From the outside, it looked like Japan's most complete defeat since 1945.
The whaling fleet was leaving the Southern Ocean several weeks early, apparently in full retreat from the victorious forces of Sea Shepherd, which vowed to pursue them until the whaling season was over.
The whalers, said Paul Watson, captain of the Bob Barker, the Sea Shepherd's flag bearer, had made only two confirmed kills - the first a minke taken, provocatively, within sight of Australia's Davis station on February 15. Environment Minister Tony Burke, said the choice of the site was deeply offensive and described the whole operation as "disgusting," but remained reluctant to intervene into what quickly became a full scale confrontation involving, at its height, eleven ships - four from Sea Shepherd and the rest comprising the whalers and their support vessels.
In the end the Japanese undoubtedly made more kills, but almost certainly less than a tenth of the thousand odd they had planned, a clear win for the conservationists. Things got ugly when the factory ship Nisshin Maru attempted to refuel: Sea Shepherd craft got between it and the supply tanker, and there were a number of collisions, for which both sides blamed each other.
Then the Japanese navy icebreaker Shirase arrived, inflaming tensions further. Ironically Shirase is sometimes employed in genuine Antarctic research projects, unlike the so called "scientific" whalers with the magic word "research" plastered all over their hulls. In this case it was content to stand off and observe, but its mere presence redoubled calls from the Greens and the Coalition for Australia to deploy a naval vessel of its own.
But it was hard to see what such action could achieve. Was Australia to put a shot across the enemy's bows, to board them and interdict their activities? And what if the Japanese, who do not recognise Australian jurisdiction in the area, resisted? What came next, a humiliating backdown or a declaration of war? Julia Gillard pointed out that her government did not have the capacity to police every ocean in the world, and Burke said firmly that the place to sort all this out was in the courts, not in the carpark.
Australia's case in the International Court of Justice is apparently creeping up the lists, but there is still no starting date, let alone an estimate of when a judgement might be expected. And once again, there is little hope that the Japanese would accept a contrary verdict. The heart of Australia's challenge is that the claim of scientific whaling is a fraud; even if the science is there, killing whales to secure it is totally unnecessary. But it would appear that the Japanese now regard this as irrelevant.
In his public defence of Japan's position last week the new Fisheries Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, did not mention the word science once. Instead, he insisted that it was all to do with Japan's culture: as Koreans had a culture of eating dogs and Australians a culture of eating kangaroos, so Japan had a culture of eating whales. And of course, it was a basic part of their food supply. Well, I'm not sure how many Koreans actually eat dogs but I do know that not many Australians eat kangaroos and very few Japanese eat whales.
During the immediate post-war food shortages they did, because they couldn't get anything else, but these days the meat is very expensive and, let's face it, not all that palatable. Warehouses are full of the "scientific" catch waiting for a buyer. A couple of years ago the government tried to deal with the glut by mandating whale as an occasional lunch for schoolchildren, but a stubborn public rejected the idea. There were better and cheaper ways to eat.
The real reason for Japan's whaling is neither scientific nor culinary, and it isn't cultural either - except in the sense that that Japanese have a culture that resents being told what to do by foreigners, and especially ones seen as former colonial powers. The Japanese whale not from conviction, but from cussedness. This is why Glen Inwood, of the so-called Institute of Cetacean Research says that the Japanese would like to resume the hugely uneconomic practice of commercial whaling - just to give countries like Australia the finger. It will be a hard argument to counter in the ICJ.
And in another court Sea Shepherd didn't do so well last week. US district court judge Alex Kozinski ruled that the group could fairly be described as pirates, even though they lacked accoutrements like peg legs and eye patches.
"When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks and point high powered lasers at other ships you are, without doubt, a pirate," the judge ruled.
He was upholding an appeal by the ICR that it should be allowed to pursue a case for damages against Sea Shepherd, which it will now do. As Watson points out, the judge's writ does not run to the group's Australian branch or the Southern Ocean, so will make no immediate difference. And in any case, even if all the charges were true (and he says they are not) well, so it goes. Sea Shepherd's logo is clearly based on the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger, so the association cannot have escaped keen observers.
But in any case what's wrong with piracy? The great Elizabethan seamen Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake were unashamed pirates, harassing the Spaniards in the Atlantic to the secret delight of their Queen, although she had to disown them to the Spanish ambassador. The first Englishman to set foot in Australia in 1688, William Dampier, gloried in the name of pirate. Watson and his fellow campaigners are following a great and honourable tradition - one could even call it a culture.
So yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, me hearties - back to the bounding main. Gillard and Burke may shake their heads in public but one suspects that privately they, like the vast majority of Australians, are cheering you on.
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