Defence Minister Stephen Smith has ruled out sending a navy ship to keep watch in Antarctic waters despite a dramatic high seas clash between Japanese whalers and protesters.

Anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd has accused the Nisshin Maru of ramming three of its vessels in an act of "road rage" as the protesters tried to prevent the whaler from refuelling.

Japan has now temporarily suspended its annual whale hunt, ABC television reports.

Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown called it a "gross breach" of international law and called on the government to send navy vessels immediately to restore order.

But Mr Smith said the government had "never contemplated" sending navy assets to the Southern Ocean.

It had in the past sent a ship to collect video and photographic evidence of whaling hunts to build a case before the International Court of Justice.

That case was now running and the government would wait for the ruling, he said.

"Our argument is that whaling in the Great Southern Ocean is unlawful," he told ABC television on Thursday.

During the incident, the Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker completely lost power and started taking on water after the Nisshin Maru pinned it against a tanker.

Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson said the whaling ship "moved in very aggressively," almost turning over the Bob Barker and only backed off after the protest ship sent out a distress signal.

"It is a reckless situation," Captain Watson told ABC television.

"It's almost like the captain of the Nisshin Maru is doing a road rage out here."

He said there wasn't time for the Australian navy to help this time around but if the Japanese returned next year a ship should be sent to "keep the peace".

Environment Minister Tony Burke also ruled out naval intervention but said Japan's conduct in the Southern Ocean was "disgusting".

"It's not something that we try to settle in a carpark, we settle it in a court," he told Sky News on Thursday.

"That's why we've taken the legal action that we have."

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