One thing you should not miss while in Shiretoko, Hokkaido — whale-watching cruise (part 2)

Last month, I spent a week in Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northeastern Hokkaido, Japan. I’ll continue from my previous entry and write about my experience aboard the whale-watching cruise in the Nemuro Strait.

We took “Aruran Sansei (Aruran III),” the whale-watching boat owned and ran by Marumi Hotel Shiretoko-Rausu. It was about 30–40 minutes after leaving the Rausu Port when we heard the news that killer whales have been spotted off the coast of Aidomari district.

Of course, we all instantaneously got really excited. Who wouldn’t be?! As we stared restlessly toward the direction Takahashi-san — the captain of the boat — was pointing at, we saw a black, triangular object sticking out of the water.

We were all busy taking pictures, no wonder it took us a while to notice that a group of killer whales was swimming right by our boat. I didn’t think I’d see them up so close!

The killer whales spent quite some time swimming with our boat, occasionally diving, passing underneath the boat and appearing on the opposite side. “They’re friendly, because there’s a baby orca,” said Takahashi-san. Apparently, baby killer whales are very curious and tend to come near boats, thinking they can play together.

Because the water is so clear, you can easily tell where the killer whales are — the white parts of their bodies really stand out. This made it easy for us to take photos, since we could tell when they’re about to come up to the surface.

In the picture below, the killer whale in front is blowing water. Isn’t the black and white color pattern beautiful?!

From time to time, we could see them lying on their back, with their tail fin raised above the water. They were moving the fin up and down, making splashes — it seemed like they were doing that just to entertain us :)

To me, they appeared quite service-minded too. For instance, when another boat approached, they left us and swam toward it. It sort of reminded me of how a child acts when they find another toy — they immediately start running toward it.

But, we also soon noticed that this friendly attitude is only displayed when baby orcas are present. Later, we saw what appeared to be a huge, male killer whale swimming all by himself.

It came rushing toward us at a great speed. For a second, I felt like I was a character inside an RPG game, facing the final boss for the first time.

It cleverly dodged our boat, however, and swam away quickly. It didn’t at all slow down or stop by to see what/who we are.

I’m not writing a lot this time, because I want to share all the amazing and fantastic things I saw through pictures. The killer whales and short-tailed shearwaters were dynamic, to say the least. I was mesmerized and was running around the boat constantly taking pictures — I thought I’d get seasick, but that, thank god, didn’t happen.
* This was probably mainly due to the fact that the waves were quite calm that day. If you’re prone to motion sickness, I suggest you take preventive medicines before going on the boat (I did too, just in case).

In addition to orcas and short-tailed shearwaters, various species of whales — including sperm whales and Baird’s beaked whales — can be observed in the Nemuro Strait. The reason for that is phytoplankton, which is contained in the sea ice that forms near the Amur River in Russia. This sea ice travels toward the Shiretoko Peninsula in winter and stays in the surrounding waters for several months.

As spring approaches and the temperature starts rising, the sea ice begins to melt and phytoplanktons reproduce rapidly. These become food for zooplanktons, which in turn attract numerous species of fish as well as seabirds. Whales and killer whales occupy the top of this food web.

The boat we took, the Aruran III, was the first to offer whale-watching cruise in the town of Rausu. Its captain, Takahashi-san, has an extensive knowledge of where animals can be seen based on his experience, so it’s rare to go on a cruise and end up seeing nothing. If you happen to be unlucky, however, and didn’t see a single animal, Marumi Hotel offers a 50% discount on the next cruise — or, you’ll get to take home some Rausu kombu (sea kelp), known to be highly valuable and pricey, as a souvenir. The fact that these services exist shows that the Aruran III prides itself on being able to offer its passengers an ultimate whale-watching experience.

This actually happened to be my second time visiting Shiretoko, but most of my last trip was spent on the opposite side of the peninsula, around the town of Utoro. Taking part in this whale-watching cruise was a good enough reason to revisit this place — not only was I able to enjoy all the dynamic scenes played out by animals, the boat experience was also a perfect way to take in all the beauty of this pristine peninsula.

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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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