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Anti-Whaling Campaigners Search For Japanese Fleet in Antarctic Waters

Activists intent on disrupting Japan's annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters have offered a $25,000 reward for information that leads them to the whaling fleet. The New Zealand military has filmed the Japanese harpooning whales, but is refusing to give details to the activists for fear of a violent clash at sea. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

A sophisticated and dangerous game of hide-and-seek is being played out in remote waters off Antarctica.

Japanese crews are on their controversial annual whale hunt, seeking to kill about 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales.

Anti-whaling conservationists from around the world are hoping to track the whalers down in the Antarctic and interfere with the hunt.

The problem for the activists is finding the whaling fleet in such a vast area. The campaigners have offered a reward for anyone who can help.

The New Zealand air force filmed the whaling vessels last week, but is refusing to divulge its location because of the threat of confrontation.

The activists, from countries including New Zealand, Australia and Canada, have threatened to ram the Japanese ships to inflict damage above the waterline and force them back to port. They also intend to use small inflatable boats to try to put themselves between the hunters and their prey.

Steve Shallhorn of Greenpeace, the international environmental organization based in Sydney, says the protesters are willing to risk their lives to protect the whales.

"Greenpeace does not threaten the lives of whalers," Shallhorn says. "They are in a steel ship behind a very powerful harpoon that is designed to kill a whale and can certainly kill a person. Our crew - many of whom have been on these expeditions before - are trained, and accept the risks of putting themselves between the harpoon and the whale."

The Greenpeace vessel Esperanza left the New Zealand city of Auckland last Friday, and is due to join up with two other protest ships operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The Japanese fleet is believed to be in the isolated Ross Sea south of New Zealand. The Japanese are reported to be using high-tech equipment to keep one step ahead of their pursuers.

New Zealand and Australia both oppose Japan's whaling program. But the New Zealand government on Monday said it would not reveal the Japanese fleet's coordinates, for fear that humans, along with the whales, might be injured in a confrontation.

Anti-whaling activists have attempted for years to disrupt the Japanese hunt. In December of 2005, Greenpeace did manage to get an inflatable boat between a Japanese ship and a harpooned whale on at least one occasion.

A Greenpeace spokesman said a Japanese ship rammed the Greenpeace ship in an attempt to push it clear at one point, and the Japanese used water cannon against the Greenpeace inflatables. So far, no people have been injured.

New Zealand officials have rejected accusations that their refusal to provide environmentalists with the geographical co-ordinates of the fleet "makes them complicit in a Japanese crime."

Commercial hunting was outlawed by international agreement in the mid-1980s, but Japan has continued its annual cull for what it calls scientific research.

Critics believe that this is simply a tactic to circumvent the regulations, and amounts to commercial whaling in all but name.