“96% chance.” The words on the sign circled a picture of a mother bear and two cubs.
The trip didn’t disappoint. We took a two-hour bear-watching cruise along the Shiretoko coast in the sea of Okhotsk, from the small fishing port of Utoro. The Shiretoko Peninsula reaches northwards from Hokkaido towards Russia, a mountainous, wooded finger of land that is a National Park and bear heaven.
The brown bears in Hokkaido are related to those found in Siberia and a distant relative of North American grizzlies. They hibernate through the winter from December to March and although they eat mainly plants, they’ve been known to attack deer and humans, especially when they feel threatened or vulnerable, and prime time for this is when the cubs are young in early summer. The hiking course at Shiretoko Goko lakes near to Utoro requires visitors to be accompanied by a guide during ‘bear aware season’ from May to July.
Many different outlets in Utoro offer bear-watching sightseeing trips. As you walk the street near the port, the sales people politely offer you a brochure encouraging you to join their boat. The departure times seem to be staggered across the operators so that there isn’t a mass of boats together at any one point. The company we went out with offered two different trips – a long one to the end of the peninsula and the two-hour bear-watching trip.
We booked for an afternoon cruise and arrived at the office fifteen minutes before the departure time. It was a short walk from there to the boat. Almost all the seating was inside, but we opted to stay on the only outside benches available, at the back.
The boat went around Cape Puyuni and hugged the steep cliffs pulling into different inlets so that we could see the layers of folded rock, abundant caves and waterfalls along the coast. The captain relayed a string of information, all in Japanese at each point.
Gradually the cliffs gave way to sloping hills and rocky beaches. We saw a single bear, just beyond the beach going about his business, oblivious of all the cameras pointed at him.
Further along was a mother and two cubs but the boat couldn’t get close to the shore because there were fishing buoys in the area, so we continued until we were lucky enough to see another mother and cubs, the babies following her over the grass in full view of us. We stayed a good ten minutes watching as they ambled backwards and forwards, the cubs bouncing around the mother without a care, while a herd of sika deer grazed nearby apparently not bothered by their near neighbours.
The trip cost 5,500 yen and was an agreeable excursion with great scenery and the pleasure of seeing bears in their natural environment. A pair of binoculars and a longer lens for my camera would be in order for a return visit.
Most other people on our trip arrived by coach and had presumably pre-booked, but we had no trouble booking a cruise for the same day.
Utoro is on the western side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. The nearest airport is Memanbetsu and there are three buses a day from the airport to the town. Shiretoko National Park is home to bears, foxes, deer, owls, eagles and killer whales and is a huge area of natural mountainous woodland.