A battle for what is being called "the high moral wave" was being fought off the wild coast of Antarctica on Sunday night as the world's two leading international marine protection groups fought each other over which would stop the Japanese whaling fleet.
With an international crew of volunteers, a helicopter and a deep war chest, Greenpeace International has sent two boats, the Arctic Sunrise and the faster Esperanza, to the Southern Ocean to stop the Japanese whaling fleet as it tries to catch 900 minke, blue and other whales for "scientific research."
On Sunday night the group, which located and gave chase to the Japanese fleet before Christmas, claimed to have the whalers on the run in mountainous seas peppered with icebergs.
"The fleet seems to be running in circles, stopping and going in different directions," a spokesman said.
"It's the sixth day in a row that we have seen no whales transferred to the factory ship. It's unlikely that whaling is being undertaken," he said.
The animal rights protector Captain Paul Watson, who co-founded Greenpeace in the 1970s and later set up the more radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was also in pursuit of the fleet yesterday in his ship, the Farley Mowat.
Watson, who accuses Greenpeace of being "the Avon ladies of the environment" and of being more interested in publicity than in enforcing international law, intercepted the Nisshin Maru factory ship on Christmas Day.
Each environmental group now accuses the other of endangering lives by trying to ram its vessels.
Sea Shepherd had requested the presence of the Australian navy to monitor events in the Southern Ocean, but Australia's environment minister, Ian Campbell, said that Sea Shepherd's threats to attack the fleet "risk setting back the cause of whale conservation many years."
Watson said yesterday: "Stop threatening us, Mr Campbell, and charge us if you believe we are acting unlawfully. Stop posing for the Japanese [who] are in blatant violation of international conservation laws."
Despite a short truce at Christmas in which the captains swapped greetings, Watson and Greenpeace were at daggers drawn again yesterday with Sea Shepherd accusing the larger group of refusing to say where the Japanese fleet was.
"Greenpeace has misled Sea Shepherd and betrayed us. The Japanese fleet does not give a damn about protests. [Greenpeace] just take pictures and hang banners. We are down here to enforce international conservation law and to stop the illegal whaling operations."
Greenpeace retorted: "Greenpeace distance themselves from Sea Shepherd because of their inability to commit to non-violent tactics."
"But we'll do what we can to put bodies between harpoons and whales and protect the whales non-violently," spokesman Danny Kennedy said.
Watson warned Greenpeace yesterday that Japan had sent a warship to the Southern Ocean to protect its whaling fleet and arrest the conservationists for piracy.
This could not be confirmed.
On Sunday night, the three conservation ships were reportedly trying to spot the Japanese harpoon vessels.