As the Japanese harpooners set sail, their bitterest foes are also mobilising - and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will stop at nothing to protect the humpbacks. By Jerome Taylor
Battle of the Southern Ocean
Among the thousands of humpback whales that have begun making their way south towards the icy waters of the Antarctic's Southern Ocean this month is one of the world's most unusual and dazzling animals, a 40-tonne, bright white humpback known as Migaloo.
Believed to be the only entirely white humpback whale in the world, Migaloo, named after the Aboriginal word for "White Fella", was first spotted breaching the ocean's surface in 1991 and has since become the most recognised member of one of Mother Nature's great migrations.
But this year Migaloo's journey home is nothing short of perilous. Tracking him and his family is Japan's internationally despised whaling fleet, a mechanised armada of death that has, for the first time in 40 years, vowed to bring back 50 harpooned humpbacks on top of their annual "quota" of more than 1,000 whales.
Migaloo's family, part of six humpback communities that make their winter migration from the warm shallows of the South Pacific to the Antarctic each year, will have to dodge the Japanese harpoon guns and state-of-the-art satellite tracking techniques. The only thing standing between them and the whalers are two environmental groups comprised of hardened eco-warriors who travel to the Southern Ocean every year in their dilapidated vessels to try to act as a buffer between the whales and their would-be killers in a maritime game of cat and mouse.
But while activists on board Greenpeace's vessel the Esperanza will stick to their non-violent tactics of blockading and filming the Japanese ships, the second group will resort to much more controversial tactics.
In two weeks' time members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, will sail from their mooring in Australia into the Antarctic waters to head off the Japanese fleet and this time round they have placed saving the humpbacks at the heart of their vigilante mission, codenamed "Operation Migaloo". Using nothing more than a high-speed, 53-metre former Scottish fishing vessel, the Robert Hunt, Sea Shepherd activists have vowed to do whatever it takes to stop the whalers, even if it means physically disabling Japanese ships up to eight times their size. Tactics resorted to last year included ramming, throwing smoke bombs on board the ship's decks or dropping long knotted coils of polypropylene into their propellers.
Captaining this self-styled anti-whaling police force is 56-year- old Paul Watson, one of the international animal rights movement's most notorious and controversial figures - a vigilante environmentalist who, when not harrying Japanese fleets in sub- zero temperatures, can often be found ramming illegal fishing vessels off the coast of Ecuador or dropping steel "net-rippers" into the depleted fishing waters off the coast of Newfoundland.
"I did not establish the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as a protest organisation," said Watson shortly after announcing this year's expedition. "I have not gone to sea over all these years to simply bear witness to the atrocities that whalers continue to inflict upon the most gentle and intelligent beings in the seas. We are sea cops, operating legally under the guidelines of the United Nations' World Charter for Nature."
This year the activists' hunt for the hunters will once again centre on finding and stopping the Japanese fleet's flagship, the Nisshin Maru. To environmental campaigners, the giant 400ft-long vessel is something of a sick joke. Although it has "research" painted in large black letters on the side of its hull, it is in fact a "factory ship", the mothership of the Japanese fleet that acts as a floating butchering and refrigeration …