A Peeved Australia Sends Boat to Fetch Anti-Whaling Activists

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Sea Shepherd / Reuters

A small boat from the Sea Shepherd vessel, Steve Irwin, makes a reconnaissance trip past the Japanese whaling ship the Shonan Maru #2 near Freemantle in this handout picture released, January 8, 2012.

It probably wasn’t how certain members of the Australian government pictured spending their week. But since three Australian activists traveling with the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society illegally boarded a Japanese ship over the weekend, the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has spent the last few days trying to secure their freedom.

It worked, but Canberra isn’t pleased. On Tuesday, after days of trying to make contact with the Shonan Maru 2, Attorney General Nicola Roxon said Japan had agreed to release the three men, aged 47, 44, and 27. By Wednesday, an Australian government vessel was reportedly on its way to pick them up in a mission Roxon said could cost Australian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I would very much like these three men to consider what contribution they would make, or the Sea Shepherd for that matter,” Roxon was quoted as saying in the Herald Sun. But, she added, “I’m not going to be holding my breath.”

The episode is the latest in a high-stakes eco-drama that has been playing out in Antarctic waters for the better part of the last decade. Each winter, Japan sends its whaling fleet deep into the southern hemisphere to hunt whales under its scientific whaling program, and each winter, a varying configuration of Sea Shepherd boats is right behind them, using sundry tactics – stink bombs, drones, bad press – to pressure Japan to call off the hunt. Sea Shepherd’s 2010-2011 campaign (Operation “No Compromise”) claimed a big success: After several run-ins with Sea Shepherd boats, Japan turned its vessels around early with a fraction of its intended catch. Though there has been a global moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, Japan continues to hunt whales in a loophole in the laws that permits whaling for scientific purposes.

This isn’t the first time that an anti-whaling activist has been detained aboard the Shonan Maru 2, currently a support vessel to the Japanese whaling activities. In 2010, New Zealander Peter Bethune was held on the same ship after illegally boarding the vessel. He was brought back to Japan, where he was tried and given a suspended sentence. The three Australians on the ship now, all members of an Australian environmental group that was working with the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd, illegally boarded the ship before dawn on Sunday, reportedly to try to prevent it from following a Sea Shepherd vessel.

Japanese authorities have decided not to press charges against the three men. With an Australian customs boat setting off on a journey of several days to reach the Shonan Maru 2, Gillard warned that the rescue should not encourage activists to continue breaking the law in their demonstrations. “Let me make it clear that the conduct of these three Australian men, in my view, is unacceptable,” Gillard was quoted as saying in the Australian.

Earlier this week, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson had been critical of Australia for not acting more quickly in support of its own citizens. After the administration announced it was sending a vessel to fetch the men, Watson reportedly questioned why Canberra had not contacted his organization to do the job, as Sea Shepherd was already in the area and could have rescued the trio without the high cost of a government mission. He said the Australian effort, in the end, amounted to an attempt to “demonize” Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling cause.

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.