"Yesterday evening a nautical drama was being played out between seven ships deep in the heaving, wild and normally extremely lonely Southern Ocean on the edge of Antarctica. The Nisshin Maru, a large Japanese whaling factory ship, was steaming due south at 15 knots in heavy seas with a crew of 80 and with the carcasses of possibly 50 whales aboard.
Two miles behind it, in full sight but not in radio contact, was the Esperanza, a Greenpeace vessel converted from a Russian navy fire-fighting ship with a volunteer crew of 21 nationalities and a Dutch captain. The Esperanza is well equipped, as you would expect from a large and well-resourced operation with more than 200,000 members, but it looks tiny beside the vast whaling vessel.
Steaming towards both ships, and due to meet them in possibly a day or two among the icebergs and the fogs, is the MV Steve Irwin, the black-painted flagship of Captain Paul Watson and the California-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the world's most uncompromising environmental enforcement group. His crew is smaller, but - like that of the Esperanza - made up of brilliant and committed seamen. Discipline is everything at sea and both sets of volunteers, male and female and drawn from just about every country, respond magnificently to the challenge and the danger.
Yesterday afternoon the MV Steve Irwin was 60S 78E, roughly 2,500 miles south-west of Fremantle in Australia, pursuing a group of four small whaling ships that the Japanese are this year using to kill nearly 1,000 whales in the Antarctic whale sanctuary. This little taskforce is thought to be heading towards an as yet unknown rendezvous with both the Nisshin Maru and a supply vessel to offload any whales they may have harpooned and pick up stores.
But the chase is in particular earnest because one of these smaller whalers, the Yusshin Maru No 2, has already clashed with the Irwin and is now running from it with two of the Sea Shepherd boat's crew. In an act of extraordinary courage - or stupidity - Giles Lane from Brighton and Benjamin Potts from Australia leapt aboard the Yusshin Maru No 2 from the Irwin to deliver a letter to the Japanese captain requesting him to leave the whale sanctuary. The Japanese, not believing their luck, promptly held them captive and sped over the horizon. Now there is an international diplomatic incident, with the Japanese saying they will only hand them back if Sea Shepherd agrees to certain demands, and Watson saying this is "an illegal act of hostage-taking".