Japanese whalers have temporarily suspended their annual hunt in the Southern Ocean because protesters are making refuelling too dangerous.

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) says its Antarctic whale research mother ship Nisshin Maru was damaged yesterday (Wed) when it and a supply tanker were sabotaged by the Sea Shepherd ships Steve Irwin, Bob Barker and Sam Simon.

In a statement, ICR said as the Nisshin Maru was about to come alongside the supply tanker for refuelling, the Sea Shepherd vessels made "foolhardy obstruction attempts'' by repeatedly approaching to close-quarter distance.

"During their obstruction to refuelling operations the SS [Sea Shepherd] vessels provoked several collisions... The BB [Bob Barker] collided with the supply tanker too.''


ICR said none of its crew members were injured, but the Nisshin Maru "suffered denting damage and broken hand railing on her bow section while the supply tanker port side hull was dented and her hand railing was damaged.''

The ability to navigate was not affected by the damage, it said. However, ICR said refuelling attempts had been interrupted "due to the extremely dangerous behaviour of the SS vessels.''

The refuelling operation is essential for the safe navigation of ships, the ICR statement said. "Thus it threatens safety of our research ships and lives of crews on it and is therefore unacceptable.''

ICR also rejected Sea Shepherd allegations that there was oil spillage during the research vessels' refuelling operations. "Refuelling from the supply tanker to the research vessels is safely conducted through a hermetically sealed fuel transfer system, making leakage impossible.

"SS's allegations and rumours about the supply tanker hitting icebergs and oil spilling are equally unfounded.''