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Vic: Activist vessel Steve Irwin in full pursuit of whalers

01 Feb 2009 2:27 PM

MELBOURNE, Feb 1 AAP - Activists aboard Sea Shepherd conservation vessel Steve Irwin are in full speed pursuit of a Japanese whaling fleet south-east of Hobart.

Steve Irwin leader Paul Watson said poor weather including heavy fog, loose ice and high winds had prevented deployment of the ship's helicopter for almost a week.

But in a lucky break in the ice, they were able to track down the Nisshin Maru and harpoon vessels Yushin Maru Numbers 1 and 2 in the middle of the Ross Sea about 9.30am (AEDT) on Sunday.

Mr Watson said the vessel was engaged in full pursuit of the three ships, and expected to keep them within view.

"We're sort of strung out across here chasing them full speed," he told AAP.

"We're about half-an-hour behind them so we'll catch up with them in about six or seven hours.

"When we found them this morning it looked like they were in the process of a whaling operation - the vessels were all stopped altogether.

"Then when they saw us, they began running."

The plan is to keep the fleet moving to avoid any further whaling.

"As long as we're chasing them they're not going to kill whales," Mr Watson added.

"Every day we can keep them from whaling and on the run is a victory for us."

He estimates the fleet has killed about 300 fin and minke whales this summer, compared with almost 600 last season.

"I know that they're not going to get their quota again this year, they're one vessel short" he said.

The Japanese fleet plans to kill about 1,000 whales this summer, using a loophole in a 1986 global whaling moratorium that allows "lethal research" on the marine mammals.