Key Points:

A Japanese whaling ship is still refusing help from Greenpeace after finding itself crippled in waters near Antarctica, where possible sinking would bring environmental disaster.

The Nisshin Maru, a whaling factory ship, found itself in trouble after a fire swept through parts of the factory deck, where whale carcasses are processed, last Thursday.

Reports last night indicated that the captain of the ship shut down power when the fire broke out - then couldn't start it again. The vessel was floating in the Ross Sea about 100 nautical miles off Cape Adair, home to one of the world's largest Adelie penguin colonies.

The ship's crew managed to contain the fire by sealing off the area. When they began ventilating the area yesterday, they found the body of crew member Kazutaka Makita, 27, who'd been missing since the fire.

The ship, which is the main vessel in a fleet of seven, was abandoned on Thursday except for 20 crew who stayed on board fight the fire.

The Greenpeace protest ship, Esperanza, offered assistance on Friday. It arrived within sight of the Nisshin Maru yesterday around 7am, and repeated its offer of help.

In an ironic twist, the ship that spent three weeks protesting the actions of the whaling fleet is the best equipped to tow it to safety. The Esperanza is a former Russian firefighting ship and has the necessary equipment to tow the vessel.

Frank Kamp, the Esperanza's Dutch skipper, has 10 years' experience as a salvage skipper, and Kiwi expedition leader Karli Thomas said they were ready to help if asked.

"All we are concerned with now is the safety of the Japanese crew, and we really need to protect the pristine environment."

The Nisshin Maru is carrying about 1000 tonnes of fuel oil and chemicals, which could cause unprecedented ecological damage to the surrounding environment.

Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for the Japanese government-affiliated Institute of Cetacean Research said yesterday that Japanese officials had rejected Greenpeace's offer, and the Oriental Bluebird, another whaling ship, is capable of moving the ship if necessary.

But with the weather expected to deteriorate, Greenpeace and the New Zealand Government are concerned about making the most of the calm conditions.

In rough seas it would be difficult for the ship, currently secured to two other whaling vessels, to stay bow first in the ocean, and it could founder.

While the ship is in international waters, the Government wants it towed north to avoid harm to the Antarctic environment.

A spokesman for Conservation Minister Chris Carter said the Government has asked Japan to move the ship further away from the Antarctic coast. "There are a number of options to move it north. It doesn't have to be to New Zealand or Australia," he said.

New Zealand is urging Japan to base its decision "on the best interests of the crew on board and of the environment and not other issues".

"We reminded Japan of their obligations as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, which mean they have a special responsibility to the Antarctic environment."

Meanwhile, Thomas said the atmosphere on board the Esperanza was "subdued". "Everyone is feeling a lot of sympathy with the crew there and our thoughts are with them at the moment. To us now they're not a whaling ship, they're a ship in distress."