WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Sea Shepherd deliberately sank its own high-tech protest boat after a January collision with a Japanese whaling ship to gain sympathy, the former skipper alleged Thursday in a public spat with the conservation group's founder.
New Zealander Peter Bethune said the futuristic trimaran Ady Gil was salvagable after the crash, but that he was ordered by Sea Shepherd head Paul Watson to scuttle it. Watson denied the claim, saying the decision was Bethune's.
The exchange has exposed a bitter falling out between Bethune, who shot to international prominence because of the high-seas drama, and Watson, the figurehead of Sea Shepherd's campaign against Japan's Antarctic whaling program.
The campaign has drawn high-profile donor support in the United States and elsewhere and spawned the popular Animal Planet series "Whale Wars."
Bethune was at the helm of the Sea Shepherd boat when its bow was shorn off by Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru 2 in waters off the frozen continent in January. Bethune later boarded the whaler to confront the ship's captain over the collision, and was detained by the crew.
Bethune was 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.
He says the Ady Gil was salvageable after the collision but that Watson ordered it to be sunk. Bethune said he and two other activists went aboard the Ady Gill and opened compartments and hatches to let in water, the stuff.co.nz news Web site reported.
Bethune told New Zealand's National Radio he believed 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," Bethune 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," Bethune said, referring to the U.S. businessman who funded the vessel.
Watson, a Canadian, said the scuttling of the Ady Gil was 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," 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, the Bob Barker – funded by the former U.S. talk show host – when the line snapped and the Ady Gil began taking on water. Fuel and other potential environmental pollutants had been removed from the boat.
The Ady Gil – a sleek, wave-piercing trimaran that resembled a spider-like stealth bomber – 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 whaling ships in Antarctic waters.
Sea Shepherd announced during 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 and that he was free to rejoin.
Watson said Thursday that Bethune was expelled from the group in October after it discovered the New Zealander had given false information to Japanese authorities about Watson in exchange for leniency.
Bethune said he was speaking out now in an attempt to convince Sea Shepherd's top leaders to show more honesty and integrity.
Glenn Inwood, a New Zealand-based spokesman for Japan's Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research, said both Watson and Bethune had "told so many lies over the last few months it's hard to believe either of them" on the issue of the sinking of the Ady Gil.
Whale conservation groups declined to comment on the row Thursday.
A former conservation minister for New Zealand, which has strongly opposed Japan's whaling in Antarctic waters, told The Associated Press that Watson's credibility and Sea Shepherd's program "have been compromised by this information."
"It will weaken his position and the campaign against Japanese whaling in the southern ocean," said Former New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter, as well as "the validity of Paul Watson's arguments about the conservation of species."