Sea Shepherd crew members huddled on the deck of the tiny $1.5 million carbon-fibre trimaran Ady Gil as the Japanese security ship Shonan Maru 2 sheared off its bow in the Southern Ocean.
Ady Gil skipper Pete Bethune told ABC that one of his crew had broken ribs but it was a “small miracle” that no-one had died.
But the Japanese whalers say their ship was trying to take evasive action when the incident happened.
“They basically drove straight over the top of us and there was nothing we could do,” Mr Bethune said this morning.
“We were all on top of the vessel except for one of the crew members who was inside.
“When they were about 50 metres away they suddenly veered to starboard and cut off the front three or four metres of my boat and sheared it in half.
“If anyone was in the forward sleeping quarters they would be dead.”
Sea Shepherd deputy chief executive Chuck Swift says the crash was a deliberate attack.
“As far as I’m concerned this was at least criminal assault if not attempted murder,” he said.
The crew from the stricken vessel were transferred to the Sea Shepherd’s third ship, the Bob Barker, which put out a distress call after the attack.
The captain of Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin flagship, Paul Watson, says the incident amounts to the start of a “real whaling war”.
“If they think that our remaining two ships will retreat from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in the face of their extremism, they will be mistaken,” he said.
“We now have a real whale war on our hands now and we have no intention of retreating.”
Reports this morning said Sea Shepherd was working to salvage the Ady Gil, which was tied up alongside the Bob Barker.
The ABC has been given video of the collision by the Japanese fleet’s public relations firm.
As alarms blare, the Ady Gil can be seen alongside the Shonan Maru 2. The Sea Shepherd crew is being sprayed with water cannons by the Japanese vessel.
The black Sea Shepherd speed boat seems to idling and then the two vessels collide.
Damage to the Ady Gil’s hull and bow can be seen as several crew members cling to a platform at the vessel’s stern.
But the spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, Glenn Inwood, has contradicted Sea Shepherd’s account of the clash.
“The [Ady Gil] skipper puts the boat into full sting to try to cut the Shonan Maru off,” he said.
“You can see that the Shonan Maru is moving to the port to try and avoid a collision and there’s no avoiding the collision with the Ady Gil.
“It’s a fast boat, she heads off full steam in front of it and miscalculates. So it’s no wonder that it came to the grief that it has.”
However Sea Shepherd’s Chris Aultman is adamant the Ady Gil was not at fault.
“At the time of the collision, the vessel was dead in the water. It was motionless,” he said.
“The Shonan Maru just must have seen a very suitable target and took upon itself to strike the vessel.”
Government under pressure
The Federal Opposition’s environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, is calling on the Government to raise the incident with the Japanese Government and wants a non-military observation vessel sent to the Southern Ocean immediately.
“We wrote to [Environment Minister] Peter Garrett on the 23 December, warning of a conflict between Japanese whalers and non-government organisations, and urging a ship be sent immediately.
“He ignored it, and now we’re seeing conflict.
“It is a time for a immediate dispatch of a non-military observer vessel to protect and also to capture and chronicle the slaughter of Australian whales in Australian waters.”
Mr Inwood also seems to favour the idea of an Australian vessel being sent south.
“I think if the Australian Government dispatches the vessel to get in between the Sea Shepherd vessels, I think it would certainly help to Japan finish its research for the summer,” he said.
The Opposition’s call is supported by ANU professor of international law, Don Rothwell.
“These are Australian waters – Australia claims these waters – and this has been a major maritime incident that had occurred within those waters.
“There are significant safety of life at sea implications and indeed Australia has responsibility for safety of life at sea within these waters.
“But also I think that merely the presence of an Australian vessel down there would seek to cool some of the tension which has inevitably arisen and may well continue to arise.”