HONG KONG - A group of Chinese activists set sail on Wednesday for a fishing trip to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, over a year after 14 were arrested in a similar excursion.
Officers from Hong Kong's Marine Department inspected the boat being used by the activists, Kai Fung No.2, and examined the captain's license.
Earlier plans to sail to the disputed waters were prevented by Hong Kong officials, who would not allow the boat to leave citing safety reasons.
The Marine Inspector W.K. Choi read a statement aloud, saying the fishing boat is only allowed to operate within Hong Kong waters.
"This is an instruction for you (Lo) and the captain -- we do not allow the aforementioned vessel, Kai Fung No. 2, to leave Hong Kong waters," said Choi, who refused to give his full name.
At least half a dozen boats from the police, Marine Department and Immigration Department surrounded Kai Fung No. 2 as the boat sailed into the iconic Victoria Harbour to meet the media.
"If there are no fish at Spratly Islands, as long as a place falls under Chinese territory and has plenty of fish, we will go. We cannot tell now where we can catch the most fish. Our goal this time is to fish," said Lo Chau, the boat's owner Lo Chau, who also leads the activist group, Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands.
The Spratlys, known as Nansha Islands in China, are disputed between Taiwan, Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Lo did not rule out sailing to other areas.
Last year, the same group of activists went on a similar trip, to the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, located in an area with rich fishing grounds that is also believed to contain oil and gas deposits.
Fourteen of them were arrested and deported by Japanese authorities.
If Kai Fung No. 2 leaves Hong Kong territory, the journey to Spratly Islands will take 3.5 days, Lo said.
The South China Sea is one of the world's most strategically important waterways.
Tension over the region has risen in recent years as China uses its growing naval might to assert extensive claims over the oil- and gas-rich waters more forcefully.