When Pete Bethune boarded the Shonan Maru 2 in the early hours of Sunday morning, his reputation rose with his admirers.

To his critics, however, he was just an attention-seeker who had brought his misfortune on himself.

"Pete Bethune is a great New Zealander and deserves more support than he's currently getting from the Government," said Labour MP Darien Fenton on the blog Red Alert.

Conservative blog Keeping Stock said: "He has deliberately chosen to illegally board a foreign-flagged vessel in international waters."

Those who know the Ady Gil skipper, whose protest vessel sank after a collision with the Japanese whaling ship, say he will be loving being in the media spotlight.

Every minute that he and the Sea Shepherd protesters are in the news is a minute that people are thinking about Japanese whaling.

Mr Bethune did not tell his wife of 17 years or their two teenage daughters that he planned to approach the whaling ship by jet-ski and haul himself up in an attempt to carry out a "citizen's arrest" of its captain.

But Sharyn Bethune says they have learned not to worry too much about him, adding their daughters "have grown up with it ... To be quite honest, nothing really surprises us these days."

"If I worried I would probably be grey and have ulcers. He's a very capable person at looking after himself."

Mr Bethune and the Ady Gil, then called Earthrace, first came to public attention in 2007 during an attempt to circle the globe on biofuel.

However, the trimaran struck a Guatemalan fishing skip and killed a member of the crew. The Earthrace sailors were detained in Guatemala but not charged, and paid compensation to the dead man's family.

Yet Mr Bethune has spent years living on the boat on and off. His daughters accompanied him on some of the trips to Australia and Europe, says Mrs Bethune.

She estimates that in the past five years her husband has been home in Auckland for a total of one year. "It is very tough - lucky we're very independent."

She says he likens himself to a "conservation warrior".

Now Mrs Bethune would like the Government to do more to help her husband take action against the vessel that sank his boat.

She worries about an outstanding payment for the Ady Gil - which the couple mortgaged their house to build. "Whether the money will come through now the boat is sunk I don't know."

Mrs Bethune says her husband, a hunter, fisher and diver, became alarmed by the state of the oceans when skippering Earthrace. The 44-year-old former oil exploration engineer has lived and worked in the North Sea and Libya, been detained by police in Guatemala and shot at by pirates, yet after every experience he "usually comes out smiling", she said.

Mrs Bethune is fiercely supportive of his motives for going aboard the whaler, saying he had a right to serve papers after the loss of his boat.

But she acknowledges there are those who might think his actions were a "little bit selfish".

"In saying that [he had a right to board the boat], I also believe ..." She pauses. "He's got a couple of kids."

Mr Bethune told New Zealand officials yesterday he was being well cared for and was happy to return to Japan with the Shonan Maru 2, where he may be charged with trespass.

Auckland based film-maker Ryan Heron, who spent two years aboard Earthrace as a cameraman, said Mr Bethune can be "polarising, one-eyed, determined and fun".

News of the Ady Gil's demise and Mr Bethune's subsequent boarding of the whaler does not surprise Heron. "He's extremely single-minded."

Mrs Bethune agrees her husband's uncompromising approach gets results.

"As soon as he's off the boat the media will go away," she said, "and his aim is to get as much media attention as he can."