The key Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru has disappeared from view ahead of its annual Antarctic hunt, according to conservationists preparing to tackle the whalers.
The world's only factory whaling ship left a dry-dock partial refit in Hiroshima recently and has been lost from sight, Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson said on Wednesday.
"I can say that one of the whale harpoon ships was seen in Japan two days ago," Mr Watson said. "The whaling fleet has either left, or will be leaving in the next few days."
Disclosing his location for the first time since skipping bail in Germany more than four months ago, Mr Watson said he was aboard the group's ship Steve Irwin, about 800 nautical miles north of New Zealand.
He confirmed he was in command of the group and would be leading its Antarctic campaign this summer.
"Our objective is still to stop them before they kill a single whale," he said.
Interpol has issued two "Red Notices" seeking the arrest of Mr Watson, based on warrants issued by Costa Rica and Japan.
After he left Frankfurt on July 22, Mr Watson said he went to the Netherlands and then took three different vessels across the Atlantic and Pacific to reach his current position.
"The Japanese have certainly put a lot of pressure on me with this Interpol thing," he said. "The one place I can remain free is on the oceans."
Mr Watson said he would weigh up whether to attempt to come ashore in Australia after the Antarctic campaign.
"I'll wait until then and then we can figure out what the issues are," he said. "One thing's for certain, if I get to Japan they'll never let me go."
Sea Shepherd at first announced plans to meet the whaling fleet near its Japanese home waters this season, but has scrapped them. Instead, Mr Watson said the four ships were in the Pacific.
The long-range Bob Barker is headed for Wellington to refuel before going south; the fast interceptor Brigitte Bardot recently left American Samoa, and the new ship, Sam Simon, is due in Hobart next week.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research does not comment on the movements of its whaling fleet. It conducts its lethal program under International Whaling Commission rules with a self-awarded scientific research permit.
The Fisheries Agency of Japan, which controls the institute, said before a partial refit of the Nisshin Maru began in September there was "no possibility" Japan would miss the Antarctic season this year.
Meanwhile, South Korea has confirmed the abandonment of its plans to engage in scientific whaling off its coast by failing to lodge any proposal with the IWC by a deadline of early December, according to Greenpeace.
"The South Korean government's decision to not take up scientific whaling is another sign that commercial whaling has no place in our oceans," said Greenpeace East Asia oceans campaigner Jeonghee Han.