Japanese whalers have set out for waters off the Australian Antarctic Territory. Australians await their arrival with trepidation, as this is the third season since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government pledged to end whaling in the Southern Ocean.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) confirms that each year, the Japanese fleet begins whaling in mid-December and alternates each year between the Australian Antarctic waters and the Antarctic Ross Sea. The IWC has been working for years to curb whaling. 

The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the whaling fleet, has confirmed that humpback whales would again be spared from the hunt. This extends a postponement agreed in 2007. Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett repeated an invitation for the Japanese to join in Australia's $32 million non-lethal whale science program. 

The Nisshin Maru is the factory ship of the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research. Maritime safety and environmental laws have been rewritten to possibly rule the Nisshin Maru out of Antarctic operations within the next few years. Also, a new Japanese government waste-watch committee is focusing on organizations that subsidize whaling.

This year, Greenpeace has opted out against direct action in the Australian Antarctic. Two campaigners, Toro Suzuki and Junichi Sato, face trial for the alleged theft of whale meat in Japan. As reported by the Australian media, the Tokyo Supreme Court denied a special appeal seeking disclosure of evidence of a whale meat embezzlement scandal that was exposed by the two before they were prosecuted.

Luckily, the Sea Shepherd activists are at the helm to protest the whaling activities. The group plans to take two ships into the southern waters. Skipper Pete Bethune, who helms the Ady Gil, says, ''The days of the Japanese being able to hunt whales without scrutiny or disruption in Antarctica are now gone. We are ready for them.'' 

The Ady Gil is named for a Californian millionaire whose donation enabled the ship to be purchased by the Sea Shepherds. As Gil told The Age, ''It is worth every penny to me even if one beautiful, amazing whale is saved.”

Japan's whaling season has begun
Whaling boats steam south as Australia braces for their arrival.