Australia has stepped up its campaign against whaling by releasing graphic pictures of a Japanese whale hunting expedition near Antartica.
The images include video footage of a harpoon being fired into a swimming whale, which writhes as it is hauled toward the ship. The whale eventually stops moving and lies still in bloodstained waters, the harpoon clearly visible piercing its body.
One picture shows two whales -- one far smaller than the other -- being dragged by ropes or cables up a ramp in the stern of a ship as blood dribbles down.
The images were the latest salvo in the new Australian government's stepped-up campaign against Japan's annual whale hunt.
The photographs were taken from the Oceanic Viking, an Australian customs service ship sent to monitor the hunt and collect evidence for a legal challenge the government wants to bring against Japan's claim that it kills whales only for scientific purposes.
'It is explicitly clear from these images that this is the indiscriminate killing of whales, where you have a whale and its calf killed in this way,' Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett told reporters.
'To claim that this is in any way scientific is to continue the charade that has surrounded this issue from day one,' he said.
But Japan denied one of the photographs showed a mother and its calf being killed, and accused Australian officials and media of spreading propaganda that could damage ties between the two nations.
Hideki Moronuki, chief of the Japanese Fishing Agency's whaling section, denied the photograph depicted a baby whale.
'The fleet is engaged in random sampling, which means they are taking both large and small whales. This is not a parent and calf,' Moronuki said in Tokyo.
He also accused Australian officials of getting dangerously close to Japan's whaling ships to take the pictures.
The Institute of Cetacean Research, the Japanese government-affiliated organization that oversees the hunt, posted a statement on its Web site headlined: 'Australian Customs Photos Mislead the Public.'
'The Government of Australia photographs and the media reports have created a dangerous emotional propaganda that could cause serious damage to the relationship between our two countries,' institute director Minoru Morimoto said in the statement.
Japan has staunchly defended its annual killing of more than 1,000 whales, conducted under a clause in International Whaling Commission rules that allows whales to be hunted for scientific purposes.
Critics call the Japanese program a disguise for commercial whaling, which has been banned by the commission since 1986.
Japan had planned to kill up to 50 endangered humpback whales this season, but backed away after strong international condemnation. It has a quota to kill 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.
The whalers resumed their hunt in recent days after earlier being interrupted by ships sent by the Greenpeace environmentalist group and the militant activist group Sea Shepherd.
Two Sea Shepherd activists using a small boat got on board one of the harpoon ships in January and spent several days in detention before they were picked up by Australian customs officers. Greenpeace says it chased the fleet's whale processing ship out of the hunting grounds.
Both the Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace vessels later left Antarctic waters after running low on fuel and supplies.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's left-of-center Labor Party government replaced a conservative administration in November elections and has sought to burnish its environmental credentials on a number of fronts, such as quickly signing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
In late December, the government announced it was sending a ship and plane to collect evidence for a case against Japan's whaling program before the International Court of Justice, the International Whaling Commission or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said the images released Thursday could be proof the Japanese program is a sham.
'We have got evidence of whaling being carried out in circumstances that we believe it should not be done,' he told reporters.
Animal welfare groups expressed horror at the images.
'Japan's whaling is not just cruel, it's criminal,' said Darren Kindleysides of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. 'The evidence is clear. It is time for Australia to take legal action to end this illegal, unnecessary and inhumane activity once and for all.'