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Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruise

Discovering Rausu - Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruise

 From the first touches of spring, to the cool and pleasant summers, through to the stunning colours of fall, Rausu town is so much more than a magical winter destination. Despite having first visited the eastern side of Shiretoko Peninsula in mid winter with the purpose of seeing the drift ice and sea eagles - I’ve now been fortunate enough to return throughout the seasons. I don’t think I could pick a favourite one if I tried. Throughout the year, Rausu offers spectacular encounters with ocean wildlife and marine birds. In addition to the more well known Orcas and Short-tailed shearwaters, various species of whales — including Sperm whales and Baird’s beaked whales — as well as dolphins and porpoises, can be observed in the Nemuro Strait. The reason for the diversity of wildlife is said to be linked to the unique ecosystem of the Rausu area. The drift ice brings the phytoplankton or ‘ice algae’ which rapidly increases in the ocean as the drift ice melts. This in turn attracts zooplankton, and this draws small fish, which then brings whales and dolphins to the region. Rausu’s scenery is made even more breathtaking by the framing of the Shiretoko Mountain Range on one side and the wide ocean horizon of the Nemuro Strait with Kunashir Island on the other.

The Nemuro Strait is one of the best whale watching spots in Japan, and observing the changing whale species that visit with each season is another highlight for visitors. For instance, besides the more famous Killer whale viewing in spring, this area is one of the rare places on Earth that you can observe Sperm whales - which can dive to the depth of 2,000 metres - up close. The unique geography of the strait is to thank for this, as there is a sudden deep sea drop-off with a depth of more than 1000 metres where the Sperm whales prey on deep-sea squid and other sea life. At certain times of the year, you can even see Sperm whales blowing water from various view-spots on land.

Despite having some shoreside observation points, the best way to enjoy the whales up close is by taking one of the local nature cruises from Rausu Port. Shiretoko Nature Cruise offers wonderful tour options on either of its boats - The Evergreen or The Evergreen 38. They run these tours twice a day, on a  circular route that takes around 2.5 hours between late April and mid October. The team are skilled in searching for local wildlife and the captain of the ship can communicate with other boats to find where the recently spotted dolphins and whales were located. Once out at sea, the team onboard the boat use binoculars to spot animals, and point them out to the guests onboard. These tours are a great experience for a wide range of travelers, of varying ages and interests. The team explains about wildlife ecology, characteristics and behaviours, so you can still enjoy the tour as a complete beginner to wildlife observation. When the team on the boat announces whale viewings, it’s great that the boats have a wide layout and open upper decks so that everyone can see easily and clearly. You will find all kinds of people on these boat trips - from those holding professional looking cameras, through to families and children who are just enjoying their first sightings of some memorable wildlife.

Each season brings something unique to the experience. Spring in Rausu is where everything comes to life. The mountains are still snow capped, but the snow melt in April causes many plankton and small fish to be present in the ocean. Large flocks of Short-tailed shearwaters come all the way from Tasmania in southeastern Australia to enjoy an ocean buffet of their favourite foods. Towards the end of April, you are likely to see these birds among the whales and dolphins - flocks of them together on the surface of the water. As the ship closes in, the birds take flight at the same time, and create an almost indescribable noise and sight as they take off atop the ocean.

Orcas are also most frequently seen in the spring, and often appear in family groups. When meeting a family group of Killer whales alongside the boat, they are often inclined to be more friendly as they are with their young, and this can mean that they will stay closer to the boats - swimming alongside. Because the water in the Nemuro Strait is so clear, you can easily tell where the Orcas are as the white parts of their bodies are very visible, especially just before they break the surface. This can make it easier to capture a photograph of them - even for amateurs like myself. Male Orcas are around 9 metres long, and females 7 metres, so they make an impressive sight as they come alongside the sightseeing boats. Approximately 200 Killer whales come to the Rausu area each year, with sightings peaking between May and June. If you visit Rausu Visitor Center you can also see an Orca skeleton on display, which gives an interesting perspective either before or after your cruise.

Throughout the summer season, you are likely to see Sperm whales, Minke whales and Dolphins. It’s possible to see Sperm whales between mid-June and mid-October - and they are so impressive, with males being up to 18 metres long, and females up to 11 metres. From Rausu’s position facing the Nemuro Strait, it is quite common that Sperm whales can be seen from the land and when taking a boat ride, seeing these whales up close is even more likely. The chances of encountering Sperm whales can be up to 90% on a nature cruise -  especially on calm water days between mid-July and the beginning of September. In summer, you also have a high chance of seeing Dall’s porpoises.

Finally, in autumn, through until mid October, the morning sunlight gives some of the most beautiful light and the air is crisp and clear. Sperm whales can be seen diving dramatically throughout September and the changing colours of the fall leaves on the shoreline in October give some final beautiful days to enjoy the circular cruise route.

Temperature wise, even at the height of summer Rausu can be quite cool, with the peak summer months of July and August only seeing temperatures averaging in the 20-25 degrees Celsius range. The wind is normally stronger out in the ocean, so expect the temperatures to drop even further to around 10 degrees Celsius when you are out on the water. And remember this gets even colder in the spring and autumn. The weather is frequently beautiful, but it’s worth wearing a windbreaker for the cruise, along with lots of layers and of course sunglasses - as it gets really bright on the ocean.

In whatever season you end up in Rausu, I feel certain that the wonder of the place will draw you in, and that you will be left wanting to go back time and time again. For a breathtaking experience with the whales found in the Nemuro Strait, you can get in touch with Shiretoko Nature Cruise at https://www.e-shiretoko.com