Discovering Rausu: Drift Ice and Bird Watching Cruise
Rausu town is located on the Shiretoko Peninsula, the only UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in Hokkaido. Known for its kelp production since ancient times, the town is now a paradise for wildlife throughout the seasons.
In winter, Rausu welcomes both White-tailed sea eagles, and Steller's sea eagles, as they follow the unique ecosystem influenced by the drift ice on its journey from the Amur River in Russia through the Okhotsk Sea. They feed on Alaskan pollock, which is abundant in the area, and between early February and early March the drift ice creates a perfect environment for these birds to be seen as it arrives in the Nemuro Strait.
Steller's sea eagles are an endangered species known for their striking appearance - dark bodies with flashes of white on their tails, shoulders and foreheads - and wing spans of over 2 metres. They are believed to breed in far Eastern Russia, but with only around 5000 Steller's sea eagles worldwide, it's incredible to think that up to 2000 migrate from their breeding grounds to Hokkaido in winter.
They share their wintering ground with the White-tailed sea eagles - distinguished by their thick brown wings and short white tails. This is the only sea in the world where you can observe the eagles right in front of you on top of the drift ice - and seeing these 2 species of eagle soaring overhead is truly breathtaking.
Although it’s possible to see and photograph these birds from observation spots on the shoreline, one of the best ways to get as close as possible is by taking a drift ice and wildlife cruise from the small port in Rausu.
There are currently a range of local nature cruise companies offering a variety of winter tours. On my most recent trip, we went out on the Evergreen 38, one of the boats run by Shiretoko Nature Cruise. The team are experienced - the company has been running boat tours in Rausu since 2006 - and passionate about what they do. They use their local knowledge to plan the best routes according to the weather and drift ice conditions on the day, and they are quick to point out and describe where a variety of wildlife are located as the ship navigates its course.
These tours are a great experience for a wide variety of travelers. Of course, those who have a specific enthusiasm for wildlife photography or bird watching - but I also think that these tours should be recommended for anyone interested in seeing this unique and beautiful area up close. Because the team knows a lot about the habits of the local wildlife and the ecology of the area it’s still possible to have a lot of fun and learn as you go, even if you don’t have any prior wildlife knowledge. A number of years ago now, I took a nature cruise in Rausu for the first time. It was the middle of winter, I didn’t really know what to expect - and I definitely didn’t have a decent camera on hand. But it was an amazing experience then, and I have continued to return to Rausu every year because there’s something so spectacular about the area. On a winter nature cruise you will find those who have experience at photography through to amateurs. You will find a full range of ages. You will find people from all over the world. Kids to grandparents, lines of seemingly professional photographers with their giant cameras, and families with their smartphones. All kinds of people gathered for the eagles and the drift ice. Shiretoko Nature Cruise runs well equipped boats with wide decks that make it easy for every single guest to get an expansive view throughout the tour. Even when the ships are at full capacity - between 50 and 80 people - it doesn’t feel crowded or that you are struggling to see out to the ocean.
During winter when the drift ice and bird watching cruises are in season, boats generally depart Rausu at around 5am, in time to see the sunrise on the horizon. There are then two further cruises throughout the day - one at 9am and another at 1pm. Even in peak season - from late January to early March - drift ice conditions will vary day to day. There are days where the drift ice literally stretches across the skyline as far as the eye can see, and there are other days where the drift ice barely reaches the Nemuro strait - and having experienced both of these conditions in winter, I can say that regardless of the setting, this is a boat trip worth taking.
Seeing the eagles perched on the expansive drift ice, against a backdrop of the sun rising from Kunashiri Island can only be described as a magical start to the day. Going out in the early afternoon, where the ship crashes through the drift ice floating on the ocean’s surface, and the eagles gather on the rugged ice in front of you is of course breathtaking.
But on my last trip, the drift ice hadn’t come as close to the shoreline. And I wondered whether we would still see eagles, and was a little uncertain about what the experience would be like. It was a beautiful yet freezing day. I stood there, on the deck of the Evergreen 38, surrounded by photographers with their slightly intimidating cameras. As the sun shone down and the horizon stretched ahead, I looked up to the sky and I was just overwhelmed by my smallness, in the face of such incredible nature. I’d done this cruise before, where the drift ice had been close to shore and the boat had fought its way through the cracking surface. But today with the drift ice absent, in some ways it allowed me to be completely consumed by watching the eagles without distraction. These swooping birds circling overhead and coming close to our boat. I don’t think I’d ever appreciated just how large they are before this day. And we were lucky because on this particular day they were numerous. White-tailed sea eagles and Steller's sea eagles flew and swooped together as they picked up fish and soared close to the surface of the water before rising into the sky again - and they were so incredibly beautiful. I felt so overwhelmed by them. That they would grace us with their presence in such numbers, and that I would be privileged enough to just stand there and observe.
This is Rausu in the winter. In some ways indescribable. Always different, but always so spectacular. And definitely a special place to visit as part of your Hokkaido adventure.
If you are interested in taking a nature cruise with Shiretoko Nature Cruise, you can find their information at https://www.e-shiretoko.com