Fri Nov 18, 9:33 AM ET
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Greenpeace activists will put their lives on the line to disrupt this year's Japanese whaling hunt as part of a 14-month campaign to save the world's oceans, the group said on Friday.
"Greenpeace will get out there and put ourselves between the whale and the harpoon to defend our oceans," Shane Rattenbury, head of the group's Ocean Campaign, told reporters in Cape Town's harbor.
The activist group will leave South Africa in two ships within the next few days to search the vast Southern Ocean to confront the whalers and stop the hunt, he said.
The 6-ship Japanese fleet left for the Antarctic last week and plan to double its target catch, spearing more than 900 minke whales, and 10 fin whales -- an endangered species second in size only to the blue whale.
Tokyo maintains that whale meat is an important part of its culinary tradition, but anti-whaling nations and environmental groups condemn as cruel and unnecessary the practice of hunting the giant marine mammals.
Rattenbury said uncontrolled commercial whaling over the past century had wiped out 90 percent of the planet's whales, and has brought many species to the brink of extinction.
"We are facing a growing wave of ocean extinction, our seas have reached a tipping point with scores of species of fish, birds and mammals edging toward extinction," he said.
The planned confrontation with the whalers is the first phase of a campaign that will see Greenpeace vessels sail the world to gather research and drum up support for a campaign to declare 40 percent of the world's oceans protected areas.
Japan abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an international moratorium and began what it calls a research program the following year, but meat still ends up on plates in gourmet restaurants.
The International Whaling Commission passed a non-binding resolution at a meeting in June that urged Japan to scrap research whaling altogether, while Japan lobbied for commercial whaling to be allowed again.
It threatened to withdraw from the commission and form a new regulatory body with other whaling nations such as Norway.
Sara Holden, Greenpeace spokeswoman, told Reuters the group was confident of finding the whalers despite the massive search area -- an estimated 32 million square kilometers, or twice the size of the United States.
"We found them before and we fully intend to find them again," she said.