CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — An Australian customs ship was steaming toward a Japanese whaling vessel to collect three activists after Tokyo decided on Tuesday to release them without charges over their surprise boarding off southwest Australia.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the customs ship will likely take several days to rendezvous with the security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 to collect the three Australian citizens: Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27. 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 criticized the boarding tactic as "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 in a statement.
"The best way to stop whaling once and for all is through our court action," she added.
Australia maintains 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.
The three activists, 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.
"We are down there to protect the whales, we are not down there to make everybody happy," Watson told Macquarie Radio by satellite phone from the Steve Irwin, which is being shadowed by the Shonan Maru No. 2.
"If the Australian government would do their job and fulfill their election promises, these things wouldn't be happening," he added, referring to the Gillard government's pledge to end whaling in Antarctic waters.
Pete Bethune, a Sea Shepherd activist, boarded the same Japanese ship in 2010. Bethune, a New Zealander, spent five months in a Japanese jail before being convicted of an array of offenses and deported.
Sea Shepherd said the three activists reached the Japanese vessel — a former harpoon boat that now performs a security role for the whaling fleet — in two small boats 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.
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 hoped to divert the Shonan Maru No. 2 off the Steve Irwin's tail as it searched for the whalers.