A radical conservation group that has vowed to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt launched its Antarctic campaign yesterday by renaming one of its ships after "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, the late environmental campaigner.
The US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society set sail from Melbourne vowing to use whatever means necessary to block Japan from harvesting up to 50 humpbacks, 935 minkes and 50 fin whales as part of an oceanic research program critics decry as commercial whaling in disguise.
Irwin's widow, Terri, threw her support behind the mission by giving Sea Shepherd permission to rename one of its two flagship vessels after her husband, the TV wildlife program host who died from a freak stingray attack off Australia's Great Barrier Reef in September last year.
In a statement, Terri Irwin said her husband had been considering whether to join Sea Shepherd on one of its Antarctic expeditions when his life was cut short last year.
"Steve Irwin stops whaling vessel -- wouldn't that be a great thing to see the headlines of?" Terri Irwin told reporters at a Melbourne dock as the newly renamed vessel prepared to set sail.
The hulking black vessel, which flies a pirate flag featuring a skull over a trident and a shepherd's hook, had previously been named for Canadian anti-whaling campaigner Robert Hunter.
Sea Shepherd has come under heavy criticism in recent years for engaging in violent tussles with the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctic waters.
With Japan's whaling fleet once again heading south for its annual hunt, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson has vowed to do whatever it takes to stop what it calls the "Cetacean Death Star."
In February, Sea Shepherd clashed with a Japanese vessel, leaving the Robert Hunter with a 1m gash in its stern, during a violent confrontation that both sides blamed on the other party.
Japanese officials said the activists threw ropes and nets into the water to entangle the Japanese ship's propeller and prevent it from maneuvering, and threw smoke canisters and garbage onto the deck.
Sea Shepherd has not disputed this version of events, but said it does not discuss tactics used at sea.
During the clash, two Sea Shepherd crew members went missing for several hours in a small inflatable boat but were later found safe.
The confrontation drew protests from Japan, and even sparked strong rebukes from the strongly anti-whaling governments of Australia and New Zealand.
Bearing its new moniker, the Steve Irwin will form the backbone of Sea Shepherd's Antarctic mission, which it calls Operation Migaloo, after a rare albino humpback that is tracked by whale watchers and local media as it migrates up the Australian coast each year.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said the TV star shared the group's passion for saving whales, and would have been "extremely honored to be acknowledged in this way."
"Steve wanted to come to Antarctica with us to defend the whales and now he will be joining us in spirit with his name emblazoned" on the ship, Watson said in a statement.
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