SYDNEY - Militant anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd said they had zeroed in on a Japanese fleet Monday and captured evidence that four whales had been slaughtered, alleging the ships were found inside a Southern Ocean sanctuary.
Sea Shepherd said it had located all five Japanese vessels and was now in pursuit, forcing the harpooners to cut short their operation and retreat.
The group released footage and photographs showing three minke whales dead on the deck of the factory ship Nisshin Maru and said a fourth, also believed to be a minke, was being slaughtered when Sea Shepherd's helicopter flew overhead.
"There's three carcasses on the ship, a fourth carcass has been cut up. There's blood all over the place, meat being carted around on this factory ship deck, offal and innards being dumped in the ocean," said Sea Shepherd Australia chairman Bob Brown.
"That's just a gruesome, bloody, medieval scene which has no place in this modern world."
When the Nisshin Maru was first spotted from the air, Brown said it was in Antarctica's Ross Dependency, within New Zealand's territorial waters and the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which he described as a "gross breach of international law".
The commercial hunting of whales is prohibited in the sanctuary, which was designated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1994, but Japan catches the animals there under a "scientific research" loophole in the moratorium on whaling.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully denied whaling was taking place within his country's maritime jurisdiction, saying the site was considered international waters, as he condemned the "pointless and offensive" practice.
"The New Zealand government has repeatedly called on Japan to end its whaling programme. We reiterate this message today," he said.
Japan's fisheries agency said its programme was being conducted "in line with a research plan submitted to the IWC".
"We are not aware of the existence of a whaling sanctuary so we don't want to comment on their arguments," an agency spokesman said of Brown's claims.