THE Japanese whaling fleet was headed north, out of its designated Antarctic hunting grounds late on Friday, lifting conservationists' hopes that they forced the whalers to quit.
The factory ship, Nisshin Maru, was near the 60 degrees south parallel and steaming north about 120 nautical miles behind its refuelling tanker Sun Laurel, about 2700 nautical miles south-west of Perth, the Sea Shepherd founder, Paul Watson, said. ''We are escorting the entire whaling fleet north and out of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.''
He said the fleet was seen by Sea Shepherd to kill only two whales and with just one harpoon ship to service Nisshin Maru for 17 days when it was out of the group's observation and on the run, the total number of whales killed was likely to be very low.
''All of the captains, officers and crew on all four ships have done an amazing job this season,'' Mr Watson said.
''The ships held their positions and did not waver, even under intense pressure. We have always said they would have to sink us to stop us and we put the whalers to the test.''
Japanese authorities have not commented on the future of the whaling season since Monday, when Sea Shepherd ships blockaded a second attempt by the Nisshin Maru to refuel.