A Japanese whaler did not deliberately ram and sink a Sea Shepherd protest boat during a high-seas confrontation in Antarctic waters early this year, New Zealand investigators found Thursday.
There was no evidence either the whaler Shonan Maru II or Sea Shepherd's Ady Gil deliberately caused the January 6 collision, which sheared the bow off the militant environmental group's hi-tech trimaran, Maritime New Zealand said.
Instead, the government agency blamed poor seamanship on both sides for the accident, which occurred as Sea Shepherd boats harassed Japanese harpooners in a campaign to prevent whaling in Antarctic waters.
"(It) appears to have resulted from a failure by both masters and the crew of both vessels to appreciate and react appropriately to the potential for the collision," the inquiry found.
|A Sea Shepherd Conservation Society-issued photo shows the conservation group's power craft, the Ady Gil, being rammed by the Japanese whaling ship, Shonan Maru No. 2, in Antarctic waters|
The environmental group had accused the Shonan Maru II of deliberately crashing into the much smaller protest boat, describing it as an act of piracy. One of the Ady Gil's crew suffered broken ribs in the collision.
The New Zealand inquiry noted there had been a number of incidents in the weeks before the collision, including an attempt by the Ady Gil to foul the Shonan Maru II's propeller with a mooring line.
"Earlier events between whaling and protest vessels contributed to a tense operating environment and probable uncertainty over each other's intentions," it said.
The Ady Gil's master Pete Bethune told the inquiry that about two minutes before the crash, the whaler aimed powerful water jets at his vessel but he did not order the boat to retreat.
"I was like, 'No mate, we're just gonna sit here and take this' ... my intention was to just glare at these guys as they went past," he told investigators.
The whaler then veered toward the protest boat, which investigators said "rendered a close-quarters situation inevitable", prompting the Ady Gil to accelerate forward at the last minute in an attempt at evasive action.
Maritime NZ said both sides "failed to comply with international collision regulations and to act as prudent seafarers should have". It did not make any recommendations for prosecutions.
Attempts to tow the Ady Gil to a French Antarctic base were abandoned after two days and Sea Shepherd left the boat to sink, although the report said it was unclear whether or not it was salvageable.
A month after the collision, Bethune boarded the Shonan Maru II, saying he wanted to confront its captain about the crash, and subsequently spent five months in custody in Japan before being deported to his native New Zealand.
The 45-year-old had a public falling out with Sea Shepherd and last month accused it of deliberately scuttling the Ady Gil to gain publicity for its cause, a charge the group strongly denies.
Japan hunts whales in southern waters around Antarctica using a loophole in a 1986 international moratorium that allows "lethal research".
The hunt has resulted in a spate of high-seas confrontations in recent years as conservation groups such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace seek to disrupt the Japanese fleet's activities.