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 facility for the thousands of whales brought to it by the other boats in the fleet.
During last season's whale hunt, Sea Shepherd activists nearly succeeded in halting the Nisshin. On 12 February, after nearly two months of criss-crossing the Southern Ocean and failing to come across a single Japanese ship, spotters on board the Sea Shepherd's Robert Hunter sighted the Nisshin in the distant horizon. Dressed in black combat fatigues, their faces covered by ski masks, the activists headed towards the ship and threw smoke bombs and harmless foul smelling chemicals onto its decks.
A separate group of activists, meanwhile, boarded inflatable dinghies and motored up to the ship's hulls, nailing shut the scuppers through which whale blood was released into the ocean. The assault was eventually called off when one of the dinghies went missing in the day's increasingly stormy weather; two weeks later the Nisshin was forced to limp back to Japan after a fire on board disabled the ship's engine. The fire had nothing to do with the anti-whaling campaigners but the Japanese government was incensed nonetheless and branded Watson's crew "terrorists".
For many anti-whaling campaigners, Watson's coercive conservation tactics are simply a step too far and make it all too easy for whaling nations to accuse the environmental movement of being dominated by "eco-terrorists" . Watson was one of the dozen activists who helped found Greenpeace in the early 1970s; he was thrown out in 1977 for breaking the group's non-violent ethos during a protest against seal hunters and spent much of the following 30 years ostracised from the mainstream environmental movement.
"No one doubted his courage for a moment," the journalist Robert Hunter, a fellow Greenpeace founder and the man Sea Shepherd's current anti-whaling ship is named after, once wrote. "He was a great warrior-brother. Yet in terms of the Greenpeace gestalt, he seemed possessed by too powerful a drive, too unrelenting a desire to push himself front and centre, shouldering everyone else aside."
Over the past 30 years the methods employed by Watson and his followers read more like a James Bond novel than an activist's diary. According to his somewhat colourful autobiography, Watson claims he was first drawn to direct activism after his best friend, a wild beaver he called Bucky, died in an animal trap in the forests around his home in the New Brunswick Canada. At the age of nine he began dismantling and confiscating traps before moving on to the somewhat perilous task of standing in front of hunters during duck shoots.
In 1964, following the death of his mother during childbirth, he ran away from his abusive father and ended up in Vancouver, at the time a Swinging Sixties haven of free radicals, Vietnam draft dodgers and other hangers-on. Homeless and broke, he joined the local coastguard and before long his particular brand of radical maritime activism was born.
His first encounter with whaling fleets occurred in 1975 when Greenpeace vessels surrounded a Soviet harpooner off the coast of California. For much of the 1970s Greenpeace had campaigned primarily against nuclear testing but increasing alarm over the plummeting whale populations brought them into confrontation with the whalers. During the battles Watson saw a harpooned adult sperm whale die, an experience he later claimed changed his life. " In an instant, my life was transformed and a purpose for my life was reverently established," he wrote.
Following his acrimonious expulsion from Greenpeace, Watson went on to found the Sea Shepherds and spent much of the 1980s carrying out his particular shocking brand of coercive conservation. In 1981 he infiltrated Soviet Russia and documented the illegal harvesting of whale meat for animal feed. A year later he cropped up dropping light bulbs filled with paint on to the decks of Russian trawlers from an aeroplane and the following year he managed to single-handedly halt the annual seal hunt in Canada by threatening to sink his own ship at the entrance to St John's Harbour in Newfoundland where most of the Canadian seal trawlers were based.
But it is in the last four annual expeditions to the Antarctic that Watson has really found his true calling and, despite his controversial tactics, wider praise. For those who believe that the world's few remaining whaling fleets must be stopped at all costs, the Canadian campaigner and his crew of 52 volunteers are nothing short of saviours.
"I don't necessarily support everything Paul does but I do think on the whole he has helped the anti-whaling campaign greatly," says Peter Singer, the Princeton-based ethicist and one of the founding fathers of the animal rights debate. "Paul and the activists of Sea Shepherd are the kind of people who are prepared to go through the type of hardships that have to be endured to stop the whaling nations. Without their presence on the high seas there would be much less public knowledge, much less media interest and much less international focus on what is happening to these whales."
If Migaloo could speak he might say very much the same thing.