Sydney: Australia said Thursday Japan had not confirmed it was calling off its controversial whaling mission, as sea-borne activists reported the main hunting ship had changed course and may be heading home.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said Japan had not given a "clear answer" to questions about the hunt, which it has suspended citing harassment from the militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
"We don't have a clear answer yet. At this point we don't have any statement from the Japanese government to us that this season of whaling is at an end," Burke told reporters.
"In the view of the Australian government, it's not time to celebrate until we get a decision from Japan that they are stopping whaling for good."
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said factory ship the Nisshin Maru, where harpooned whales are processed, had performed a U-turn in the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica and was now headed west.
"That could mean one of two things. They're coming west on a great circle back to Japan or they're coming back to the whaling grounds," Watson, who is tracking Nisshin Maru on Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin ship, told AAP news agency.
"We're staying down here to monitor what they're doing to make sure they don't kill any whales. We're down here as long as they are."
A Japanese Fisheries Agency official Wednesday said that the country was suspending the annual hunt after harassment by Sea Shepherd, which has clashed repeatedly with the fleet in icy Antarctic seas in recent years.
Australia last year launched legal action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) seeking to close a loophole in a 1986 global moratorium which lets Japan hunt whales for research purposes.
The country kills hundreds of whales every year in a hunt which appalls conservationists but which is also deeply embedded in traditional Japanese culture.
"Commercial whaling does not belong in the 21st century," said Josh Reichert, managing director of the US-based Pew Environment Group.
"We hope that the removal of the fleet marks the end of all whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and that Japan confirms this exit is permanent at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in July."
First Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011, 11:29