The Japanese whaling fleet has left for the Antarctic, its ranks reportedly bolstered by Coast Guard officers in an attempt to ensure a successful hunt amid what promises to be more determined opposition by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
So begins another Whale Wars saga, which will heat after both sides have reached the whaling grounds and confrontations begin.
How effective will Japan's secret security measures become? Will this be the season somebody gets killed or seriously injured?
A member of the Japan Coast Guard recently told the Japan Times, "We have decided to beef up security as never before."
Will Sea Shepherd, then, be as successful as it was last season, when it forced Japanese whalers to quit early after filling only one-fifth of their kill quota of 900-plus minke whales? And are Sea Shepherd members really prepared to die, or face the prospect of death, in order save whales?
There was brief optimism among anti-whaling nations that Japan would quit its so-called scientific expeditions after last season. They're extremely costly, the science is questionable and demand for whale meat in Japan has steadily declined over the years.
Some believe, however, that Japan is continuing to hunt minke and fin whales, using a lethal research loophole in the wording of an international moratorium on commercial whaling, simply because it refuses to capitulate to Sea Shepherd pressure.
Whaling interests in Japan also believe the minke whale population is robust enough to justify killing 900 of them each year, plus a handful of endangered fin whales. (Minke whales are not endangered.)
Japan has sent three ships, led by the 720-ton Yushin Maru, to the whaling region, which includes the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The ships reportedly are carrying Coast Guard officials for only the third time since 1987, when the moratorium was put in effect. (Japan's Fishery Agency has remained secretive about specific details of this expedition.)
Sea Shepherd also is sending three ships, all of them painted black, and 88 crew members in a campaign it calls "Operation Divine Wind."
Because of beefed-up security measures, it could be the most dangerous of eight Sea Shepherd campaigns against the Antarctic whaling effort.
Capt. Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd leader, spoke up for his crew of volunteers on the group's website:
"The men and women of my crews, past and present, have given themselves in a great enterprise to defend life, to defend the whales, and all of them for the rest of their lives will be able to look back with pride at what they have done, the adventure of it, the nobility of it, and the success and satisfaction of knowing that because they intervened – thousands of whales were spared the vicious and horrific death from the merciless harpoons of the Japanese whaling fleet."
Sea Shepherd is making final preparations in Fremantle and Hobart, Australia.
Australia and New Zealand have condemned Japan's whaling effort but have no plans to send an observation vessel to the remote and icy whaling area.
Whether a search-and-rescue effort will be required on the part of Australia, which is closest to the whaling area, is another question soon to be answered.
-- Image of the Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker is courtesy of Sea Shepherd