One thing you should not miss while in Shiretoko, Hokkaido — whale-watching cruise (part 1)

Last month, I spent a week in Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northeastern Hokkaido, Japan. I saw many, many stunning views while I was there, but the most memorable experience for sure was the whale-watching cruise.

In case you’re not familiar with the area, here’s a map:

We took the whale-watching boat called “Aruran Sansei (Aruran III),” owned by Marumi Hotel Shiretoko-Rausu — the hotel we stayed at for the entire length of our trip. The hotel conducts the whale-watching cruise every year between May and October.

“Aruran Sansei (Aruran III)” whale-watching boat

Of course, whether or not the tour will run depends on the weather. If you stay at Marumi Hotel, you can check the boat’s status at the front desk. I recommend you come down for breakfast at a little past 7 a.m. and stop by the front desk and inquire.

Hotel Marumi front desk

If you didn’t stay at Marumi the night before, you can call the front desk and inquire about the cruise.

The boat leaves the Rausu Port every morning at 9. The tour takes about 2.5 hours, returning to the port at around 11:30. It costs 8,000 yen/adult and 4,000 yen/child — but, there’s a special discount available for those who spend a night at Marumi Hotel. I’ve written the details of the deal at the bottom of this blog entry.

If you’re taking part on the tour, it is necessary to be at the Rausu Port by 8:30. If you’re staying at Marumi, you should leave the hotel at the latest 15 minutes past 8. If you didn’t come to Shiretoko by car, tell the front desk and they’ll arrange a car for you.

What to do and wear before boarding

Upon arriving at the Rausu Port, stop by the waiting room — a little brown hut located near the port entrance. You will be asked to write down your name and contact info (e.g., address, telephone number) in a notebook, so do that first, and then get ready to board the ship.

Waiting room for “Aruran Sansei (Aruran III)”

Rausu can be quite cool even during summer, and the average high while I was there (in mid June) was around 15 degrees Celsius (about 59 degrees Fahrenheit). The wind is normally stronger out in the ocean, so expect the temperature to drop 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. You can borrow a windbreaker at the waiting room, but I suggest you bring your own winter gear.

As for myself, I wore a long-sleeved T shirt, sweater, UNIQLO’s ultra-light down jacket and Montbell’s Thunder Pass Jacket. I had two layers on the bottom: long pants and rain pants. I thought I might get hot, but this turned out to be perfect for the cruise. Also, don’t forget your winter scarf, gloves and sunglasses — it can get quite bright out there!

You can see how we were dressed in this picture (photo borrowed from my friend, Asuka)

Enjoy Shiretoko’s breathtaking views as seen from the ocean

At 9 a.m., the Aruran III set off from the Rausu Port.

Rausu Port

Soon, we came across the red and white striped Rausu Lighthouse against the backdrop of Shiretoko Mountain Range.

Rausu Lighthouse

The boat sailed through the Nemuro Strait with Shiretoko Peninsula on the left and Kunashiri Island on the right. At first, it was quite foggy, so we could barely see the outline of the island. The peninsula side, however, cast a mystic atmosphere, with a layer of mist blanketing the surface of the water.

A layer of mist covering the surface of water off the coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido

As you can tell from the picture below, the boat moves quite fast. Make sure to wear a hat with a string, or you’ll never see it again!

Looking behind the boat

A bit later, we noticed that the water in front of us had some dark spots. It turned out to be a large flock of short-tailed shearwater, resting and feeding on the ocean surface. I was told these birds come all the way from Tasmania — an island off the coast of Australia — to Shiretoko every spring and are said to travel a whopping 32,000 kilometers per year!

Short-tailed shearwater seen in front of our boat

The birds immediately start running away when the boat approached — and I mean, quite literally. They didn’t fly away; they actually ran on the surface of the water at high speed. I wish I had a zoom lens on me so that I could take some close-up pictures.

Short-tailed shearwater literally running away

We were all busy taking pictures when an announcement about killer whales came in. Apparently, they were said to have been spotted off the coast of Aidomari district — much closer to Rausu than we had anticipated. We all stared at the surface of water for any sign of orcas… and there it was! A fin was poking out of the water near another boat.

The first orca to be seen on this whale-watching cruise

At first, I thought there was only one killer whale. But, it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves surrounded by many! This article is getting rather long, so I’ll end it here and tell all about our encounter with killer whales in my next article. Lots of orca photos coming!

Killer whales seen in the distance

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — 
Nemuro Strait whale-watching cruise “Aruran III”
Operated by: Marumi Hotel Shiretoko-Rausu
Address: 24 Yagihama-cho, Rausu-cho, Menashi-gun, Hokkaido Prefecture
TEL: 0153–88–1313

Cruise operation: May-October every year
Depart from Rausu Port at 9 a.m.; return to port at around 11:30 a.m. (there may be an additional cruise in the afternoon)
 Address for “Aruran III” boarding deck at Rausu Port: 6 Funami-cho, Rausu-cho
Adult: 8,000 yen; Child: 4,000 yen (if you stay at Marumi Hotel, 7,200 yen/adult and 3,600 yen/child)

* No reservation required, but better to book in advance if possible
* 10% discount for a group with 10 or more people; 20% discount for a group of students
* Boat capacity: 67 people
* Please note that the boat may not operate in bad weather conditions

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