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Whale watching season underway at nearby Kerama Islands

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-02-07

A huge spray of water appears in the distance, but even from far away the water shooting high in the air, above the rest of the deep ocean, can be seen immediately. "Juu ichi ji!" is shouted from the top of our cruiser by one of the staff on the look out for what we came in search of. Everyone immediately turns to face an eleven o'clock direction from the front of our boat. After just staring at an open ocean for what seemed to be almost an hour, we all jump to our feet, and our once serious faces have turned into elated smiles, as excitement spreads from person to person like a warm fire. We quickly forget that we are cold, and our captain starts propelling the engines towards the fountain of water that had just been shot towards the sky a few seconds ago. Some of us are yelling "I saw it. It's over there!", while others are intently fixing their eyes on the spot fingers are being pointed at. As we approach closer, another spout of water jets high into the air, and we all soon see the enormous back of a great Humpback whale break the surface of the water. We are now all jumping and filled with a rush of adrenaline. A small calf appears next, and then they are gone as quickly as they appeared.

We receive a radio call from one of the three lookout towers on land, giving us information that there is another whale in the vicinity. It is quickly spotted by a member of our group. This one is much closer, and we are able to see its huge tail propel upwards out of the water before sinking for another dive. We are lucky and witness this a few more times before the whale has disappeared, all the time yelling with excitement. It is an incredible feeling to witness such a great creature, and all the members of our group have been emotionally tied together for a moment of jubilation.

We are now in a dreamlike state, having spent the entire morning out at sea with the crew from "Seafox" on a "Whale Watching" tour. We actually saw the great Humpback whales that come to mate every year here in the Kerama islands, which are about one hour away by boat from Naha. We are tired, but we all have a special feeling about just having seen one of the most majestic animals on earth.

Humpback whales had disappeared from Okinawa after years of being hunted, but eventually began to return about ten years ago, when an international ban on whale hunting was finally recognized by Japan. The large whales make the journey from far away Alaska, to breed in the warm waters of Okinawa from January until April, and then make the long journey back.

Humpbacks have no teeth, but instead have a soft baleen, which acts as a filter. They are not fish, but are classified as mammals. However, they can stay under water for up to twenty minutes, before returning to the surface for air. They feed on plankton, fish, and krill, but actually do not feed during their stay in Okinawa. The huge Humpback can reach up to fifty feet in length. They also can be found throughout the world's oceans, with definite migrating patterns coinciding with the changes in seasons.

Although our group only witnessed 'blowing' and 'fluking', many times the Humpbacks will actually do a full 'breach', lifting about 1/3 of it's large body out of the water and rotating it in mid air. 'Head slaps' and 'pec slaps' can also be seen, among other behavior patterns. It is commonly mistaken that the whales are playing when they jump, but they are actually removing parasites from their bodies.

The whales are also protected by strict rules set by the Kerama Whale Watching Association. Boats must remain a certain distance from the whales, but we were also informed that sometimes a curious whale will approach the boat on their own.

Seafox has some excellent crew that are very knowledgeable about the Humpback whales, and there is also material in English available for non-Japanese speaking customers. There is also a video in English, which is shown prior to 'whale watching', which will give you more information about the whales.

Seafox's whale watching tour, in connection with "Sea Friend" also gives you a chance to see some of beautiful Tokashiki island. The quiet island has a population of about 700 residents, and is about 10 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide. The slow paced island has only one police officer, no fire department, no hospitals, and no traffic signals. Its main attraction is its beautiful white sand beaches, which extend out to aqua blue water and spectacular coral reefs. The over 150 feet of visibility underwater makes it one of the best diving spots in the world. Many uninhabited islands also dot the surrounding ocean, giving it a very island like atmosphere.

Anyone interested in the 'Whale Watching' tour can call for a reservation at 866-8582. The tour is regularly priced at 9,800 for adults and 8,300 for children between the ages of 4 and 12, but look for discount coupons in this week's Japan Update for up to 25% off. Children aged three go for free, and children aged two and under are not permitted to participate. Be sure to wear very warm clothes, and people prone to seasickness should take some preventative medicine. Tours are everyday, weather permitting, and depart at 8:30 am from Naha, returning at 4:30pm. Lunch is included.

Take advantage of this unique opportunity, and see one of nature's most spectacular animals this winter! It is something you will remember for your entire life!

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