On the morning of January 15, Sea Shepherd Captain Wyanda Lublink awoke on the Antarctic Ocean aboard her ship, the MV Steve Irwin. She had a feeling that her target — a fleet of Japanese whaling vessels — was near. “The weather was perfect for whaling,” she recalls. “In my gut I felt that the whalers were close, somewhere over the horizon. So I started moving in.”

By that point two Sea Shepherd vessels had been patrolling the Southern Ocean for six weeks, hoping to get between the Japanese boats and the 333 minke whales they set out to kill. They had had some success tailing the three harpoon ships, but the real prize — the larger factory ship called Nisshin Maru — had remained elusive. Deterring a single harpoon ship from hunting for a day will save a whale, but interfering with the Nisshin Maru shuts down the whole operation.

Since 2002, Sea Shepherd and Japanese whalers have engaged in a no-holds-barred high seas battle replete with water cannons and collisions. The strategy for Sea Shepherd is to come physically between the ships — if the harpoon ships can’t unload their dead whales, they can’t go back for more live ones.

Captain Wyanda Lublink celebrates the finding of the 'Nisshin Maru'.

It was the helicopter that first spotted the factory ship on that calm Sunday morning. “It took nearly an hour before we got the message from the helicopter that they had located the Nisshin Maru and two of the fleet’s harpoon vessels,” writes Lublink. “At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, so I asked our communications officer Niko to repeat the message and then the quietness on the bridge broke into chaos! For weeks we had been awaiting this moment and when we finally heard the news it felt unreal.”

Since 1987, the government of Japan has supported whaling expeditions to Antarctica under the guise of “scientific research.” In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that the hunt was not for scientific purposes and ordered the permits revoked. That kept the fleet homebound for the 2014-2015 season, but they were back a year ago under a new program, still in the name of science. Last year the fleet reported that it killed its full quota of 333 minke whales, most of which were pregnant females. Sea Shepherd wasn’t there — it cited lack of clarity over where the whalers would be and blamed the Australian government for failing to provide that information.

sea shepherd helicopter antarctica japanese whalers nemesis
The helicopter crew aboard the 'Steve Irwin' finally spots the Japanese factory ship.

This year, Sea Shepherd came prepared for the fight with a new weapon in its arsenal — the Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd’s custom-built anti-whaling patrol ship. For the first time, the group has a vessel that can outrun the Japanese boats. “The Ocean Warrior is doing great,” Captain Adam Meyerson tells Inverse in an email. “It handles the weather very well and is a safe and very fast ship. The great advantage is its combination of speed and long range enabling us to outrun the harpoon ships and easily stay with the Nisshin Maru, if we can find her.”

Unfortunately, that day when Steve Irwin’s helicopter found the factory ship, the Ocean Warrior was not nearby. A spot of bad weather came up, and she was lost again in a day. But the photos of the dead whale on the deck spread across the internet, prompting official condemnations by the Australian and New Zealand governments.

Captain Adam Meyerson takes the helm of the 'Ocean Warrior'.

The weather has been tough this whole season. “The weather in Antarctica changes more dramatically than anywhere I’ve ever been,” says Meyerson. “It can be calm, blue, and sunny [one moment] and the next minute, you are in a blizzard with five-meter seas. Overall, this year has been plagued with low visibility and rough weather. This has kept us from seeing the fleet, but also made it difficult for them to kill whales; they need to visually spot them and the weather has made that hard.”

The strategy for Sea Shepherd mirrors the strategy for the whalers — find the calm weather, and find the whales, and the Japanese fleet is sure to be nearby. “We have been close many times, unfortunately we have so far always run into a harpoon ship first. They then relay our position to the slaughter/processing ship the Nisshin Maru and she will flee. We have to guess the direction that she runs in and chase after her. We have been close enough to observe the blood and guts she dumps in the clear blue Antarctic waters, but not to spot the ship itself this year.”

Sea Shepherd spots a Japanese harpoon ship near an iceberg.

Still, by keeping the whalers on the run, whales have been saved, Meyerson contends. “We have spent around 10 days with one member of the fleet or another. At times, one member was with the Steve Irwin and one was with us leaving the Nisshin Maru with only a single harpoon ship. We have come upon the area where they were actively whaling and they had fled in the midst of killing whales. We have patrolled the areas that had good weather and abundant whales forcing the whaling fleet into areas of bad weather and fewer whales. We have had had enormous impact on the number of days they have been able to hunt and the cost of the hunt.”

The end of the hunting season is nearing, but the Ocean Warrior’s hunt for the Nisshin Maru continues. If Meyerson finds them, he’s not expecting a fight — the whaling application states that the fleet will cease killing in the presence of Sea Shepherd vessels. But he’s ready for one. “We will use any means at our disposal to stop them from whaling. We are not here as witnesses, but as protectors of the whales.”

Photos via Sea Shepherd Global / Glenn Lockitch, Sea Shepherd Global / Simon Ager, Sea Shepherd Global / Glenn Lockitch