Japanese plans to hunt humpback whales in Antarctica could ruin Australia's $300 million-a-year whale-watching industry, says a former whaling captain.
Paddy Hart, 72, was master of Australia's last whaling vessel, the Cheynes II, when the Albany whaling station was closed in Western Australia in 1978 due to falling global demand.
In recent years, Mr Hart has become an active anti-whaling campaigner, travelling to Japan with Greenpeace to protest against its annual Antarctic whale hunt under the guise of 'scientific research'.
In 2007, Japan announced it would defy a 50-year global ban on hunting humpbacks by killing 50 of the endangered mammals amongst a total whale quota of 1000.
It later dropped the plan to hunt humpbacks - focusing instead on killing more than 900 minke and 50 fin whales - but has not removed them from successive quotas.
'The Japanese have been talking about hunting humpback whales,' Mr Hart told AAP from his home in Albany this week.
'If that happens, you can say goodbye to our whale-watching industry, which is worth around $300 million a year.
'We actually make more money now watching whales than we ever did shooting them.'
After 18 years in the industry, the man who killed thousands of whales off Australia's southern coast understands more than anyone how hunting can change the behaviour of these highly intelligent mammals.
'The only reason humpbacks come so close to boats now is there has been a moratorium on killing them for the last 50 years,' Mr Hart said.
'They know that if they come up to boats, they will get a welcome reception.
'But as soon as you start shooting them, well, that's it - they're not going to come close again.
'It's their instinct in the wild - whenever they're in danger they flee.'
Mr Hart said Antarctic humpbacks were the same whales that migrated north along Australia's coast each year and formed the basis of the nation's lucrative whale-watching industry.
'They're the ones we see that come in close to calve and teach them how to swim in warmer Australian waters,' he said.
'Then they go back down to Antarctica to feed.'
Former environment minister Peter Garrett noted this year that whale-watching was worth $300 million to the Australian economy - the same amount as its live-cattle trade to Indonesia.
Internationally, it's worth more than $2 billion and growing at 10 per cent a year.
While commercial whaling was banned in 1986, a small number of nations - including Japan - continues to hunt them using a loophole that allows some species of whales to be slaughtered each year for scientific research.
Japan hunts about 1000 mostly minke whales a year amidst a growing international outcry.
Australia filed a case against its major trading partner in the International Court of Justice this year, seeking an end to whaling in Australian Antarctic waters.
'The Gillard government condemns Japan's decision to continue its so-called scientific' whaling in the Southern Ocean this summer,' federal Environment Minister Tony Burke told AAP this week.
'That's why Australia has taken the strongest action of any other country in the world and started legal proceedings against Japan in the International Court of Justice.
'We are bringing this case to maximise our chances of bringing Japan's so-called scientific' whaling to an end.'
The Japanese whaling fleet is currently believed to be off the coast of WA, en route to the Antarctic, after leaving its home port on December 6.
The Japanese government has said it will send a patrol boat with the fleet to protect it from harassment by activists from the Sea Shepherd conservation group, which has tried to stop the hunt in previous years.
About $30 million of Japan's earthquake relief funds have been diverted to the whale hunt.
Australia has ruled out sending its own vessel to monitor potential clashes between the whalers and activists.
'Australia has no plans to deploy a patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean,' Mr Burke said.
'Australia is opposed to whaling and does not intend to provide a higher level of protection to a vessel because it is involved in whaling.'
As the Sea Shepherd fleet prepared to leave Albany last week to intercept the Japanese hunters, Mr Hart met with the captain of its flagship Steve Irwin vessel, Canadian Paul Watson.
Once on opposing sides, the two old seafarers now have much in common.
'We talked about the hunt,' Mr Hart said.
'It's going to be a hard season down there - the hardest one yet.
'We certainly didn't talk tactics, because that would be a closely kept secret.
'They expect close attention from (the Japanese), but they assured us that they'd be ready to meet them.'
Mr Hart said he had nothing but admiration for the Sea Shepherd crew and their dangerous mission.
'They do it hard,' he said.
'At least when we're out on the ocean, we could get back to land and see our families.
'The conditions (in the Antarctic) are much more severe for the Sea Shepherd crew.'
Mr Hart said most of the crews on his old whaling vessels took no pleasure in killing what they regarded as intelligent, social and majestic beasts.
'I enjoyed the atmosphere on board the boat, but the actual killing of the whales, no,' he said.
'Because there's no way you can humanely kill a whale.
'If you don't hit them in the right spot you simply hurt the animal and have to hold fast to it, like a fish on a hook.
'It may take 10, 15 minutes or more just to get a couple of extra shots in to kill them.
'They don't die easily.
'If there's no need to kill them, why kill them?'