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Whale watching season in full swing

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-03-06

"There she blows," was the familiar cry of whaling ships during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the industry almost pushed the magnificent Humpback whale to extinction. Thanks to an international ban on whaling, Humpbacks have regained their numbers dramatically, and now the spout of water, which whalers kept a careful eye out for, is again being chased after - only this time not for whaling, but for tourists to get a glimpse of these incredible mammals. One of the best places to see Humpbacks is right here in Okinawa Prefecture. The whales migrate every winter from Alaska to the Kerama Islands, where they make their home from January to April.

Humpbacks can dive for up to twenty minutes without surfacing for air. They feed on plankton, fish, and krill; using their soft baleen, which encircles their huge mouths, as a filter. The Humpback can reach up to fifty feet in length, and is found in the different oceans of the world. Its migration from Alaska to Hawaii and the Keramas is the longest of any mammal.

Recently I joined the staff of "Seafox" during one of their daily "Whale-watching" tours. We were first informed about the rules and safety of our boat "Seafox 3" before leaving Naha. After about a fifty minute ride we arrived near Tokashiki Island, one of some thirty different islands that make up the Kerama chain.

As our boat rolled and pitched over the waves, we began our search for "spouting" - the tell-tale sign of a Humpback in our vicinity. About seven of us had made our way to the bow of the ship, where the waves could be felt like a roller coaster. The rest of our group, mostly tourists from mainland Japan, stood above us on the boat's upper tier.

Waiting for a Humpback to appear is a mix of an adrenaline rush and boredom. But on that particular day the sun was shining and the blue sea glittered under the warm rays of light, making the long wait pleasurable. Some people's eyes stayed fixed on one location, while other's scanned the entire ocean. It was complete silence except for the sound of the waves and the wind.

Suddenly, a voice from behind me broke the silence. "Asoko!" (Over there!) As everyone turned to face an 11 o'clock direction from the front of the boat, it was hard to tell if our imaginations began mistaking the waves for "spouting." But there was no mistake. Two spouts filled the air, and next we saw the massive back of an adult Humpback break the water. Then a few more spouts and nothing. The sighting was of a mother and her calf, and the whales had made a dive, disappearing under the choppy surface.

We were all feeling elated over having just witnessed one of the most spectacular living mammals on our earth. After cheering and celebrating, we settled down for another long wait.

The Humpbacks surfaced again. This time they were closer. The backs of both the mother and her calf were now clearly visible. As the curve of the adult's back crested and curved downward, her enormous tail was lifted out of the water, extending straight upwards before gently sinking with the rest of the her body for another dive. This behavior continued for over an hour.

Besides "fluking" (extending the tail out of the water before a dive), a Humpback can perform a series of different movements. They will sometimes slap their heads, pecs, and tails. If you are lucky, you can witness a full "breach", which is when the whale will propel about one third of its body out of the water, while rotating it in mid-air.

During Seafox's tour, an explanation written in English on the behavior patterns of Humpbacks is also handed out to help you recognize the various movements, and understand some of their meanings.

The second part of Seafox's Whale-watching tour brings you on land, to the beautiful island of Tokashiki. The break includes a delicious lunch, and some free time at the port, before boarding a mini-bus for a sight seeing tour of the island. On our way to our destination of Tokashiku Beach, which is a beautiful stretch of white sand and turquoise water, we could see nothing but green mountains and valleys of rice fields. The nature of the Keramas is fabulous: wild goats and deer roam some of the other islands. After spending about thirty minutes at the beach, we headed back to port for the trip back to Naha.

If you would like to join a whale-watching tour, Seafox charges 9,800 for adults and 8,300 for children between the ages of 4 and 12. They claim a 98% chance of sighting a whale, and their luxury cruise boats make the trip enjoyable. Please be advised that sea conditions can get rough, so if you are prone to sea sickness some preventive medicine is advised. Also make sure you bring warm clothes. For reservations in English, call 866-8582 between 5 and 7 pm or fax 866-8649.

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