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Catching a Glimpse of the Mighty Humpback Whales

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-03-25

Roughly ten years ago, local fishermen reported several whale sightings close to the Kerama islands. The whales that they saw were actually the endangered Humpback. Once a regular to the coastal waters of the Kerama islands, they had been hunted almost to extinction. Their return marked a positive chance for a new relationship to begin with the intelligent creatures - one of respect and reverence, not of greed. Now, thanks to the focus on Eco-tourism, anyone with a strong stomach and a pair of sea legs can catch a glimpse of the amazing creatures. Once hunted for their oil, meat and whalebone, Humpback whales now enjoy worldwide protection of their lives.

According to Seafox crew member Satoshi Yanagi, the Humpback - or “zato” whales as they are called in Japanese - travel every year from the waters surrounding Hokkaido to the cerulean waters off the coast of the southern Kerama islands. “From January to April, the whales find their way south in order to mate,” Yanagi told Japan Update. During breeding season the males are known for singing a long and intricate song - a song that has made this species incredibly famous.

The Humpback is a member of the Baleen whale family, which also includes the gray and blue whales. They are distinguished by their lack of teeth; instead they posses baleen plates made of keratin on either side of their jaws. The Humpback feeds by opening its mouth and consuming large quantities of water. The baleen plates strain the water for food such as herring and krill as the whale can consume between 2000 and 9000 pounds of fish and krill in one day.

Because of their yearly return to the same regions and coastal waters, commercial whalers all around the world have hunted Humpback whales. According to whale experts, most of that sea animal’s population was wiped out in the early 19th century, and its total number dropped below 1,000 individuals. Following a severe depletion the Humpback whale population, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) enacted an international ban on commercial whaling in 1964.

later in 1986, the IWC enacted a 10-year ban on commercial whaling in order to determine the status of all whale populations and to give specific populations the chance to recover. Since the ban went into effect, pro-whaling countries including Iceland, Norway and Japan have continued to hunt some species of whales, in essence, defying the ban.

Despite certain countries’ reluctance to join in the conservation efforts of the IWC, many nations, including Japan, are starting to realize that whales have a greater economic value alive than dead. Whale watching, as it is known, has become an incredibly lucrative business for many places, including Japan and Hawaii. While some environmentalists balk at the idea, Eco-tourism has become a way in which man can make a profit while studying these creatures and it also gives anyone who would like a glimpse of the Humpback the chance.

Tourism, as an industry, is the greatest source of revenue for Okinawa island, accounting for approximately 16 percent of its income. Eco-tourism is believed by the local officials to be the way in which the island will attract more visitors each year. For most people, the chance to see a Humpback whale is a chance of a lifetime.

Taking advantage of the island’s close proximity to the whales’ breeding grounds, the Seafox tour group offers a daily tour complete with a visit to Tokashiki Island, one of the beautiful Kerama islands. The small boat departs from Naha early in the day and heads directly out to Tokashiki Island. On the way, the captain will stop the boat if whales are spotted in the area. On a recent trip out in the sea guests of the Seafox reportedly experienced 4 separate whale sightings, one of which was very close to the boat.

The Seafox uses several methods to spot the whales. First, the boat uses spotters located at the top of Tokashiki Island. These spotters look for “spouting” - when the whale breathes it spouts water, sometimes as many as four times before submerging itself again. The boat also uses SONAR to guide its way through the blue waters and of course, luck always helps.

The wait is the worst part of the trip as one’s stomach turns with a mixture of anticipation and excitement. Tens of minutes could go by before one hears the exciting scream of the captain, “1 o’clock” to tell everyone the direction of a spotted whale. A simple glimpse of the creature reminds anyone of how important it is to respect these animals, and just how beautiful they are.

“Sometimes you will see the male whales escorting the females as they try to breed,” says Yanoshi. This does not always happen. However, Seafox watchers recently came across 4 separate whales all willing to blow or flip their tales for the tourists.

For those unfamiliar with the movement of the Humpback, the Seafox crew hands out information in English. The whales can exhibit several different behavioral patterns at the surface, from tail slaps to a full breach (lifting 1/3 of its body out of the water). Of course, for most, recognizing which behavior the whale is exhibiting is not important - just being able to see it is what counts.

The Seafox boasts a 98 percent chance of spotting a whale on the trip as the morning hours are spent searching for the humpback. After the whale-watching portion of the trip, tourists are taken to Tokashiki to eat lunch and explore the beautiful beach.

Anyone interested in joining a Seafox for tour should call 866-8582 for reservations. The trip costs ¥9800 for adults and ¥8300 for children ages 4-12.

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