THE heat between Japanese whalers and environmental activists reaches far beyond the icy Southern Ocean: it's in the cutting edge battle to harpoon public opinion.
Satellite up-links, webcams, around-the-clock internet blogging and dragooned reporters are the weapons of choice in this struggle for hearts and minds.
Sea Shepherd's images have been plastered on the front pages of metropolitan newspapers and in television news bulletins, often without right of reply by the whalers.
The man supplying the pictures, Sea Shepherd's volatile Paul Watson, is accessible by satellite phone. Between playing his increasingly high-stakes game of bluff with the Japanese whaling fleet, he makes time to regularly update his blog from the MV Steve Irwin.
The nerve centre of the media operation is a one-room office in Melbourne where Watson's American sidekick, Jonny Vasic, downloads dispatches from the Antarctic and punches them on to the Sea Shepherd website. Watson's satellite number is given to any reporter who asks.
Aboard the Steve Irwin -- the 53m cutter bought from the Scottish fisheries service in 2005 and rebadged after its British maritime registration was revoked -- there's a dedicated photographer and separate video camera operator.
Space has also been made on the cramped ship for a six-strong documentary crew from the US Discovery Channel.
``Media is one of our main tools,'' said Vasic, who has flown from the US with wife Christine to manage the on-shore operation from Sea Shepherd's office in inner-Melbourne Fitzroy.
``We are not delusional that we can solve this problem on our own.
``At best, we can be a spark, a catalyst, and we have to get this out to the world so people know what's going on down there with Paul and the crew.''
Sea Shepherd includes Lonely Planet, outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, and Swiss-based Save Our Seas Foundation among its sponsors, supporters and partners, which number almost 30.
More than 3000 volunteers and staff have worked for the organisation since the original Sea Shepherd's first voyage in the late 1970s, according to its website.
The media saturation tactic has worked. Kevin Rudd, his deputy, Julia Gillard, and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith all fronted the media yesterday on the whaling dispute.
Former journalist Greg Smith, who lectures in public relations at Edith Cowan University, said the media's remoteness from the action, and reliance on activists for photos, risked pushing the debate ``out of balance''.
``We fall for the cute and cuddly animal story, and having it on the high seas adds to the drama,'' Smith said.
But ``when they're strong pictures like that, the other side doesn't have much chance''.
Australian National University marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes said it was not just awareness Sea Shepherd had created. The organisation was generating ``a lot of money'' by linking its powerful images, blog updates, and promise of instant action to online donations.
It has even converted former Howard government environment minister Ian Campbell, now on the Sea Shepherd's board of advisers. When he was a minister, Campbell slammed Watson's verbal offensive against whalers as ``deranged'' and hinted at legal action against him.
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