CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian customs ship was steaming full speed toward a Japanese whaling vessel to pick up three activists after Tokyo decided Tuesday to release them without charges over their surprise boarding off southwest Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the customs ship would likely take several days of traveling at top speed to rendezvous with the security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 to pick up the three Australians — Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27 — in the Antarctic Ocean. All are from Western Australia state.
The three anti-whaling activists boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 on Sunday as it tailed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's flagship, the Steve Irwin.
Gillard thanked Japan for its cooperation and said the boarding tactic was "unacceptable and will ultimately be costly to the Australian taxpayer."
"No one should assume that because an agreement has been reached with the Japanese government in this instance that individuals will not be charged and convicted in the future," she said. "The best way to stop whaling once and for all is through our court action."
Australia maintains that the annual whale hunts violate Japan's international obligations and is seeking a ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban on whaling. But opponents say they are a cover for commercial whaling because whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said his government had decided to treat the activists' protest action as separate from U.S.-based Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling campaign. Japan decries Sea Shepherd as a terrorist group that risks lives through tactics used to obstruct the whaling fleet.
"The three activists were not violent during or after they boarded the whaling vessel," Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo. "There was no evidence that they were part of Sea Shepherd, which has been engaged in obstructing the fleet."
Japanese officials say the three were not armed, unlike Sea Shepherd activist Pete Bethune, who boarded the same ship in 2010 carrying a knife.
Bethune, a New Zealander, spent five months in a Japanese jail before being convicted of an array of offenses and deported.
Gillard said the Japanese government had been told the Shonan Maru No. 2 "was not welcome" within Australia's exclusive economic zone before the three activists boarded it in Australian waters.
The trio, who are members of an environmental group focused on protecting forests from logging, said they were helping Sea Shepherd "end illegal whale poaching."
Attorney General Nicola Roxon said officials had spoken to the men and all were well.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, captain of the Steve Irwin, welcomed their impending freedom. But he said the Steve Irwin would not slow down for the customs vessel as it tried to shake off the Shonan Maru No. 2 — a former harpoon boat that now performs a security role for the Japanese whaling fleet.
"The Australian government sending a vessel to take the transfer of the three men shouldn't involve us slowing down," Watson told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Steve Irwin, which was still being shadowed by the Shonan Maru No. 2.
Sea Shepherd said the three activists reached the Japanese vessel in two small boats Sunday and climbed over its rails.
They came with the message, "Return us to shore in Australia and then remove yourself from our waters," Sea Shepherd said.
The three activists are members of the environmental group Forest Rescue. Forest Rescue spokeswoman Amy Flee said the three began a hunger strike after boarding the Japanese vessel but agreed to eat after the decision was made to release them.
Forest Rescue spokesman Rowan Davidson said activists could use the same boarding tactic again to disrupt the whale hunt.
"We're into nonviolent direct action and we'll do whatever we need to do," Davidson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The Shonan Maru No. 2, which collided with the Sea Shepherd's speedboat the Ady Gil in 2010, tailed the Steve Irwin as it escorted the anti-whaling vessel Brigitte Bardot to the Australian port of Fremantle last week for repairs. The Brigitte Bardot had been damaged by a rogue wave.
Japanese surveillance of Sea Shepherd vessels helps the fleet avoid the protesters as the whalers go about their annual hunt.
Watson said the three activists had failed in their plan to divert the Shonan Maru No. 2 off the Steve Irwin's tail as it searched for the whalers.
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge in Tokyo contributed to this report.