Whale watching in Okinawa

Whale watching in Okinawa

Humpback breeding season has arrived. Here's how to catch the big black beauties in action in Japan
Whale watching in Okinawa
Humpback whales migrate further than any other mammal, some traveling as far as 8,500 kilometers, each way, every year.

Surrounded by vibrant coral reefs, blue waters and white sand beaches, Okinawa is an attractive destination for Japanese in search of diving, surfing and sun. 

But January through March brings something extra: humpback whales, which can be seen swimming, jumping and playing in the coastal waters of Japan's southernmost prefecture.

Spending much of the year in frigid Aleutian waters near the coast of Alaska, the whales migrate 5,100 kilometers south toward the Kerama Islands, just 40 kilometers west of Okinawa’s capital city, Naha. 

The warmth of the Okinawan waters provides ideal breeding grounds for the whales and, luckily for us, a great place to watch the enormous mammals in action.

Close encounters 

Whale watching in OkinawaCurious humpback whales are known to swim right up to tour boats. My whale watching in Okinawa excursion began 7 a.m. at Naha Tomari Port.

Shoving off, as we chopped through the waters, sparse gray clouds cast teasing whale-shaped shadows on the surface.

As our guide covered all things humpback, my attention was elsewhere, as I imagined and wanted a towering mammal to  shoot up from a wave and crash down in a majestic splash.

Barely 20 minutes from port, we arrived at a sunny patch of ocean, the captain shifting the engine to a low putt-putt. This area was lively the day before, the guide said, assuring us their spotters were almost always right.

The boat rocked gently as we strained to catch a glimpse of white-mottled black, training our ears to each slap of water. 

Suddenly, a telltale “woosh” of exhalation. There, 10 meters away, slipping just above the water line with a spray of mist, was our humpback whale.

We were beside ourselves, jumping and pointing at a monstrously sleek body, then a dorsal fin, followed by an enormous tail slipping effortlessly into the water.

Study and preservation

Humpback whales travel more than 5,000 kilometers every year to breed in Okinawa's warm waters. Whale watching in Okinawa is carefully monitored. The Zamami Whale Watching Association, founded in 1990 on Okinawa’s Zamami Island, is committed to ensuring the success of future migrations, and employs an eco-friendly stance when conducting tours.

They've adopted a few conventions in order to allow the whales a carefree and undisturbed swim.

Employing local spotters and boat captains, traveling whales are scouted from the Association’s land-based conservatory; boat captains are then radioed coordinates, allowing for a more careful, low-speed approach.

Tour boats generally maintain a 300-meter distance from the whales, though the intelligent creatures themselves often get curious.

During mating season, males become increasingly energetic, aggressively vying for the attention of females. Adult males vocalize “songs," thought to be used during courtship and as territorial displays, performed in low and high tones that last six to 35 minutes.

Breaching -- or jumping -- whales can also be seen during the tours, behavior thought to assert dominance, display courtship and warn of danger. 

Getting there

Whale watching in OkinawaThough Japan is often in the headlines for its whaling practices, groups like the Zamami Whale Watching Association focus on preservation. Several companies offer charters from various ports along Okinawa’s west coast, from the end of December to the beginning of April.

Boats can also be chartered near Naha Airport, leaving from Miegusuku and Naha Fishing Ports in Naha City. 

All tours recommend participants contact them the day prior for travel and weather updates.

Reeffers

Daily tours are three and a half hours long, leaving at 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. from Miegusuku Port, Naha City.  

Cost from Naha: Adults 3,800 yen (US$40), children (5-11) 2,800 yen (US$30). Children (four and under) 1,000 yen (US$11). 

Costs from Chatan: Adults 3,900 yen, children (5-11)  2,900 yen. Children (four and under) 1,000 yen. 

Contact: +81 (0)98 869 1510 or visit www.reeffers.com (site in Japanese only)

Cerulean Blue 

Daily tours are three hours long, leaving at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Departures are 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. are also available in March. Tours leave from Miegusuku Port, Naha City and Chatan Hamagawa Fishing Port, Chatan Town. 

Cost: Adults, 4,800 yen (US$51). Children (11 and under), 2,900 yen (US$31).

Contact: +81 (0)98 3904 3767 or visit www.cerulean-blue.co.jp

Tropico

Daily tours are four hours long, leaving at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. from Naha Coastal Fishing Port, Naha City.

Cost: Adults, 3,480 yen. Children, 2,480 yen.

Contact: +81 (0)98 867 5032/5021 or visit www.okinawa-tropico.com (site in Japanese only).

Top Marine 

Daily tours are three and a half hours long, leaving at 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. from Toya Port, Yomitan Village. If you're planning to stay further north on Okinawa Island, leaving from this port may be more convenient. 

Cost: Adults 4,800 yen. Children (6-11) 3,800 yen. 

Contact: +81 (0)98 975 8000 or visit Topmarine.jpn.com

Zamami Whale Watching

For travelers with more time, a trip to Zamami Island is an opportunity to tour one of Okinawa’s most beautiful outlying islands while checking out the whales.

Zamami also offers land-based conservatories for whale watching, a great venue for those that may suffer from seasickness.

Ferry Zamami leaves regularly from Tomari Port’s South Pier in Naha. Ferry travel from Okinawa Island to Zamami takes 90-120 minutes, tickets costing 2,120 yen (US$23) one way, or 4,030 yen (US$43) round-trip.

A high-speed option is also available via the “Queen Zamami," taking 50-70 minutes. Tickets cost 3,140 yen ($33.50) one way, or 5,970 yen ($64) round-trip. 

The Zamami Whale Watching Association offers tours starting at the end of December to the beginning of April. Daily tours are two and a half hours long, leaving at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. from Zamami Port, Zamami.

Cost: Adults, 5,250 yen. Children (6-11), 2,625 yen.

Contact: +81 (0)98 896 4141 or visit www.vill.zamami.okinawa.jp 

 More on CNN: Okinawa: Which island is for you? 

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