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Tantalising Glimpes of the Humpback Whale

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2001-02-16

In recent years it has been realized that revenues from live whales can exceed those of hunted ones, as the lucrative business of whale watching has gained in popularity. Three companies in Naha offer whale watching trips for tourists.

I joined the Seafox one Saturday morning at Naha port, along with some 20 others. A briefing was given in Japanese and we were told which areas of the boat to keep to for our safety.

This particular day the skies were gray and the waves were high. A cabin at the front of the boat provided seating for a maximum of a dozen. Most people preferred to crouch on the deck though, which had a good view of the choppy dark blue waters. Once out of the range of the spray, the party seemed to find it exhilarating, scudding along the surface of the ocean.

Because it was so rough, some of our number succumbed to seasickness. We had also been given instructions about this, to keep to the sides of the boat, should the worst come to the worst.

About an hour after leaving Naha, approaching the Kerama islands, there was a sudden buzz of excitement. A Humpback whale had been seen. The boat has sonar for detecting whales and it also uses spotters on high ground on the islands who watch for spouts of water, telltale signs of the whales breathing on the surface before they plunge to the depths again.

We left the lower deck, climbed some steps and keeping a grip on handrails, went along the gunnels to the front of the boat. The Seafox had now stopped and the crew told us to look in a 10 o’clock direction.

A massive tail flicked above the surface and shortly afterwards a spout of water sprayed high over the waves. A light but persistent rain was by now coming down, but no one wanted to move back to the sheltered section of the boat, while our quarry was in sight. Several more times the majestic tail broke the expectant calm. The crew told us there were two whales there, a mother and a calf and that one of the common parental tasks in these waters was teaching young ones how to maneuver and dive.

Two other boats were a short distance from the Seafox, also watching the show.

While we were waiting for the next emergence of tail or body, a brown shape suddenly materialized very close to the bows of the boat. A fin appeared and the crew started laughing. It was a hammerhead shark and a large one. They said it was rare to see one in these circumstances. The shark was unconcerned with us and continued placidly on its way.

The rain started to drive some of us below and when the pair had not surfaced again for a long time, the rest of the passengers followed.

The Seafox’s engines roared back to life and soon we were thudding through the waves back to Naha.

Because of the adverse conditions that day, the trip was over in two and a half hours. With sunny skies and calmer seas, though, two full hours can be devoted to whale watching and the entire expedition takes four hours. The Seafox goes out twice a day, weather permitting, at 8.30 am and 1 pm.

Humpback whales can be seen in the waters off Okinawa because from January to the end of March they come here to breed. Summers are spent feeding in Arctic waters and then they descend to warmer lower latitudes all over the globe to raise their young.

Once regular visitors to the Kerama islands they were then hunted almost to extinction. In the modern whaling era it is likely that about 100,000 humpbacks were killed. Today there are an estimated 10,000 scattered worldwide in more than ten populations. The ban on whaling in 1966 helped them recover some of their numbers and in the 1980s they began again to be spotted off the Kerama Islands.

In 1986 the International Whaling Commission slapped a ten year ban on commercial whaling to estimate the creatures’ populations and give the species a chance to recover. The ban was ignored by several nations, including Iceland, Norway and Japan, which continued to hunt some species.

Humpback Whale Facts and Figures

The Humpback whale is one of the most energetic of the dorsal finned whales. It is easily identified at close range by its knobbly head and long flippers. The black and white coloration on the underside of the tail allows scientists to distinguish and name individuals all around the world. No two Humpback whales are exactly alike.

During breeding season Humpback males are known for singing the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Humpbacks are highly inquisitive and they often approach boats quite closely, showing little fear.

The Humpback whale has a more robust body than other finback whales. It's back and flanks are gray or black with an area of white on the throat and belly. It has a slender head which constitutes up to one-third of its total body length. The top of the head is flattened and covered by a number of fleshy knobs or tubercles.

It is a member of the Baleen whale family which also includes gray and blue whales. It does not have teeth but baleen plates, made of keratin, on either side of its jaws. The Humpback feeds by opening its mouth and ingesting vast amounts of water. The plates strain the water for food like herring and krill. In one day the whale can eat between 2000 and 9000 pounds of fish and krill.

The Humpback has exceptionally long flippers with knobs along the leading edges. On the flipper of Pacific Humpback the upper side is usually black . The back is typically humped in front of the dorsal fin and the tail stock is relatively thin.

The Humpback has twin blowholes typical of all baleen whales, through which a single, bushy spout reaches about 3m (10ft) in height.

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