After nearly a month spent skirmishing with harpoon vessels of the Japanese whaling fleet, activists opposing the Southern Ocean hunt today announced they had located the factory processing ship.

"We finally have this serial killing death ship where we want them," said Capt. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is campaigning against the hunt for a seventh season. "This whaling fleet belongs to us now -- lock, stock, and smoking harpoon gun."

The Sea Shepherd fleet of three boats encountered two of three Japanese harpoon boats on Dec. 31 about 1,700 miles southeast of New Zealand.

The processing vessel Nisshin Maru and the harpoon boat, Yushin Maru, had apparently used the other two boats as decoys as Sea Shepherd tried to stay with them and also pursue the factory ship.

Watson, who is controversial because of his group's militant tactics, presumed that no whales had been killed because the factory ship was being kept on the run.

However, when he and his crew aboard the Steve Irwin spotted the Nisshin Maru today, as it was entering the ice-filled Ross Sea, they saw a whale being processed on its deck.

"Sea Shepherd's objective now is to make sure that whale is the last one taken this season," a news release states.

Japan annually targets 900-plus minke whales and a handful of fin whales in hunts approved by the Fisheries Agency and run by the Institute of Cetacean Research. The country uses a "lethal research" loophole in the wording of a longstanding global ban on commercial whaling, and claims its hunts are for science.

Sea Shepherd has been criticized for methods that include heaving smoke bombs on whaling boats, and tossing rope devises to foul propellors. Last season a vessel collision led to one of its boats being scuttled.

But Japan has fallen under increased pressure from non-whaling nations to cease whaling or reduce its quota and, to be sure, the drama and intrigue this season has spilled beyond the remote Southern Ocean.

U.S. diplomatic cables dated Jan. 1 and posted a few days later on the WikiLeaks website revealed that Japan and the U.S. had discussed punishing the nonprofit Sea Shepherd by removing its tax-exempt status as part of a compromise arrangement in which Japan would reduce its quota but be allowed to hunt legally in Antarctic waters. That has not happened.

Earlier, as the whalers and activists bounded toward the Southern Ocean, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands issued a joint statement condemning, in advance, "any actions that imperil human life."

According to reports from both sides, whose versions sometimes differ, there have been no life-threatening situations this season. The Institute of Cetacean Research has not posted an update on its website since Jan. 9, when it accused Sea Shepherd crew members of throwing "flash bang" devices onto one of its harpoon boats.

Sea Shepherd had deployed its speedy interceptor boat, Gojira, to pursue and locate the Nisshin Maru. Its crew tried to keep track of the Nisshin Maru's position by using weather balloons outfitted with cameras and radar. But the activist group revealed today that Gojira has returned to Hobart, Tasmania, because of problems with its fuel pump.

Now the theater is inside the Ross Sea and centers around the Nisshin Maru, where crews aboard Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin and Bob Barker -- plus, a helicopter and inflatable boats -- presumably will harass the whalers while awaiting the return of Gojira as the whaling season is just past its halfway point.

Boasted Watson: "We will now chase them through the frozen gates of hell if need be, but we will stop their illegal whaling operations ... I am confident of that!"