CANBERRA (Reuters) - Anti-whaling activists unveiled on Tuesday their latest weapon against Japanese whalers in the frigid Southern Ocean, a $2 million ship funded by the producer of The Simpsons television series and purchased in secret from the Japanese government.
The 56-metre (184 ft) 'Sam Simon', which docked in the southern Australian port of Hobart, brings the hardline anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's fleet to four, just one vessel smaller that Japan's whaling fleet.
"We have four ships, one helicopter, drones and more than 120 volunteer crew from around the world ready to defend majestic whales from the illegal operations of the Japanese whaling fleet," said Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson.
The white-hulled ship, strengthened against ice to operate in seas near Antarctica, was purchased using a U.S. company from its home port in Shimonoseki, where it was berthed alongside the Japanese whaling fleet, its skipper Lockhart MacLean told Reuters.
"The goal is to find the factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, and to pin the bow of this ship on the stern of that factory ship throughout the duration of the campaign, and send them home without any whales killed," MacLean said.
Belonging previously to the Japan Meteorological Agency's Maizuru observatory, the Sam Simon was re-registered in the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu and delivered to Sea Shepherd in Australia's Queensland state by a Japanese crew.
McLean said it was then refitted and reflagged to Australia and named after the American television producer and animal welfare campaigner who provided the money for its purchase.
"We're confident we can seriously impact their whale quota. This year all four of their harpoon ships are going to be tied up by our four ships, and the goal is that no harpooning can be done," he said.
Over nine whaling seasons in the southern hemisphere summer, the group has clashed frequently with the Japanese fleet, sinking one of its own ships. The high speed trimaran Ady Gil sank after a collision with a whaler in January 2010.
Japan introduced scientific whaling to skirt a commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium. It argues it has a right to monitor the whales' impact on its fishing industry.
Australia's government has filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in the Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. A decision is expected in 2013 or later.
Editing by Michael Perry