A JAPANESE whaling security ship carrying three Australian activists was last night heading into the Southern Ocean, despite diplomatic efforts to retrieve them.
The Shonan Maru No.2 kept up its pursuit of the Sea Shepherd ship, Steve Irwin, as the federal government sought to resolve the crisis sparked by the three's boarding.
With the government yet to obtain consular access to the men, their supporters in Perth said they were scheduled to begin a hunger strike. The government was resisting Coalition and Greens pressure to send a Customs patrol ship south to monitor the whaling conflict.
The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, called for ''cool heads'' to prevail as the government sought to ensure the return of the men to Australia.
The boarding fuelled debate about the use of the government's Southern Ocean patrol ship, the Ocean Protector, which was docked in Fremantle on Friday when the Steve Irwin called to refuel.
The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, said the vessel should be sent to keep the peace over whaling. ''The best way for Australia to exercise some influence and to do good in the Southern Ocean would be to put an Australian Customs vessel down there so that as far as is humanly possible, we can keep the peace in the Southern Ocean during the whaling season,'' Mr Abbott said.
The Greens leader, Bob Brown, said he would introduce legislation to require an Australian patrol ship to be on station whenever whaling occurred in an Australian whale sanctuary.
This season the Japanese fleet is expected to take up to 930 minke whales and 50 fin whales under a self-awarded scientific whaling permit. It is slated to operate mainly in waters declared a whale sanctuary off the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Ms Roxon poured cold water on the prospect of sending the Ocean Protector south, describing it as ''macho chest-beating''.
Experienced anti-whaling activists told the Herald they doubted that the Shonan Maru No.2 would break off its pursuit of the Steve Irwin to return the activists to Australia.
''For the Japanese to now lose the Steve Irwin would be a big blow to their security program,'' said Peter Bethune, a New Zealander who was detained for five months after he boarded the same ship in 2010.
The Sea Shepherd leader, Paul Watson, said that as the ships passed the edge of Australia's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone it was hard to believe the government would allow Australian citizens to be taken away from its own waters. ''But the Shonan Maru No.2 does what it wants,'' he said.
A Japanese diplomat said the government in Tokyo was yet to decide what to do with the three.
''Investigations are still under way,'' said the Japanese consul-general in Melbourne, Hidenobu Sobashima. ''They are being carried out by officials of the Japan Coast Guard with the three people.'' Geoffrey Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27, were said by an Institute of Cetacean Research spokesman to be in good health.
A Forest Rescue spokeswoman, Amy Flee, said: ''They decided that if the Shonan Maru No.2 continued onward, they would go on a hunger strike, and so did we back here supporting them.''
Mr Watson said pursuit by the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker and rough weather meant the fleet may not have taken any whales yet.
with Tom Arup and Geesche Jacobsen
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