In early November, Sea Shepherd launched its ninth and most aggressive attempt to halt Japan’s annual Antarctic whaling expedition, but for the first time, the controversial conservation group is sending four ships and planning to intercept the whalers near Japanese waters.

Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson will also join this year’s campaign aboard the Steve Irwin, the hardline group’s flagship vessel. Watson has been in hiding since July after jumping bail in Germany, where he was awaiting extradition to Costa Rica.

The group hopes to use the Steve Irwin, another large ship called the Bob Barker and the smaller trimaran Brigitte Bardot, as well as a helicopter and drones, to stop the whalers before they reach the Antarctic Ocean, preventing them from catching any whales.

Sea Shepherd plans to have a new ship — a former German government vessel named for Sam Simon, a creator of the animated series “The Simpsons” and a patron of the group — waiting in Antarctic waters in case the whaling fleet slips past the first wave.

“We’d love zero kills every year, but especially this year the whalers are at the end of the line. They’re getting a lot of pushback for misuse of funds in their country,” said Sea Shepherd Administrative Director Susan Hartland, referring to criticism that ¥2.3 billion in disaster reconstruction funds were allocated by the government to counter Sea Shepherd tactics.

The government maintains that Japan ceased commercial whaling in 1986, and that all whaling activities since 1987 have been undertaken for research purposes. Activists dismiss that as a cover story since the resulting whale meat is sold on the domestic market. The whalers usually depart for the Antarctic by early December.

Sea Shepherd’s annual $4.6 million (¥365 million) antiwhaling operation has driven the whalers’ catch down to nearly a third of the target in recent years. The Antarctic hunt was suspended because of the activists’ interference for the first time during the 2010-2011 season.

In addition to attempting to block the whalers before they get to Antarctica, operating near Japanese waters will be safer for the Brigitte Bardot.

The fast, low-profile vessel is key in finding the whaling fleet. But it is not designed to go to Antarctica. When the ship faced 10-meter Antarctic waves last year, one of its pontoons “effectively got snapped off,” said Simon Ager, volunteer manager of the vessel. The fiberglass trimaran was moored in California for publicity and the remaining $50,000 (¥4 million) worth of repairs before embarking on its campaign.

“When we take it there, there is a lot of skill involved in keeping it intact,” Ager said. On board the ship, Ager pointed out where two crew members will watch for “growlers,” semisubmerged chunks of ice that could tear a hole in the hull.

Below is the main deck, where the captain will guide the ship to find the Nisshin Maru, the whaling fleet’s main vessel where whale carcasses are loaded for transport. Once the Brigitte Bardot’s crew finds it, Sea Shepherd’s larger vessels will be called in.

Boats could be used to block the opening where whales are winched aboard the Nisshin Maru. In previous campaigns, the activists have used laser pointers and stink bombs to harass the whalers and attempted to entangle their propellers with rope.

Those tactics are being challenged in court. The Institute of Cetacean Research, which oversees Japan’s whaling, has sued Sea Shepherd on the grounds that its actions are unsafe. The institute’s suit was dismissed but it has appealed the decision.

In the hearing at a U.S. federal appeals court in October, a panel of three judges asked pointed questions about Sea Shepherd’s practices. Fouling a ship’s propeller in Antarctic waters could endanger its crew, they argued. “This is playing with life,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said during the hearing.

If the institute prevails, Sea Shepherd could be ordered to keep its ships 800 meters away from the whalers. If that happens, “we’d obviously have a decision to make, but we’d do whatever we could to stay within the boundaries of the law,” said Hartland, the group’s administrative director.

Hartland maintains that “nobody has ever been hurt” by Sea Shepherd’s tactics. The group blames the whalers for a 2010 collision in which a small Sea Shepherd vessel sank and a crew member suffered broken ribs. A maritime investigation by New Zealand found both sides at fault.

“We’re a delicate vessel so we don’t want a direct confrontation,” said the Brigitte Bardot’s Ager.

But the ship’s crew has been trained for the possibility, explained Chantelle “Chili” Derez, a 30-year-old Australian who serves as the trimaran’s quartermaster. “We do a lot of training for a lot of different scenarios, so it just becomes second nature that you remain calm,” she said.

Ana Greer, 31, who will take part in the operation for the first time, was less sure about what she will face. Cooking vegan food in a miniature galley as the trimaran pitched and rolled on its way to California from Hawaii, “I hoped I wouldn’t lose any fingers,” she joked. The transit was her first experience at sea.

But the Australian yoga teacher is sure why she is there. “Yoga is living by principles of nonharming and compassion for all beings. I’d like to dedicate my life to preventing suffering,” she said.

Hartland said: “We don’t want to have to do this. We want these animals to be free and to live. We would love to end this campaign this year; we would love it to be our last year in the Southern Ocean. And that’s what we’re going for.”

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