SYDNEY (Reuters) - Japanese whalers and protesters clashed on Wednesday in the Southern Ocean, with activists saying three of their crew were injured by grappling hooks and a bamboo pole and Japan claiming the anti-whalers tried to cut ropes and tangle propellers.
The clash took place in the seas about 300 miles north of Mawson Peninsula off the coast of Antarctica, the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd group said on its Internet site.
"Our small boats were attempting to slow down the Japanese harpoon vessel Yushin Maru No. 2, which is aggressively tailing the Steve Irwin," said Captain Paul Watson.
The Steve Irwin is the Sea Shepherd flagship.
The statement said an American crewmember, Brian Race, suffered lacerations above his right eye and on his nose from a bamboo pole, while cameraman Russell Bergh of South Africa and photographer Guillaume Collet of France suffered bruising from iron grappling hooks.
Japanese video released by the whalers showed a water cannon on the Japanese ship being fired at a black rubber dingy, while unidentified projectiles appeared to be thrown at the Japanese ship by activists on the small vessel.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research website said the activists used knives to try to cut ropes, threw hooks at nets and tried to tangle the ship's propellers with ropes.
"Two of the deployed ropes had iron weights attached to both ends. The SS activists threw ropes with hooks attached to their ends several times," said the Institute, adding the anti-whaling protesters also hurled 30 bottles of paint.
"When the activists started using a knife to cut the...float fender rope and net, the Japanese vessel crew used bamboo poles as a measure to push the boat back."
ICR spokesman Glenn Inwood said "there's also every chance they were hurt by their own hooks."
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a hardline anti-whaling organization. It attempts to disrupt or stop the Japanese annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean by using "direct action."
Three Australian anti-whaling protesters who were detained after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 vessel in darkness off the coast of Western Australia last week were released to an Australian customs ship.
Sea Shepherd captain Watson has previously said this year would be the most dangerous campaign yet against the Japanese in a protest he dubbed "Operation Kamikaze."
Last season, Japan cut short its hunt with less than a fifth of its quota in response to harassment by Sea Shepherd, which saw an activist boat sunk in a collision with a Japanese ship.
An international moratorium on whaling has been in place since 1986, but Japan exploits a loophole allowing whaling for scientific purposes to justify its annual hunt.
Australia filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in The Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. A decision is expected in 2013 or later.
(Reporting by Ed Davies; Editing by Ron Popeski)