SYDNEY, Oct 11 (Reuters) Environmental group Greenpeace is satellite tracking 19 humpback whales as they travel from the South Pacific back to Antarctic waters this whaling season, to prove Japan does not need to kill whales to study them.
Greenpeace said the tracking would gather data on the humpbacks' movements, habitat use and population structure, and allow people to monitor individual whales on a Web site.
The position of the whales will be a delayed broadcast to prevent Japanese whalers locating the slow moving humpbacks, which have been tagged with transmitters.
''We are collecting skin samples to sequence DNA of every whale that we encounter. We don't have to kill the whales to do this,'' Greenpeace whale researcher Nan Hauser said in a statement. ''We do not have to kill the whales for any of the research we are doing. We do not even have to hurt them.'' Japan plans for the first time to hunt 50 humpback whales in the Antarctic over the coming southern hemisphere summer.
Japan also plans to hunt 935 minke whales for scientific research.
The Japanese whaling fleet, hampered by a fire on the factory processing ship Nisshin Maru last February that killed one crewman, has been bolstered by an additional new chaser vessel for the upcoming hunt.
Critics say most of the whale meat ends up in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants and that Japan rarely publishes its scientific findings.
Greenpeace plans to again send an anti-whaling protest ship into the Southern Ocean to try and stop the whaling.
WHALE PROFILES Greenpeace's ''Great Whale Trail'' project will monitor the humpbacks as they travel from South Pacific breeding grounds to feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
The humpbacks have been tagged by the Cook Islands Whale Research and Operation Cetaces in New Caledonia.
A viewer can click on each whale's icon to access a profile, which includes its name, a photograph, whether it has a calf, and its latitude and longitude. Some whales have yet to be named.
The whale tracking website is: www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/oceans/whaling/great- whale-trail.
Greenpeace said Japan's hunt was also endangering whale watching tourism operations in poor island nations such as Tonga.
''Pacific Island countries have developed whale watching into a multi-million dollar industry,'' said Nilesh Goundar, Greenpeace Australia Pacific's Oceans Team Leader.
''The Japanese government's whaling programme is jeopardising the economies of whale-watching nations.'' Humpback whales are noted for the complex songs sung by males and for their acrobatic behaviour, making them popular with whale-watching tourists.
Their numbers have recovered somewhat and are estimated at between 30,000 and 60,000. This is still only about a third of pre-whaling levels and the species continues to be classified as vulnerable.
REUTERS ARB KP1036