Monday, September 1, 2008

Shikoku Day 5: Whale watching

The most fantastic part of our trip came on Day 5: the whale watching excursion.

We were up with the early bird and out of the hotel before 6 a.m. so we could grab breakfast from the corner convenience store and catch a bus for a 50-minute ride to the coast. The day before, a very helpful English-speaking woman at the train station's tourism desk helped us make a reservation for 8 a.m. Originally, we tried to book spots on the 10 a.m. boat, but it was already full.

She'd recommended we take the trip through U.S.A. Whale Watching, though she warned that, despite the name, no one there spoke a lick of English. However, when we got there we were greeted by a young female deck hand who spoke perfect English, a very nice surprise.

I was excited to see that besides her and the captain, there would only be half a dozen other people on the boat with us. That meant there wouldn't be a bunch of people blocking my view.

Our boat wasn't very big, either, which I liked.

There was a nice awning set up with chairs bolted beneath it so that passengers could sit in the shade, a good thing since it was a very hot day and the trip was scheduled to take around five hours.

We sped out into the ocean for an hour and a half, 20 miles off shore. After a little while I moseyed on up to the front of the ship and sat with my legs hanging out over the edge. I could look down and see the tip of the boat slicing through the sea and feel the wind in my face as we rushed toward the horizon.

This was a particularly enjoyable experience for me, as this is something I'd done many times as a child. Growing up, I spent countless summer weekends with my parents on our family's sailboat on Lake Erie. My mother and I always used to dangle our legs over the side of the boat and try to get our toes wet while my father steered. So sitting there on the edge made me a bit nostalgic for some of those happy summer afternoons spent on the boat.

At one point Joe exclaimed that he'd seen a flying fish. I told him that was nice and thought he was full of crap. But no, he had indeed seen a flying fish. We began seeing lots of them jumping out of the boat's way and skimming along the surface for hundreds of feet before plunking back down again into the waters. That was really, really cool.

The water was very blue and beautiful, though I was still surprised to occasionally see random plastic bags or other trash floating around even after shore had disappeared from sight.

It was both thrilling and spooky to be so far away from shore that we couldn't see any land, or any other boats for that matter. Eventually, we came to a large yellow buoy with a couple of small fishing boats nearby. The captain yelled back and forth with the fishermen, who pointed us in one direction and we motored off a short distance that way. Everyone kept their eyes peeled.

I'd been whale watching one other time before, off the coast of Maine on my grand solo road trip of October 2004, so I knew what to look for. The whales make circular patches of calm water, called footprints.

I was elated when, peering over the railing I suddenly saw a footprint emerge right in front of me, directly next to the ship.

I cried out in excitement and everyone rushed over to have a look. The water was so clear that we were able to see the entire whale beneath the surface. It was surreal. I was utterly amazed.

In Maine, I was never able to see the whales under water. I caught fleeting glimpses of them when their backs surfaced, but that was all. This was so, so, SO much better.

I wish I had pictures to show you of the whales under water, but even though we could see them with our eyes, the camera didn't capture them very well. Joe managed to get these couple shots.

And he caught this, easily the best photo from the trip:

Our luck didn't end there. After sighting the whale off the ship's starboard side, it poked its nose up out of the water for us.

The deck-hand informed me that this was an unusual sight for this kind of whale. It's a large whale but because it's flippers are so small, it usually doesn't get up the speed to poke its nose up like that.

Here's the photo I caught of a whale's back.

This kind of whale is called a Bryde's whale (pronounced broo-dess... almost like brutus). They grow to around 40 feet long and weigh between 26,000 and 44,000 pounds. Whaling has depleted their population, so they're now a protected species.

We puttered around for an hour or two and saw several whales. Near the end of our stay, another whale-watching boat showed up, after which we didn't see much more of the whales. Maybe the extra ship shooed them off.

On the trip back to shore, we rode through an area where lots of dolphins were feeding. There were dozens of them all around the ship. I was absolutely tickled. Silently wished I could jump overboard...

These particular dolphins were Risso's Dolphins. They've got a rounded face, different from the narrow snout I am used to seeing on pictures of dolphins.

So the whale watching expedition ended on a high note. Well worth the 5,000 yen ($50) tickets. And after we got back it started to rain, so it turned out we were lucky to have gone on the earlier trip.

By the time we got back we were starving, so we headed to a nearby seafood restaurant for lunch. The next bus back to town wasn't for another couple hours, so we made a point to eat very slowly so we could stay in the nice air conditioned restaurant instead of standing out in the rain.

I felt proud of myself for being able to have a conversation in Japanese with the waitress about what a lady at another table was eating. I ended up ordering what she had, which was essentially a bowl of rice with raw tuna and some vegetables. It was quite tasty.

Back in Kochi, we crashed at our hotel room. Later, we went out to dinner and passed this restaurant:

Like many Japanese restaurants, it had plastic replicas of its entrees in the display window. It was serving large platters of very expensive seafood (over $100 a platter). Could it be whale meat? First admire the whales, then eat them? I wonder.

Since it's been in the news lately, you probably all know that Japan went on a great hunting trip this year to slaughter whales for "scientific research." Conveniently enough, that whale ends up on dinner plates (and school cafeteria trays) around Japan. Whale meat was cheap after World War II, and though many people agree that it tastes awful, older people now have a certain affection for it because it reminds them of their childhood.

Just a few days ago, Bloomberg news service ran this shocking story about how 80 tons of meat from fin whales (an endangered species) waiting for import to Japan may now have to be discarded. It's all very depressing.

I digress. The whale-watching trip was amazing. Unforgettable. Joe and I agreed it was definitely the high point of our vacation.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The more we support whale watching in Japan, and the more it becomes a viable industry, the easier and more likely it will be for whale-catchers to convert their businesses to whale-watching. It's the route that other nations have gone. Great post thanks. The first time we sight whales is always a most awesome experience.