CANBERRA A stricken Japanese whaling ship on fire off the Antarctic coast was lashed between two other ships on Friday to avoid drifting into ice as its crew worked to contain a blaze below deck.
Fire teams were unable to get to the fire on the black-hulled Nisshin Maru, the 8,000 ton flagship of the Japan whaling fleet, despite it having lost some of its intensity in freezing conditions, emergency officials said.
"There are still hot spots and they still cannot get down beneath the deck," Maritime New Zealand spokesman Lindsay Sturt told Reuters, adding the ship had been lashed alongside a fleet supply vessel and another whaling ship.
"Because they haven't got any power, there are icebergs and all sorts of stuff, so they don't want it just floating around. The plan is to move the ship north where it will be safer."
Fears were easing of an oil or chemical leak spill after the crew managed to pump off excess water and correct the list to the ship, Sturt said.
"They are trying to starve the fire as much as they can. Once they get in there they can start to search for the missing crewman and assess the damage," he said.
The fire broke out on Thursday. Maritime authorities said anti-whaling protesters in the Southern Ocean, which clashed with the whalers on Monday, were not involved.
The fire, fueled in part by whale oil, was burning in a factory area above the engine room and below the ship's bridge.
OFFER OF HELP
Environmental group Greenpeace offered to tow the stricken boat with its converted salvage ship Esperanza as the Nisshin Maru wallowed without power less than 100 nautical miles from the world's largest Adelie penguin colony.
"Our first thoughts are for the missing crewman and the rest of the people on board. This is not a time to play politics," Greenpeace expedition leader Karli Thomas said.
Amid reports Japan had rejected offers of help from environment "terrorists", Hideki Moronuki at the Japanese Fisheries Agency said Greenpeace had not been in contact.
But the Nisshin Maru may have refused help because the ship had been boarded by Greenpeace activists in New Caledonia in 1998 as it lay in port after another fire, Moronuki said.
A spokesman at the Institute For Cetacean Research, which runs Japan's whaling program and is partly government-funded, also said they had not been contacted by Greenpeace.
About 30 people were still on board to fight the fire and it was thought a missing crewman had perished on board.
It is unclear whether the ship, currently disabled, will be able to restart its engines. If it remains disabled the Nisshin Maru will continue to threaten the environment if calm weather in the Southern Ocean, known for massive storm seas, turns bad.
Jun Hoshikawa, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, told Reuters that the Esperanza could reach the Nisshin Maru on Saturday morning.
"We'll put aside our campaign for however long is necessary," he added. "Let's put life and the environment first now."
New Zealand's government said on Thursday that if an oil leak occurred an international response would be launched involving New Zealand, Australia and the United States, which all have Antarctic bases.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo)