SYDNEY, Australia - A conservation group's boat had its bow sheared off Wednesday after it was struck by a Japanese whaling ship in the frigid waters off Antarctica during ongoing confrontations over an annual whale hunt, the group said.
The boat's six crew members were safely transferred to another of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's vessels, the newly commissioned Bob Barker. The boat is named for the American game show host who donated $5 million to buy it.
The clash was the most serious in the past several years, during which the Sea Shepherd has sent vessels into far-southern waters to try to harass the Japanese fleet into ceasing its annual whale hunt.
Clashes using hand-thrown stink bombs, ropes meant to tangle propellers and high-tech sound equipment have been common in recent years, and crashes between ships have sometimes occurred.
The society said its vessel Ady Gil - a high-tech trimaran that resembles a stealth bomber - was hit by the Japanese ship the Shonan Maru near Commonwealth Bay and had about 10 feet (three meters) of its bow knocked off.
Locky Maclean, the first mate of the society's lead ship, said one crewman from New Zealand appeared to have suffered two cracked ribs, but the others were uninjured. The crew members were safely transferred to the group's third vessel, though the Ady Gil's captain remained on board to see what could be salvaged, he said.
The group accused the Japanese ship of deliberately ramming the Ady Gil.
The Ady Gil's skipper, New Zealander Pete Bethune, said the trimaran was idled about 50 yards (meters) away from the Shonan Maru when the whaler suddenly turned and headed toward the protest boat.
"There's no question they steered directly at us," Bethune told New Zealand's National Radio
"It was on the port side, which meant he didn't have right of way, and we were stationary," he said. "It's totally absurd what the Japanese whalers have done, they've just deliberately gone in and tried to run us over."
Glenn Inwood, a New Zealand-based spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, the Japanese government-linked body that carries out the hunt, disputed Sea Shepherd's account, saying video shot from the whaler showed the conservationists' boat moving toward the whaler just before the collision.
"The Shonan Maru steams to port to avoid a collision. I guess they, the Ady Gil, miscalculated," Inwood told The Associated Press. "Sea Shepherd claims that the Shonan Maru has rammed the Ady Gil and cut it in half - its claim is just not vindicated by the video."
Japan's Fisheries Agency said it was still checking details about the clash. Spokesman Toshinori Uoya said there were no injuries on the Japanese side.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to the Ady Gil next. Sea Shepherd's Bethune said it was still afloat, though heavily damaged.
"The boat is not going to sink even though the whole front end is missing. We've rigged it up to tow it but we haven't yet decided where to take it," he said.
Sea Shepherd sends boats to Antarctic waters each southern summer to try to stop the Japanese whaling fleet from killing whales under what it calls a scientific whaling program. Conservationists and many countries say the program is a front for commercial whaling.
Each side routinely accuses the other of dangerous activity during what has become a cat-and-mouse chase in one of the world's most remote regions.
Australia and New Zealand - which both have Antarctic territories and are among the closest nations to the waters where the hunt goes on - have urged both sides to show restraint, warning that they are far away from rescue if anything goes wrong.
"Our strongest condemnation applies to any violent or dangerous activity that takes place in these remote and inhospitable waters," Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said Wednesday. He said he could confirm the collision, but that details were still unclear.
Wednesday's confrontation with whalers marked the first for the 1,200-ton Bob Barker, which rescued the crew. Sea Shepherd only recently bought the ship after its namesake, the former host of the "The Price Is Right" game show and a longtime animal rights activist, donated the money. Barker met Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson through a fellow activist and said he was instantly impressed.
"He said he thought he could put the Japanese whaling fleet out of business if he had $5 million," Barker recalled. "I said, 'I think you do have the skills to do that, and I have $5 million, so let's get it on,' so that's what we did."
Barker, 86, said he was "genuinely proud" to be associated with Sea Shepherd.
The Ady Gil, meanwhile, clashed earlier Wednesday with another Japanese ship, the whaling fleet's mothership, the Nisshin Maru.
The Institute of Cetacean Research said the Ady Gil came "within collision distance" of the Nisshin Maru's bow and repeatedly dangled a rope in the water that could have entangled the ship's rudder and propeller.
The Ady Gil's crew lobbed small projectiles designed to release a foul smell, and the whalers responded by firing high-powered hoses to keep the Sea Shepherd vessels away, the institute said in a statement.
"The obstructionist activities of the Sea Shepherd threaten the lives and property of those involved in our research, are very dangerous and cannot be forgiven," it said.
Maclean confirmed the earlier clash.
Japan's whaling fleet left in November for its annual hunt in Antarctic waters. Uoya said that for security reasons, details of the fleet's composition, the number of whales it hopes to take and the number of crew members are not being released to the public.
The Ady Gil is a 78-foot (24-meter) black-painted trimaran made of carbon fiber and Kevlar in a design meant to pierce waves. It was built to challenge the record for the quickest circumnavigation of the globe and can travel faster than 46 mph (75 kph).
Sea Shepherd unveiled the Ady Gil last October saying a California millionaire with the same name had donated most of the money for it. At the time, the group said the boat would be used to intercept and physically block Japanese harpoon vessels.