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Whales are back and ready for watching off Keramas

Date Posted: 2012-01-13

Humpback whales are now swimming in waters adjacent to the Kerama Islands, migrating to Okinawa to breed, and then raise their newborn calves.

The annual ritual began two weeks ago, a couple of weeks behind the annual migration schedule, but soon the lumbering sea mammals will be showing up in large numbers, and in locations easily accessible by tourists wanting to watch them. For the moment, five whales are active and quite animated, showing off for people watching by splashing and doing flips.

A diving business owner on Zamami, Kiyoshi Miyagi, says he and a group of German tourists were at an area eight kilometers from the island when they saw two bull whales and one cow whale and it seemed as though they were communicating with each other. The humpback whales are unique, with dorsal fins along their backs and ventral plaits running from the tip of the lower jaw back to the belly.

Scientists who study the whales, which spend much of their year in the Aleutian Islands area off Alaska’s coast, say the fins and plaits are as unique to whales as fingerprints are to humans. No two whales are alike. The humpbacks, which grow to 51 feet (16 meters) are part of a family of species which include blue whales, fin, minke, sei and Bryde’s whales. Most are black, with a mottled black and white underbelly.

The Kerama Islands, located less than 20 miles (30km) from mainland Okinawa, are the favored breeding area for the humpbacks, which begin showing up in January and stay in the area until late Spring. The males provide much entertainment for spectators as they form groups, called mating pods, to wage often fierce fights with each other as they vie for the females’ attention. Breeding follows in February and March, with births coming the following winter.

Humpbacks are more people-friendly than other whale species, showing off by slapping dorsal fins on the water, blowing and doing ‘spy hops’ where they shoot straight out of the water and show their faces. Watching a mother and her young calves is a fantastic photo opportunity in the Keramas. As Spring turns to Summer, the whales begin their migration north toward the Aleutians.

Whale watching is easy, and it’s fun. The best part is that whale watching can be accomplished in a couple different ways, depending on your sense of adventure. Whale watching tours are now going numerous times daily from both the Kerama Islands themselves, and from Naha, Ginowan City and Onna Village on Okinawa. There are also options for watching the whales from land, instead of on a rocking boat.

The Zamami Whale Watching Society is responsible for many tours running through March, the peak of the whale watching season. The Society bills the whole whale season as the Zamami Village Whale Watching Festival, with two tours daily departing Zamami Port to cruise the waters in search of the humpbacks.

Whale watching is fun, but a couple words of caution. If you are easily seasick, the best bet is to watch for whales from on shore. If you’re on a boat, wear warm, waterproof clothing and shoes because the winds often make it feel cold. Remember too that whales are creatures, and not objects. Zamami officials say whales are seen about 80% of the time, but there are no absolute guarantees.

If you choose to watch from the shore, the Whale Conservatory in Unazati on Zamami Island is an option. The Conservatory is where the Society keeps a watchful eye out for whales. Another ashore site on Tokashiki Island is the Okinawa National Youth Center atop Mt. Akama.

Dive shops and travel agencies in Zamamai and Tokashiki, as well as Naha City, offer tour programs throughout February and March. Many tours begin from Naha Port. Marine Corps Community Services runs whale watching tours starting in early February, running through March. Okinawa Tourist Company runs a Zamami Island day trip, including express ferry at 9am and regular ferry at10am

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