AN ANTI-whaling group deliberately sank its own high-tech protest boat after a January collision with a Japanese whaler to gain sympathy, the former skipper alleged yesterday.
In a public spat with the founder of conservation group, Sea Shepherd, Peter Bethune alleged its head Paul Watson ordered the scuttling of the trimaran Ady Gil even though it was salvageable.
However, Mr Watson denied the New Zealander's claim, saying the skipper had made the final decision. The exchange has exposed a bitter falling out between Mr Bethune, who gained fame because of the high-seas drama, and Mr Watson, the figurehead of Sea Shepherd's campaign against Japan's Antarctic whaling programme.
Mr Bethune was at the helm of the Sea Shepherd boat when its bow was shorn off by Japanese whaler Shonan Maru 2 in Antarctic waters in January. Mr Bethune later boarded the whaler to confront its captain over the collision, and was detained.
He was later arrested and spent five months in a Japanese jail while being tried on trespassing, assault and other charges. He was convicted and received a suspended prison sentence in July, then deported.
Now he claims the Ady Gil could have been repaired after the collision but that Mr Watson ordered its sinking. He said he and two other activists went aboard the Ady Gill and opened hatches to scuttle it.
He told New Zealand's National Radio he believed Mr Watson wanted the sinking to "garner sympathy with the public and to create better TV". "Paul Watson was my admiral. He gave me an order and I carried it out," he said. "I was ashamed of it at the time and I'm ashamed of it now."
"It was all done in secret. I was ordered not to tell any of the crew, not my family and especially not Ady Gil, the owner of the boat," he said, referring to the US businessman who funded the vessel.
Mr Watson, a Canadian, said the scuttling was Mr Bethune's decision.
"Pete is on camera saying 'yes, I guess we're going to have to let it go,' so it was his decision and actually wasn't mine," Mr Watson told National Radio.
The Ady Gil sank two days after the collision with the Japanese ship. At the time, Sea Shepherd said the Ady Gil was being towed by another of its vessels when the line snapped and the Ady Gil began taking on water.
The Ady Gil set the speed record for a power boat circumnavigating the globe in 2009, when it was called Earthrace.It took 60 days, 23 hours, 49 minutes and ran on biofuel.
The vessel then joined Sea Shepherd, which used its speed to chase down elusive Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters.
Sea Shepherd announced during Mr Bethune's trial it would not let him participate in further protests, but after his release said the ban was a tactic to help him avoid prison.
Mr Watson said Mr Bethune was expelled in October after it was discovered he gave false information to Japanese authorities about Mr Watson to win leniency. Sea Shepherd has since featured in the Animal Planet TV series Whale Wars.