Japan's whaling vessel Shonan Maru 2. CREDIT: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Japanese whaling vessels left port Friday bound for the Southern

Ocean on their annual hunt for the huge marine mammals, a media report

and Greenpeace said.

Citing the Fisheries Agency, Kyodo News

reported three vessels had departed from the far-western port of

Shimonoseki, while environmental group Greenpeace said the whaling

fleet's mother ship had left another port, also in the country's west.

"The mother ship, Nisshin Maru, left Innoshima today," said Greenpeace Japan's executive director Junichi Sato.

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was virtually the last day when they could leave for the Antarctic

Sea," he said, adding that the fisheries agency had announced that the

departure would take place within this month.

The mother ship would join the three vessels that left Shimonoseki earlier in the day, Kyodo said.


fleet plans to hunt up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and up to 50 fin

whales through March, the fisheries agency said earlier.

Japanese authorities refused to confirm either departure to AFP.

"We do not disclose when the vessels leave or left for safety reasons," an agency official said.


officers will be aboard the ships to cope with possible harassment from

anti-whaling activists, the coastguard and fisheries agency officials

said earlier this month.

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The fleet's departure comes weeks later

than expected and days after a US court ordered militant environmental

group Sea Shepherd to stay at least 500 yards (metres) from whaling


The injunction was ordered by the US Court of Appeals for

the Ninth Circuit, in the latest step in a legal battle between the

anti-whaling group and Japanese authorities over vessels in the Southern


It said Sea Shepherd and Canadian militant conservationist

Paul Watson, who is wanted by Interpol, "are enjoined from physically

attacking any vessel engaged by plaintiffs", including Japan's Institute

of Cetacean Research.

In addition, they are banned from

"navigating in a manner that is likely to endanger the safe navigation

of any such vessel", said the order, issued on Monday.

"In no

event shall defendants approach plaintiffs any closer than 500 yards

(460 metres) when defendants are navigating on the open sea," it added.

The joint plaintiffs are Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, Ltd., Tomoyuki Ogawa and

Toshiyuki Miura.

It follows the issuing in August of an arrest

notice by Interpol for Watson, Sea Shepherd's founder, who jumped bail

in Germany in July.

He had been arrested there on charges from Costa Rica relating to a high-seas confrontation over shark finning in 2002.

In a statement on its website, Sea Shepherd called the new US court ruling "the first shot of the season" by Japanese whalers.


between the whalers and activists have escalated in recent years, and

the Japanese cut their hunt short in early 2011 due to Sea Shepherd


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Japan hunts whales using a loophole in a global

moratorium that allows killing the sea mammals for what it calls

"scientific research", although the meat is later sold openly in shops

and restaurants.

Watson, whose whereabouts had been a mystery

since July, confirmed this month that he is back onboard a Sea Shepherd

vessel and ready to confront Japanese whalers.

Sea Shepherd's

ninth campaign, named Operation Zero Tolerance, is its largest ever

against Japan's whale hunt and involves four ships, a helicopter, three

drones and more than 100 crew members.

Three of the vessels, the

Steve Irwin, Bob Barker and Brigitte Bardot, are all at sea while the

Sam Simon is at an undisclosed location.