Ocean Dreams: Whale Watching in Okinawa
The ocean is both terrifying and fascinating to me, a home to some of my absolute favourite creatures: cetaceans. Cetaceans are whales and dolphins. If, like me, you prefer to see them in their rightful place (the ocean), then you’re in luck if you happen to be in Okinawa between January to April.
There are several companies on island that offer you the opportunity to see the Humpback whales that congregate off its shores every year to procreate and give birth. Humpback whales are a protected species, meaning there are restrictions when visiting the areas they frequent. This is a good thing, meaning the animals are treated with the respect and care they deserve. The company I chose to go with was Seasir, out of Naha (in the south). This was for several reasons: the price was reasonable (4,860 yen per adult, less for children), they had a refund policy for if no whales are spotted, and the boat was double deck, so plenty of great places to spot whales. They do two tours per day, and you are out on boat for a maximum of four hours. They run from December 26th until April 3rd. The watching part is generally only one hour, a restriction designed to cause minimum stress to the whales. To book a place, you either call them (098-869-6329), or use their easy booking form online .
The website has Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese language options. I chose the latter, and after paying a Paypal request for a deposit of 2,000 yen per person, I got a confirmation email with my chosen date and a meeting place. This had their phone number and an address, including a pin for GPS systems, and a google maps location, very handy. Seasir offer other great tours, including scuba diving. You can find their shop and dive house here:
The big day finally arrived! I was very excited. I have wanted to see Humpback whales since childhood, so this was a dream come true. We arrived early, signed a form agreeing to the terms and conditions, paid our remaining balance (yen or credit card), and waited for a briefing by staff.
They have a little gift shop, allowing you to buy all sorts of cute cetacean-themed gifts. They have dive gear for sale too, and a large plastic whale fluke (tail) that you can have your picture taken with (free, just use your own phone or camera. Staff are happy to take photos for you). We left with a t-shirt each and a postcard of a whale breaching (breaking the surface of the water, exposing most of its body. A sight I dearly hoped to see). Staff are at least bilingual, sometimes multilingual, with speakers of Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. They have 5 crew members at any one time, 4 to look for whales by sight, and a captain. Each crew member at least speaks Japanese and one other language. On our boat, we had two English speakers, and two Chinese speakers, due to the large group of Chinese tourists travelling that day. We chose the morning tour, which started at 8.00am.
After a brief explaining where the boat was moored and some safety information, we moved our car from the shop area to the port, barely a 2 minute drive! Parked up, we headed over to the boat, Seasir Lucky (they have two, Lucky and Love, if you go make sure you get the right boat, or you’ll be scuba diving instead of whale watching!). You board via their other boat, but staff are on hand to assist you, just keep a hold of small children. Grab a life vest, drop your valuables in the front part of the boat, which is enclosed, then take a seat and wait for another brief before heading out.
The second brief was specific to the boat and more in depth about the tour. It went through safety features, facilities, and sea sickness prevention tips, as well as how the actual tour itself worked. Basically, they head to the area most heavily congregated by whales, and using only their eyes (tracking equipment is prohibited because it upsets the whales), look for signs of activity. Mostly this is a blow, which is when a whale comes up for air. Whales are mammals, not fish, meaning they breathe air just like we do. When they come to the surface for air, they open their blow holes to take in a breath, which causes a sharp spray of water. It looks like a geyser going off, and once you’ve seen it once, it’s easier to spot. The 4 staff members stand at different positions, tracking the horizon for signs. Once they spot some, they shout to the others and the captain in Japanese, using a clock system. What this means is they shout a number for a location. So 12 o’ clock would be straight out in front of the boat, 3 o’ clock would be starboard side (right), and so on. They repeat this shortly in English and Chinese, so everyone knows where to look. The ride out to where the whales are is often choppy and rough, so if you get travel sick I recommend taking something before you go, and don’t go on an empty stomach! Eat about an hour before.
Once the first whale is sighted, the boat slows down, allowing visitors to position themselves to best see the whales. This is also when the hour starts. We managed to get right to the front. The gentle rocking on the waves was oddly soothing, at least to me, and the high winds and spots of rain didn’t dampen (sorry) the mood in the slightest. I took a lot of video on my phone, then later went back and took screenshots of any activity I caught. I was lucky, I managed to see 5-6 whales, all flukes, including two whales diving together. Sadly, I didn’t capture this moment on film, but I did capture it in my memory. It was a wonderful sight. I also didn’t see any breaches, but you have to remember these are wild animals, you can’t make them perform! Despite this, I was far from disappointed. I loved every minute of it. I even got to see some flying fish, which was magical! I knew of their existence, had seen them many times on TV, but it’s surreal seeing them barely two feet in front of you. There were a lot of other boats out at the same time, but all kept a respectful distance. Some were lucky enough to have whales only a few feet from the boat, not so for us, but we still got a fantastic view. I know this is an experience I’ll never forget, and one I’m bound to repeat whilst here on Okinawa.
All too soon it was time to leave the whales in peace. We headed back into the main part of the boat, took our seats, and braced ourselves for a rough ride back. It was worse on the return. The wind picked up and the rain came down heavier, meaning the poor folks on the top deck had to squeeze in with the rest of us! Despite this, no one was sick, and the journey didn’t seem so long. By the time we pulled into port, the weather had cleared up (such is the way here!), and the rest of the day was nice and sunny. We handed back our life vests, thanked the crew, and disembarked.
Overall, a simply wonderful experience. A childhood dream fulfilled, and best of all, at no cost of stress and upset to the animals. This was most important for me, a lifelong animal lover. There’s no better place to witness the beauty of nature than where it belongs; in the wild.
If you have missed the opportunity this year, plan ahead for an year-end trip to Okinawa.