box search. The Sea Shepherd helicopter could not fly a search because of the low visibility. It was forced to land at 0850, about ten minutes before the RIB went missing, as the weather closed in. When the RIB was not immediately found, the ‘Farley Mowat’ issued a maritime distress call and alerted the Australian and New Zealand search and rescue organisations. Under international law, the ‘Nisshin Maru’ joined the search and recalled the three hunter-killer ships to assist in the search.

The sea was flat with a low swell. However, visibility was limited to 500 metres owing to the fog and the water temperature was 0 degC. There was no radio contact from the RIB, there was no EPIRB signal, and local radar could not see the boat. Both crewmembers are wearing wetsuits under their mustang survival suits and had survival training.

The crew were: 2nd Officer Karl Neilsen, 29, of Australia, and Engineer John Gravois, 24, of the United States. They were lost at sea for almost eight hours before the Quartermaster of the ‘Farley Mowat’, Jaime Brown of New Zealand, spotted them.

The crew reported that their RIB hit the hull of the ‘Nisshin Maru’, and the fibreglass hull section was damaged filling with water. The outboard motor stalled and the two were quickly lost as heavy fog, snow, and sleet arrived suddenly as they dropped back from the pursuit. When they were found they were waving and smiling, in good health although suffering a little after eight hours of exposure to the freezing temperatures.

The two reported that they had tied up to an iceberg to avoid the frigid wind and to slow their drift. “When they found us it was a feeling of the most extreme relief that you can imagine,” Gravois said from the Farley Mowat.

Captain Paul Watson called the Nisshin Maru to thank them for their assistance in the search and then said, “Now it’s back to business.” The two Sea Shepherd ships have resumed their pursuit of the Japanese whaling fleet as conditions continue to worsen, with winds and swells increasing.

Jon Sumby

The crew were: 2nd Officer Karl Neilsen, 29, of Australia, and Engineer John Gravois, 24, of the United States. They were lost at sea for almost eight hours before the Quartermaster of the ‘Farley Mowat’, Jaime Brown of New Zealand, spotted them.