The chef fires up the grill and bastes a chunky whale steak, a Japanese delicacy that could soon appear on more plates nationwide as a new whaling mothership sets sail despite criticism from conservationists.

Fatty raw pink-and-white whale meat is also on the menu at Nisshinmaru, a restaurant named after Japan's previous huge vessel for catching the marine mammals, now retired after three decades at sea.

The last mothership was aggressively pursued in the Antarctic by activists determined to disrupt operations, but Japan has built an even bigger boat to replace it. The brand-new, nearly 9,300-ton lead vessel for Japan's whaling flotilla departed Tuesday on its maiden hunt — heralding a new era for an industry defended by the government as an integral part of Japanese culture.