Words: Justin McCurry/Guardian.co.uk

Sea Shepherd activist and pro surfer Dave Rastovich, playing with a cetacean friend." Photo by Josh Kimball

The leader of an anti-whaling environmental group today claimed he had been shot by Japanese coast guard officers while on his boat in the southern ocean and had only survived because he was wearing a protective vest.

Paul Watson, the marine conservation group's leader, claimed a bullet struck him above the heart and that he had video footage of the ship's doctor, David Page, removing it from his protective vest.

Two others were injured, the group, Sea Shepherd, said. One injured his hip as he tried to dodge incoming "flash grenades", and another received bruises to the back when one of the grenades exploded behind him.

"I felt this impact on my chest," Watson told Australian radio. "I found a bullet buried in the Kevlar vest that I wear. It bruised my shoulder but it would have hit my heart if I didn't have the vest."

But Japanese officials said no shots had been fired. Tomohiko Taniguchi, a foreign ministry spokesman, said the Japanese fleet's mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, had warned Watson and his crew that it would retaliate with flash grenades unless they stopped attacking the vessel with "stink bombs" containing of butyric acid.

"The Nisshin Maru was attacked four times today," Taniguchi told the Guardian. "After the second wave of attacks Sea Shepherd was warned that if they threw more acid then the whaling ship would retaliate. But no bullets were fired."

Full story at guardian.co.uk here.