By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Talks between pro- and anti-whaling countries on how to resolve their differences have ended with agreement to look for dialogue and common ground.
The IWC condemned Sea Shepherd's 'dangerous' activism
Japan pledged not to seek commercial whaling quotas in the immediate future, and offered to discuss its current scientific hunt in the Antarctic.
Some delegates talked of an eventual "package deal" between the factions.
Delegates spent three days in talks near Heathrow Airport called by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
"I'm detecting a willingness for governments at least to talk," said Sue Lieberman, director of the global species programme at the environmental group WWF.
"No-one's going to change anyone's mind; Japan isn't going to suddenly say 'I'm sorry about whaling,' nor are the anti-whaling countries going to say 'we're sorry, we're wrong, we think whaling is great.'
"But we're seeing a willingness of governments to say 'just a minute - can we work this out?'"
In part, the minds of anti-whaling commissioners have been concentrated by Japan's threat to leave the IWC, a situation that would essentially leave its whaling unregulated.
The IWC also agreed a statement condemning "dangerous" actions taken by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as it tries to halt Japan's Antarctic hunt.
Japan's alternate (deputy) whaling commissioner Joji Morishita agreed the dialogue had been markedly more constructive than the confrontation usually seen at annual IWC meetings, and that fundamental divisions remained.
"The atmosphere was different, which we appreciated very much, and we also tried to indicate that we are willing to talk and to establish some dialogue," he told BBC News.
"But at the same time we saw that some participants are still in the mode of the usual black and white discussion, and trying to deny the other side totally."
Officially, the meeting's remit was to find more constructive ways for the IWC to do business rather than address the factions' substantive differences, although those differences inevitably tinged the discussions.
Delegations agreed a statement confirming that nine points for improving the mood had been raised, ranging from making more efforts to achieve consensus with less reliance on voting, to the use of tactics such as breaking into small groups and employing cooling-off periods.
"This is the beginning of a shift in the behaviour of the IWC," said Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's whaling commissioner, who has been leading efforts behind the scenes to change the paradigm.
"It's a new culture for the organisation, and I don't think there's any resistance to any of it."
The sometimes insular whaling community was helped by the involvement of three outside experts, including Calestous Juma, a Harvard University policy expert and former head of the UN biodiversity convention, Raul Estrada Oyuela, chair of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol talks, and Alvaro de Soto, who headed discussions that ended the El Salvador civil war in 1991.
Some Latin American countries want to promote whale-watching
Delegates from anti-whaling countries said they had not put any concessions on substantive issues forward for discussion, and acknowledged that difficult decisions lay ahead.
This year's IWC summit takes place in Chile, and the priority for the anti-whaling Latin American bloc is likely to be the establishment of a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic.
Japan has successfully opposed this proposal before, and might interpret a re-submission as somewhat provocative, given its own conciliatory moves.
Yet there will be powerful domestic pressure on Latin American delegations to secure the sanctuary.
Other flashpoints remain, including Japan's often-stated goal of securing the resumption of commercial hunting; although here, Mr Morishita said he had detected some signs that ground was shifting.
"If we portray this issue as whether commercial whaling should be allowed or not, I think both sides still have their basic positions... based on principle, basic positions which are very difficult to change.
"However, we are starting to see that there could be some room for dialogue and possibly compromise without hurting the basic position of member countries."
The ball is now very much in the court of the anti-whaling countries, which must soon decide what they are willing to put on the table.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat
Securing the end of scientific whaling - or at least a drastic downscaling, and international oversight - is a priority for many; but it will not happen unless they offer something to Japan.
Some are firmly adhering to the line that they will and should offer nothing that could contravene in any way the 1986 moratorium.
Others may be prepared to stomach something that looks like commercial whaling around the coast of Japan, in exchange for ending scientific whaling and putting the annual outbreaks of controversy behind them.
Gazing out of the window from the conference hotel just beside Heathrow Airport, Remi Parmentier, a senior policy adviser with the Pew Environment Group, observed: "The plane is now on the runway.
"It is now up to everyone to decide whether or not they want to climb on board."