Discovering Rausu - Brown Bear Boat Tour
When you arrive in Rausu on the east side of Shiretoko Peninsula you feel like you're at the very edge of the world. With the mountains framing the town on one side and the ocean running alongside the other, you look out onto a horizon that seems almost endless. But it doesn’t end here, and this is the first trip where I’ve had the unhurried time to just explore a little further up the coastal road that runs the edge of the peninsula. You pass through a couple of villages - although the houses noticeably drop off in number - and you reach Okkabake Port and the view spot of Tengu Rock just out from the shoreline. A little further and you see the views from Rusa Field House and Bear Rock. Further still, and as the last signs of any substantial communities fade away, you come to the beauty of Seseki Falls on your left, and Seseki wild onsen with its tidal access and ocean views a little further on your right.
And then you really feel like you’re at the end of the world. The houses and signs of human inhabitation have now lessened until you are driving along a road which is surrounded by nature on every side. And here, right about the point you might wonder if you should turn back, you reach Aidomari Port - a small stretch of beach with a collection of fishermen’s houses, and a small harbour. Here you can board a brown bear watching cruise with the team from Lincle.
Lincle runs small boat tours in the Rausu area. When I think of a sightseeing nature cruise, I automatically picture one of the larger boats in a harbour. But Lincle’s vessels seat a maximum of 12 people and they offer an incredibly personal experience. You feel connected with the water around you and get much closer to the rugged shoreline - seeing the wildlife as if you are right alongside the animals. As you sail in the midst of the all encompassing nature of Shiretoko, a small boat allows you to capture a different perspective. An intimate group, with an experienced captain, exploring this expanse of oceans, cliff faces, forests and volcanoes.
Between mid April and early October, Lincle focuses their boat tours on viewing the Ezo brown bears that populate the Shiretoko Peninsula. The Ezo brown bear can be between 1.3 and 2.3 metres tall, with the males weighing up to 400kg. They are characterised by the colouration of light brown to black fur, large shoulder muscles and long claws on their forefeet. However, despite what can be quite an intimidating appearance, the bears are notably omnivorous - with up to 90% of their diet coming from plant matter, and the rest made up of ants, salmon, crayfish and the occasional Sika deer. It’s Shiretoko’s diversity of habitats and wide variety of food resources that allow one of the densest brown bear populations in the world to exist here. Shiretoko National Park ranges from coastlines to alpines, and when you explore the peninsula, you do so knowing that this is the domain of the local wildlife.
Having once had a relatively terrifying close encounter with a bear on a Shiretoko hiking trip - I admit that the option to see these animals from the safety of a boat appealed to me far more than repeating an on-land meeting. Taking part in a small nature cruise means that you can get close enough to the shoreline to really see the bears and feel like you are there with them, but remain an observer - not disrupting them and being safe yourself. Boat tours approaching the shoreline have clear guidelines regarding noise levels and the permitted length of observation so as to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Lincle’s staff also contribute to natural environmental conservation efforts by collecting data that can be used in local surveys and research. These tours aim to introduce the local wildlife without interfering or unsettling the habitat.
Lincle’s boats circle a course that takes you up to the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula - drawing close to the shoreline at different spots so you can observe the bears throughout the year. Typically, the bears wake up from their winter hibernation in early April - although females with cubs born in the winter appear later in the month. Throughout May you can see the entire bear community becoming active - and this is a great season to see bears on the shoreline as the early melting snow on these coastal slopes provides them with a buffet of plants to eat.
Although, early summer season can be a little trickier to see bears clearly on the coastline - coming into later summer and autumn, you have the opportunity to find bears chasing the salmon that swim upstream and provide them with a great source of protein as they prepare for hibernation. Ezo brown bears can often be seen hunting fish in the shallow water around river estuaries, and spotting them at this time of year is a pretty magical experience.
As well as encountering bears, these cruises take you up close to some of the most magical nature along the coastline. There are some spectacular coastal rock formations - all with the most descriptive names. My favourites, in no particular order, translate as Goddess of Mercy, Bamboo Shoots, Samurai Helmet, the Buddhist Prayer Rock, and Pekin’s Nose. There are then Odaki and Medaki waterfalls - literally named male and female - which provide a stunning feature on the more sheer cliffs as you head towards the tip of the cape. After sailing all the way up to Cape Shiretoko your boat tour will then return on a circular route, and you can see Red Rock - the best kelp harvesting spot in Rausu, and the historical fisherman’s house, Jun’s Banya.
You can also see more varieties of wildlife than simply the Ezo brown bear. Sika deer and Ezo red foxes are the most common on land, as well as bird wildlife such as Short-tailed shearwaters and Japanese cormorants. It’s the closeness to nature that you can experience on a small boat cruise that I think makes these tours such a wonderful opportunity to really immerse yourself in the nature of the region. With such a close-knit group, you don’t feel like just a tourist - you feel like you are being invited to be a part of something bigger than that. Just a few people and a local captain as a guide, sailing out on an adventure to discover the secrets of Shiretoko Cape.
If you would like to book a bear watching cruise with Lincle, you can find them at https://shiretoko-rausu-lincle.com