Photos by Gail and Joe Meadows
It’s no secret that the Japanese eat whale meat, but that’s one experience that’s definitely on my “dame” list while I’m here (right along with eating natto and chocolate covered squid).
Instead, as it turns out, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in Japan was not eating whale, but watching them.
Last July my husband Joe and I took a trip around Shikoku (the smallest of Japan’s four main islands), where there are several places that offer whale-watching excursions.
If you’re looking for a change of scenery this summer without venturing too far from home, I heartily recommend taking a long weekend trip to Kochi, on the southern coast of Shikoku. Kochi is about 4.5 hours away from Hiroshima by bus, and it has no shortage of interesting things to see in addition to the whales. Kochi and the surrounding area are home to the An-Pan-Man Museum, long-tailed roosters (the tails measure up to 33 feet!), impressive limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites, and the picturesque Katsurahama Beach, which neighbors a facility offering dog fighting demonstrations and a dingy aquarium where you can hand feed sea turtles. Kochi Castle also offers lovely views of the city, and if you’re feeling really adventurous you can even try surfing.
I could go on and on about how much Kochi has to offer, but let’s get back to the whale watching.
On the day Joe and I went whale watching, we rose with the sun so we could grab breakfast and catch an early bus to Tosa City, a 50-minute ride to the coast. The day before, an English-speaking worker at Kochi train station’s tourism desk had helped us get the bus tickets (3,000 yen round trip per person) and make a reservation for an 8 a.m. trip (5,000 yen per person). 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 USA 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 pleased to see that besides her and the captain, there would only be half a dozen other people on the boat with us, which meant there wouldn’t be a bunch of people blocking our view.
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. I was glad I’d brought my hat, shades and sun block, and most of all several bottles of water since the boat company didn’t provide any.
Zipping over the water with exhilarating speed, we began the 1.5-hour journey to reach the area where the whales feed. After a little while I moseyed up to the front of the ship and sat with my legs hanging out over the edge. I looked down and saw the tip of the boat slicing through the sea and felt the wind in my face as we rushed toward the horizon.
At one point Joe claimed he saw a flying fish. I told him that was nice and thought he was imagining things. But to my surprise, lots of them began jumping out of the boat’s way and skimming along the surface for hundreds of feet before plunking back down again into the bright blue waters. I watched them with fascination, entranced.
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. Twenty miles off shore, 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. We motored off a short distance that way and kept our eyes peeled.
I’d been whale watching one other time before, off the coast of Maine, so I knew what to look for. The whales make circular patches of calm water, called footprints. So it was an instant adrenaline rush when, peering over the railing, I suddenly saw a footprint emerge right in front of me, flush against the ship.
Hearing my cries of excitement, everyone rushed over to have a look. The water was so clear that the entire whale was visible beneath the surface. It was surreal. Absolutely amazing. 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 much better.
One whale came up to check us out on the ship’s starboard side, and then poked its nose up out of the water. The deck hand informed us that this was an unusual sight for that kind of whale. It’s a large whale but because its flippers are so small, it usually doesn’t get up the speed to poke its nose up like that.
Several times, we spotted Bryde’s whales (pronounced broo-dess, almost like Brutus). They grow to around 40 feet long and weigh up to 22 tons. 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 all around the ship, and as I took dozens of photographs I pushed back the urge to jump overboard and swim with them. The dolphins we saw were Risso’s Dolphins. They had a rounded face, different from the narrow snout I am used to seeing on pictures of dolphins.
Back on shore, Joe and I were tan, tired and giddy over what we’d seen. We both agreed the experience was well worth the 5,000 yen. It started to rain after we got back, so it turned out we were lucky to have gone on the earlier trip, perhaps a smart move since storms can be more apt to crop up in the afternoons on hot summer days. Starving, we sought cover from the rain in a nearby restaurant serving a wide variety of seafood — whales not included — and I tucked in to an excellent maguro sashimi rice bowl (one dish most certainly not on my “dame” list!), the perfect way to cap off a most memorable trip.
USA Whale Watching (Japanese only)
Kochi Visitors & Convention Association