A dangerous confrontation is looming amid the frigid seas and towering icebergs of the Antarctic as environmental activists hunt down Japan's controversial whaling fleet.
But in a radical departure from the conservative administration of his predecessor, Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, says he may add a new player to the effort – deploying the Navy and Air Force to gather evidence to be used in an international court challenge to the whaling program.
"[We have said] we would not rule out the use of Australian assets to collect appropriate data, including photographic evidence, concerning whaling activities," said Mr. Rudd, speaking last week at the UN climate-change conference in Bali, Indonesia.
He declined to say whether Australian ships and planes were on standby, promising to give more details on what he intends to do this week.
The six-ship Japanese whaling armada is on the brink of harpooning 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and – for the first time in more than 40 years – 50 protected humpback whales. The International Whaling Commission allows Japan to catch a set number of whales each year – which Japan calls culling – for scientific research, and to sell the carcasses commercially.
Humpbacks support a lucrative whale-watching business in Australia, New Zealand, and some South Pacific countries, and this year's hunt has provoked fury across the region. Australia claims 42 percent of Antarctica, and many of the whales are likely to be killed within its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from the Antarctic coastline.
Rudd's more aggressive stance was criticized by Australia's opposition, the defeated Liberal Party of John Howard, which said sending in the military would harm relations with Japan, Australia's second-biggest trade partner.
"Having warships and Air Force planes down there watching the Japanese whaling – what are our blokes actually going to do that couldn't be done by sending an aircraft or two with some photographers?" opposition leader Brendan Nelson asked.
The activist groups Greenpeace and the more hard-line Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are already searching for the Japanese fleet.
Sea Shepherd has vowed to harass and intimidate the harpoon boats. Last year, the group's Canadian president and skipper of its largest antiwhaling boat, Paul Watson, threatened to ram the whalers with a giant steel blade, nicknamed "the can opener," attached to his vessel.
The ram was not used in the end, but activists did attack the whalers by throwing acrid-smelling chemicals onto the decks of their ships and using nail guns to fix steel plates over blood-drainage portals on a huge factory ship, the Nisshin Maru. The Japanese condemned them as "pirates" and "terrorists."
Sea Shepherd revels in the pirate tag. Its ship – recently renamed the Steve Irwin in honor of the late crocodile hunter – flies a Jolly Roger flag. In place of the traditional skull and cross bones are a trident and a shepherd's crook.
Its mission in the Southern Ocean has been dubbed Operation Migaloo, a tribute to what is thought to be the world's only completely white humpback whale. Migaloo – Aboriginal for "white fella" – has become a celebrity in Australia for his annual migration along the country's east coast with hundreds of other humpbacks.
"We're on patrol right now looking for the Japanese fleet," says Jonny Vasic, international director of Seattle-based Sea Shepherd.
Harpooning of whales is against international law, and trying to stop the fleet is no different from "ripping a gun out of the hands of a poacher," he says. The group would not reveal what it will do when it encounters the Japanese ships but Mr. Vasic says "everything is on the table – as long as it's nonviolent."
Humpbacks have not been killed since a 1963 moratorium put the cetaceans under international protection. Japan says it needs to kill whales to conduct research on age, breeding habits, and feeding patterns. Environmentalists accuse Japan of using science as a pretext for commercial whaling.
The Steve Irwin can operate in the leaden gray swells of the Southern Ocean for up to 10 weeks. It uses radar and an onboard helicopter, the Kookaburra, to locate the whalers. "We're searching a massive area," says Vasic. "We shouldn't be ... having to do this – governments should be taking action to stop the slaughter."
For its part, Greenpeace has sent its protest ship, the Esperanza. It is also urging Australia's new environment minister, Peter Garrett, to make a formal protest under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) about Japan's killing of humpbacks. Humpback whales are listed under Appendix 1 of CITES, which prohibits trade for commercial purposes in products from protected species. Greenpeace chief executive Steve Shallhorn charges Japan with plans to import whale meat in violation of the international trade convention. "It is up to the new Australian government to do all it can to protect Australia's A$300 [US $258] million whale-watching industry," he says.
Japan's fisheries minister, Masatoshi Wakabayashi, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that Japan "will not tolerate any moves to obstruct our research whaling program."