The Steve Irwin ship - out on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's most recent Antarctic Whale Defense Campaign - has hit trouble, with reports of a Japanese security ship illegally tailing the crew and firing a "military class weapon" at their helicopter.
The Steve Irwin departed from Fremantle in Western Australia on December 7, and last Friday the group reported that a Japanese ship, the Shonan Maru No. 2, had been following them for nine out of their 10 days at sea. The vessel was said to be reporting the Steve Irwin's location, preventing them from closing in on the whaling fleet.
The Sea Shepherd vessel obtained permission to enter French Antarctic territorial waters in an attempt to lose the tail ship on December 17, but the Shonan Maru No. 2 continued to pursue the ship, now illegally - not having requested or been granted permission to enter French waters.
According to Sea Shepherd, in a bid to film the illegal pursuit the Steve Irwin helicopter flew back towards the tailing vessel, at which point the Japanese crew are said to have activated their Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD) at the helicopter. Such devices emit sound loud enough to harm human hearing, and are used as deterrent weapons in combat as well as in crowd-control.
"This was an extremely irresponsible thing to do," said helicopter pilot Chris Aultman in a statement. "That device can cause nausea and disorientation and the use of it against an aircraft is both extremely dangerous and grossly irresponsible."
After the Sea Shepherd helicopter returned to the Steve Irwin, the crew reported that the Japanese ship then aimed their water cannons at the helicopter, now sitting on its landing pad.
Sea Shepherd said that though the incident was reported to French authorities, the pursuit still continued.
"The situation is now very dangerous," said Steve Irwin Captain Paul Watson in a statement last Friday.
"We have deliberately led the Japanese ship into thick ice in order to lose them in the ice...the icebergs could easily damage either vessel."
Meanwhile, the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research issued a statement on the same day, contradictorily reporting that their own vessel was subject to "an attack" by the Steve Irwin crew. The Institute said that the LRAD was activated only to broadcast a warning message to the crew, and the water cannons fired "as a preventative measure to make the Steve Irwin desist from any further approaching". They claim that the Sea Shepherd crew also aimed a "green laser device" at their vessel.
Watson later confirmed that the Steve Irwin did indeed use a photonic laser, but that it was used "to warn the Japanese whalers off from their aggressive attack on the Sea Shepherd ship."
Though both groups continue to accuse each other of dangerous actions, at this point neither have reported damage to their ships nor injury to their crew members.