Whale watching

Whale Watching: Japan Style

Mark Brazil|July 8, 2016|Blog Post

Mark Brazil developed his fascination with the natural world, especially birds and mammals, during his boyhood in the landlocked English county of Worcestershire. He pursued academic interests in biology during studies in England and Scotland, while exploring the coasts and mountains of Britain in search of birds. Mark earned his PhD from Stirling University, Scotland, for his work on avian behavioral-ecology in Iceland and Scotland. Mark recently spent time in Japan's Kerama Islands, whale-watching. He'll be joining us as we aim to do the same on our Philippines, Taiwan & Japan expedition. Below, an excerpt from his blog. 

At long last I have made my pilgrimage to the tiny cluster of islands scattered in the sea to the west of Okinawa.

The Kerama Islands have been beckoning me for years, but at last, in early March this year, a brief personal window of opportunity, a few days between projects, and a very special invitation, coincided with a very crucial period, the winter months during which one can watch for whales off these southwestern islands of Japan.

The Kerama Islands and the Ogasawara Islands together can boast of being the calving grounds of one of the most dramatically active of all cetaceans—the humpback whale. My very first introduction to whales, at least the very first that I can recall, came while I was an undergraduate student at Keele University. I attended a class in Anglo-Saxon literature and one of our theme texts was the elegiac lament of a mariner who wrote of his feelings for the land and the sea some time between the 8th and 10th centuries. In what we now refer to as The Seafarer, the author described feelings and emotions that I could barely grasp as a landlubber student, but with which I can now empathise.  

Deep goes the mood that drives my soul
To fare from home, that, far away,
I may find the stead where strangers dwell…
So, now, my soul soars from my bosom, 
The mood of my mind moves with the sea-flood, 
Over the home of the whale, high flies and wide
To the ends of the earth; after, back to me 
Comes the lonely flier, lustful and greedy, 
Whets me to the whale-way, whelms me with his bidding 
Over deep waters. Dearer, then, to me 
The boons of the Lord than this life that is dead 
In a land that passes; I believe no whit 
That earthly weal is everlasting

~ [The Seafarer lines 36-38; 58-67]

It was only later, and unexpectedly, that the twisting path of my own life led me to spend lengthy periods at sea. There, amidst the salt tang, the ceaseless sound and the undauntable power of the waves I was to find that the “mood of my mind” also moved with the sea-flood. After reading The Seafarer I could never think of the sea other than as the “home of the whale” and as the “whale-way”. Each time I put to sea and rode the whale-way, each languid hour I spent at a ship’s rail in search of seabirds skimming low over the wave tops my hopes were focussed on a dream, that from below those restless waves and into my view would erupt the blow of a whale.  

Whale blows, the spouts, gouts and mists of moisture with which each large cetacean signals its returns to the interface with the air are something I have thrilled to watch from the Arctic to Antarctica. The power of the blow itself, its height, its angle and its structure (whether vertical, bushy or something in between) are giveaway features helping in the identification of each species.

I can honestly say that I have breathed in the breath of a whale. Although, in a sense so have we all – in as much as each outpouring of the lungs of a great whale co-mingles with the Earth's atmosphere, the very same air that we breathe. What I mean to say is that I have literally breathed in the breath of a whale, fresh from the whale’s exhalation straight into my lungs, the mist of its blow still raining gently about me, and no, it wasn’t unpleasant, it was wonderful! It was off the Kerama Islands.

Moments before, the great head of a Humpback Whale had lunged to the sea surface, one brief audible exhalation later and the whale’s back was disappearing, disappearing, then gone. So brief was the moment for inhalation following the blow that it seemed impossible that it had already re-charged its lungs and disappeared beneath the waves.

Moments later it was back, repeating the process, pumping out carbon dioxide, drawing in oxygen with which to recharge its lungs and its strength, and then again three times more in quick succession, blow dive, blow dive, blow, before finally thwarting all of us onlookers by diving without showing its tail flukes.

The excitement in spotting a whale’s flukes is palpable amongst whale onlookers (in fact frequently highly audible as many are reduced to whoops and whistles), not merely because of the enormous four metre spread of those flukes, but because careful observation and recording has shown that, like our fingerprints, those flukes and the patterns that they carry are one individual’s alone, and they are carried for life.

When a whale dives without showing its flukes there is a sense among the watchers of being cheated out of the last act of a play, and of missing the finale. I was out to see flukes. Of course, I was hoping for more, but flukes were as high as I dared hope.

In the case of the Kerama Islands, spotting a whale blow means one species and one alone, the Big-winged New Englander! The islands and especially the Zamami Village tourism association have taken this big-winged creature under their wing and justifiably promote the islands on their natural beauty and their wildlife (whales, turtles and other creatures of the sea are their key attractions).

Dubbed by scientists Megaptera novaeangliae, the Humpback Whale is a long-distance migrant. The Kerama Islands, like the Ogasawara Islands, lie at the southerly extreme of a route that the whales follow annually between food rich summer feeding grounds in the cold waters of the Bering Sea beyond the Aleutian Islands and their calving grounds in the warm subtropical waters around Japan’s southern island groups. Each year the same individuals plough the whale-way northwards in the spring from early April onwards, the females then accompanied by their rapidly growing offspring, and southwards in the autumn returning to the islands in late December to give birth once more. How do we know? Those fluke patterns tell much of the story.

Students of humpbacks are keen photographers and their goal is always to photograph the underside of the flukes and log them online in databases that allow observers to compare and identify the individuals they have sighted, and low and behold the very same individuals have been found at different times of year in different parts of their range.

On the morning of 5 March, my wife Mayumi and I gathered with other whale fans, whale photographers and day-trippers in what could be dubbed the whale-way station – the ferry terminal at Zamami. There, Otsubo-san of the Zamami Whale Watching Association entertained us with his light-hearted but informative preliminary briefing about what lay ahead for us all as we joined the day’s quest.

Pointing initially at the white taped outline of a whale on the floor in front of us, Otsubo-san generated a group gasp at the realization that it marked out only the shape and size of a one-ton baby!  It was the very much larger blue taped outline spreading across much of the enormous room’s floor that indicated the full size and shape of a 30~40-ton mother. Nearby stood a life-size photograph of a humpback’s flukes showing their four to five-metre span. Immediately we had a sense of perspective. We were going out looking for a monster of a mammal.

Following our brief introduction to their life cycle and their behavior we were all assigned to the various boats going out whale-watching that morning. Ceteus was the vessel named on our tickets and soon we joined veteran captain Miyamura Yukifumi aboard his boat and set off for the sea. A new perspective was soon in place. These whales may be mega-mammals, but the ocean into which we headed in search of them was a mighty big place; suddenly our search seemed to be for a drop in the ocean.

Scanning the horizon, seeking telltale bursts of vaporous breath, seemed the best plan and was certainly a wonderful way to admire the dramatic scenery of the archipelago as we skimmed by white sand beaches, lush greenery and black rock. After waiting years to visit the Kerama Islands during the winter whale window, I had imagined it might take several trips out to sea from Zamami before I was rewarded with a single whale sighting. While I scanned, and scanned, aching to be distracted by seabirds, flying fish or dolphins during our hunt for whales, our captain meanwhile was communicating with spotters onshore, they had transpired even earlier in search of whales from high vantage points and relay the information to the boats. They had already sighted our quarry and were sending us in their direction. To be honest, when told of the high likelihood of whale sightings, I had taken it all with a grain of salt, readily prepared for disappointment, yet within thirty minutes of leaving harbor we were in sight of whales (less if you count the huge whale monument in the harbor itself!).

As I scanned the distant horizon the unimaginable happened, a great shape erupted from the water into the air, half rolling as it did so before crashing down into an immense plume of spray; a moment later it was aloft again, but this time when it crashed down beneath the sea it was gone. It had been a long-range view, but I was stunned (and immensely grateful to be trying out powerful new Swarovski binoculars). Those distant views of a whale breaching and of another slapping its long pectoral fins several times on the surface were soon pushed down my mental ranking of sightings as we came up very much closer on two more animals. I had hoped for flukes and those we saw aplenty, but we were fortunate and there was so much more to see.

The overcast sky lent the sea a leaden, grey appearance and from this greyness emerged the great, grey back of a whale ahead of us; it rolled, showing off the nub of a dorsal fin that is a trademark feature of the Humpback Whale. Sometimes, this short, invariably stubby, fin is curved, even falcate, but sometimes nicked or marked as if by close encounter. As the whale arched its enormous back I could make out the lumpy processes of its lower spine as I admired the abruptly tapering stock of its tail. We followed cautiously, keeping behind and to the side of the whale’s motion so as always to give it the wide ocean to move towards should it tire of our presence.

The ruffled surface of the sea and the overcast sky made it impossible for me to see down through the water, but nevertheless I peered and peered hoping to admire its long pale underwater “wings” and to spot the nodules and barnacle clusters along their leading edges, as I had once before when whale-watching off Newfoundland. It was not to be, but instead “our” whale suddenly lunged forward raising its head from the water as it did so and showing of the strange nodules atop its head then its massive paired nostrils and the wedge-shaped splashguard ahead of them. It exhaled once more then was gone. Wow! The excitement on board was amazing, there were grins all round, there were high fives, and whoops of delight. It was all in a day’s work for our captain.

In a regularly repeated pattern, the captain, his spotter Ms Shinpou, or one of us on board, would sight a whale blow and shout out its direction. Turning in pursuit, we set off and did our best to catch up with it during the short period it took the whale to emerge, breathe and submerge three to five times in quick succession. Sometimes we made it; sometimes it was long gone before we could approach. We felt like a mouse being led on by an enormous cat. Occasionally we arrived in time for a treat, and on our very first trip out we had a stunning treat.

The main animal that we followed on that first outing seemed heaven bent on putting on a display. As its flukes came up and showed clearly for the first time I thought that I heard Shinpou-san shout “Snoopy”. I was distracted in my attempt to photograph it and assumed that I had misheard, I certainly could not imagine a link. It was only later, after hearing an explanation for the nickname and on checking my photographs, that I half understood the reference. To a forgotten observer, many years ago, it seemed that the black spot near the base of the right fluke recalled the famous cartoon character’s nose, the initial observer’s nickname has somehow stuck, sadly though none of the crews seemed to remember who had given the name.

It was indeed Snoopy. Over and over again he not merely dove showing of his almost pure white flukes, but he lashed and thrashed at the water. Floating vertically with his head down deep he battered and bashed at the sea surface with the underside of his tail; each time it came down with a mighty crash. Then, as if to stretch out his back, he switched to battering with the upper surface of his tail, before lunging half out of the water and thrashing repeatedly not just with his flukes or tail base, but seemingly half of his body; the noise was incredible. It was an amazing show, my scepticism about the likelihood of finding whales was long gone, and it had been a red-letter day, furthermore it was only half done.

Our plans were to return to sea for a second whale watching trip that day, but Ceteus was so delayed returning that the briefing for the next outing was already underway when we reached the terminal and we would have needed to turn straight back round and head out again immediately, so instead we opted for further exploration of the delightful archipelago including a trip across to Aka, Geruma and Fukaji islands in search of history, traditional architecture and the mysterious Kerama Deer, but that is another story.

For more on Mark's trip to the Kerama Islands, visit his blog; to learn more about our upcoming expedition, visit Asia's Subtropical Isles: Philippines, Taiwan & Japan

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