HOME Hokkaido Shiretoko Go on a whale and dolphin watching tour at the world heritage site of Shiretoko!
Go on a whale and dolphin watching tour at the world heritage site of Shiretoko!

Go on a whale and dolphin watching tour at the world heritage site of Shiretoko!

Update: 3 October 2018

This world heritage site is inhabited by many wild animals such as the brown bear, Yezo sika deer and Sakhalin fox, and is located in Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula. Not only the land but the ocean surrounding it is also registered as a World Heritage site, where aquatic animals such as plankton and fish live. In the sea around Shiretoko, whales, dolphins and other marine mammals come closer to land, where they can find a fair amount of food! This is where I joined in a nature discovery cruise to meet the creatures of the sea!

Whales, dolphins, and killer whales in the sea of Shiretoko - Rausu! (Photo provided by Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

One of the world's leading whale and dolphin watching spots, Shiretoko Rausu

The Shiretoko peninsula is located in Hokkaido’s northeastern part and protrudes about 70 km in the Sea of Okhotsk. In 2005 it was registered as a World Natural Heritage Site along with the coastal waters, where regardless of the season, people are left fascinated by the stunning natural scenery and wildlife.

View of the Shiretoko mountains from the east side of the Shiretoko Peninsula from the Rausu Sea. Life here is vibrant on both land and ocean.

The Shiretoko Sea contains a large amount of plankton carried by drift ice, which allows both large and small fish to breed with ease. This forms an ocean teeming with life.

The drift ice which contains much phytoplankton is the source of life for animals in Shiretoko (Photo courtesy: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

Marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, and killer whales, migrate with them. On the east side of the peninsula, in the Rausu Sea, you are very likely to encounter them, and it is one of only a few watching spots in the world where these creatures can be observed as soon as you leave the port. Occasionally, a large whale with a length of more than 10 m comes up for air, allowing you to see the powerful figure as it swims brilliantly from the top of the ship.

I heard that such a cruise tour departed from the port in Rausu, so I went to participate in one these tours during the middle of May.

If you are lucky you can see the sperm whale raising its tail (photo provided by Shiretoko Nature Cruise)
A family of orcas. Can you imagine be able to see them up close like this? (Photo provided by Shiretoko Nature Cruise)
Here we see a Humpback whale`s huge body dancing in the air. Seeing this spectacle is so moving. (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

Holding my breath in anticipation, I depart!

This tour is provided by "Shiretoko Nature Cruise.” The company is a group of sea professionals, including former fisherman, and captain Masato Hasegawa, who guides tour groups safely and securely. The touring period is from May to October, departing twice a day at 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. (three times a day during Golden Week and summer holidays; please check the website for details). The voyage is approximately 2.5 hours. If there is vacancy, same day booking is also possible, but as it is a popular tour be sure to book early!

The process on that day begins at the office located behind the "Road Station Shiretoko - Rausu". Please arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

There is a café in Shiretoko called “Cho-e-maru” across the road where the captain's daughter, Yoshika, is the store manager. Here you can find handmade goods with whale and orca motifs, "Shiretoko Nature Cruises" original goods, as well as a cafe space which can be used as a waiting area until boarding.

Be sure to drop by before or after your voyage!
You can find a slurry of miscellaneous goods handmade by the captain's wife, plus original items like T-shirts and postcards designed by Yoshika.

It is a 5-minute walk from the office to the harbor. There is also a parking lot in the harbor, so you can travel by car as well. The tour boat is a cruiser called the "Evergreen" which is equipped with state-of-the-art navigation facilities. The ship can hold up to 50 people, and is equipped with a second level deck where passengers can enjoy a comfortable cruise with a clear view of whales, dolphins, and other sea life.

Wear a life jacket and board the boat 15 minutes prior
Aboard the Evergreen. The ship’s name is taken from that of the fishing vessel Captain Hasegawa used from his fishing days called the “Nagayamaru,” which he then translated into English (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

Once all the passengers are onboard the ship departs. When the ship leaves the quay Captain Hasegawa, who knows the sea of Shiretoko - Rausu, begins his rapid-fire talk, a famous part of the tour.

"The sea of Rausu, where whales and dolphins come up so close to the land, is a rare site in the world" and other statements are made such as the methods of discovery and features of animals that will be seen. He will also introduce you to the northern territories on the Shiretoko Peninsula and its opposite bank as well as the nature and history of the city, and in addition will speak passionately about the deep-fried seafood available in the Rausu fishing port.

Captain Hasegawa was born into a family of fishermen which has continued in Rausu town for three generations. He himself was also engaged in fishery as part of the fourth generation but quit in 2002 due to a sharp decline in fishery resources such as Alaska pollack (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

While listening to Captain Hasegawa speak, we headed out. The place was located between the Shiretoko Peninsula and the Northern Territory - Kunashir Island. Here began our watch for wildlife while the captain was careful not to go beyond the Japan-Russian intermediate line on the Kunashir Island side.

Kunishir Island as seen from the ship. At its nearest point, it is about 25 km away from the Shiretoko Peninsula, with a length of approximately 120 km. It is bigger than the main island of Okinawa.

The level of comfort while on the boat was surprising. Although the waves were calm and comfortable, there was nothing that could be done about the temperature. I went onboard in the middle of May, and while it felt warm on land, out at sea on the deck for a long period of time with the wind blowing made for a very cold day. While there are raincoats on the ship, do not forget to bring gloves and caps in the spring and autumn - as well as long-sleeved clothing like a parker even in the summer!

On the boat you can borrow a raincoat with a hand-drawn killer whale illustration

All of a sudden over the ship's speaker Captain Hasegawa announced, "There is a minke whale in the right front!" Looking at it, I could see the big black back go up and down. As the ship got closer, I could see that the size of its body was about 7 m, and I felt the merit of the tour with this quick encounter.

The back of a minke whale appeared right away!
A minke whale emerging his head above the surface. It seems that as plankton such as krill is used as food, in the early spring it is likely to see tens of thousands of short-tailed shearwater birds (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

When leaving the minke whale, we look for other wildlife and go further off the coast. The others in our tour explore around the ship with the staff on deck, but it is still the staff that makes the early discovery. I noticed there were several splashes up ahead!

Exploring the surroundings with the staff from the top of the deck (Photo courtesy: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)
Discovery of multiple splashes on a calm sea

As the ship approached, I noticed that the belly was white. “A killer whale", I thought, but the staff then explained that it was a Dall's porpoise. It is often seen from May to October, and that it is approximately 2 m in size with a swimming speed of about 55 km/h. It seems that incredible speed is its specialty.
The porpoise did not appear alarmed as it swam with great intensity around the ship. “Now there is something you can’t see in an aquarium,” stated Captain Hasegawa. Everyone on the tour, including myself, was impressed.

Dolphins swim swiftly beside the ship. After a while, they speed past.
Occasionally, you may also see several dolphins approach the bow (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

While moving to the next observation spot, the staff explained in detail using photos and illustrations on the ecology, characteristics, habits, etc. of each animal. "Minke whales like the one seen earlier are part of the Baleen whale group; Baleen whales eat by filtering mainly zooplankton through their bristles." Here you can also expand your knowledge.

By learning about the creatures, you will deepen your memories
They showed me the actual bristles of a real minke whale!

After that, I continued exploring, encountering dolphins three times! While I had expected to see an orca since there was information stating that it was seen considerably this season, I had yet to see one and it seemed that they were not in this area of the sea this day.

In the meantime the ship was heading back to the port. In addition to the wildlife, you cannot miss the magnificent views of the mountains – and especially the highest peak of Rausu-dake, towering 1,661 m above. Although I was surprised that we did not see any orcas, when the ship arrived at the harbor Captain Hasegawa invited me to "Please come again.” It was nice to have something fun to look forward to on my next trip.

Killer whale near the Shiretoko mountain range. In order to see such a scene, I thought of returning (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

I want to see more! Sea creatures you can encounter on a cruise tour

On this tour I was able to see the minke whale and Dall's porpoise, but the creatures able to be seen on the tour are not limited to this one. Here is an overview of the creatures you may see in the Shiretoko - Rausu sea depending on your luck and the season.

A killer whale showing off a beautiful jump that is hard to imagine with such a large body. Someday I would like see such a spectacle. (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

The most popular is none other that the killer whale. The Rausu Sea is a rare spot in the world where many killer whales gather. These are said to be the strongest fighting marine animal but it is the relationship of their families that is strong with their appearance of swimming in a group very elegant. In this tour you can see them from May to early July.

A group of orca with their black and white pattern shining in the blue sea. They appear to be unafraid of people and can be observed closely (Photo provided by Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

The pointed beak is the characteristic of the giant beaked whales. The body length is as large as 9 m - 11 m and moves with a pod of around 10 others. Although it can be seen throughout the year, the encounter rate is low.

The wormwood whale appears to have been given this name because the sharp tip of the mouth that looks like a tree (Photo provided by Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

The largest creatures seen in the Rausu Sea are sperm whales that come around July to October. The body length of a male can reach up to 18 meters, and when this figure raises its square head out of the sea to breathe, it is a very dynamic sight!

Speaking of whales, blowholes! The sperm whale has an opening on the left side of the head and the blowhole rises diagonally to the left front (Photo: Shiretoko Nature Cruise)

A quick note, humpback whales are rarely in the Shiretoko - Rausu Sea. The Nature Cruise is said to only encounter them at a rate of about once every two years, so consider yourself extremely lucky if you see one.

Here the humpback whale opens its large mouth to eat. If you encounter one you may be able

This impressive tour allows you to meet powerful and beautiful creatures in the blue sea of Shiretoko - Rausu. I hope you will experience the pleasant feeling of seeing dolphins and whales swimming in the midst of this magnificent nature. When visiting the Shiretoko Peninsula, please not only focus on the land, but also look toward the sea!


Plan name: (Rausu) Whale / dolphin / bird watching (4/28 - 10/13)
Average experience time: approximately 3 hours
Price (basic): Junior high school students and above 8,000 yen (tax included)
Meeting time: 30 minutes before departure time
Reservation application deadline: by 6 p.m., two days in advance

Contact hours: 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Closed: irregular holiday

  • Shiretoko Natuer Cruise
    知床ネイチャークルーズ
    • Address 〒086-1833 北海道目梨郡羅臼町本町27-1/27-1, Honcho, Rausu-cho Menashi-gun, Hokkaido, 086-1833, Japan
    • Phone Number 0153-87-4001

Written by : Etsuro Nagao

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.

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