Having a Whale of a Time
The website says a reasonable chance of seeing whales in June. I might have guessed it would be the day I went out to see them, that every whale in Shiretoko National Park had left town.
We took a whale-watching cruise from the small fishing town of Rasau on the eastern side of the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Hokkaido. Several companies run boat trips from here, varying in length, and each with a slightly different focus.
The boat belonging to Nature Cruise leaves port twice a day in the summer at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm. The two and a half hour trip costs 8,000 yen.
We arrived at the office at 8.45 to fill in a form, and were optimistically handed an identification paper. According to our sheet, their distinguishing plumes can identify different whales and dolphins. Who knew that the plume of a sperm whale is blown forward while that of a killer whale rises tall above the water, and that of a beaked whale is flattish? We were also able to see videos and plenty of photos in the office of orcas breaching and sperm whales diving magnificently so that their tail flukes stood high above the water.
It was a short walk from the office to the harbour. It was worth heading down early in order to get a seat outside and upstairs on the boat, as there were only a limited number of chairs. It is worth bringing a good waterproof jacket too as it became very cold after several hours out on the water.
The boat does a loop, slightly south and then north of Rasau, with a view of Kunashiri Island, the southern most of the Kuril Islands on one side, and the Shiretoko Peninsula on the other with its mountains, thick forest and patchy snow visible in the mist. Shiretoko is a national park and home to deer, bears, foxes, eagles, owls and a few elusive whales.
The captain kept up a stream of information in Japanese, and two of the crewmembers came to give talks with accompanying photographs of birdlife and marine life.
We did see several pods of black and white Dall’s porpoise, which moved with lightening speed away from the boat. The captain did his best to follow them and anticipate their direction so people had a chance to take pictures.
We also saw numerous birds out on the sea, some like the short-tailed shearwater formed great rafts across the water and only reluctantly roused themselves to flight as the boat got closer. As they tried to get airborne they skittered across the surface making a sound like rain tapping on a tin roof.
We enjoyed the cruise, although it would obviously have been better having seen whales. It was a popular trip and we were glad we had booked ahead online.
The trips run in winter as well, to see the drift ice, seals, stellar sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.
Rasau is not easily accessible. The nearest airport is at Memanbetsu, and from there three buses a day head east to Utoro where you need to change for Rasau. The bus ride across the peninsula from Utoro to Rasau has some splendid scenery but a visit would be more convenient by car and offer the advantage of stopping at other attractions on the way.
Shiretoko Nature Cruise : http://www.e-shiretoko.com/