Warm winter waters off the coast of Okinawa draw whales, watchers
The Kerama Islands are only about 25 miles from Naha — just an hour-long ferry ride away. But, during the winter season, the waters surrounding the small group of islands might as well be a world away from the hustle and bustle of Okinawa’s largest city, as the area transforms into one of the best whale-watching spots in the world.
Every year, humpback whales migrate to the temperate waters near Okinawa to give birth to their calves. For those interested in seeing these massive mammals up close, several whale-watching tours are offered throughout the winter season. (The whale-watching season runs through early April.)
The best way to take a whale-watching tour is to take a high-speed ferry from Naha to one of the Kerama Islands (which can cost up to 5,970 yen, or about $55, roundtrip for adults) and to then choose a tour operator upon arrival. I opted to head to Zamami Island, where I signed up for an excursion offered by the Zamami Whale Watching Association. Tours departing directly from Okinawa also are available — but I prefer the flexibility of going to the islands so I can explore for a while afterward.
The tour, which costs 6,000 yen for adults and 3,000 yen for children, is about 2 ½ hours long and offered twice daily — once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It’s best to reserve your spot on the tour in advance through the ZWWA website.
For those who tend to get seasick, it might be best to take motion sickness medication the night before or the morning of your excursion, as the waters can be quite choppy.
After checking in, visitors are given a short introduction to humpback whales, but the presentation is conducted in Japanese. Once aboard, the designated whale searchers on the boat’s crew scan the waters and guide the boat captains to nearby pods of whales.
The best way to spot a whale is to look for the spouts of warm air that the whales expel from their blowholes as they exhale — the spouts look like fountains shooting up from the ocean.
Another easy way to spot whales is to find ones that are breaching or slapping their tails on the water’s surface. After disappearing into the water, it could be anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes before the whale surfaces again.
A pod of mothers and calves is much easier to watch, as the calves cannot remain submerged for long. Because of this, the young whales usually hang out near the surface of the water and are more visible to whale watchers.
On one whale-watching excursion, I once saw a mother whale teaching her calf how to breach by leaping from the water. It was one of my favorite memories in 11 years of living on Okinawa.
Several years ago, I had another close encounter with a mother whale and her calf as they swam beneath the boat. The whales were so close that I could see the barnacles on the mother whale’s skin.
After your whale-watching excursion, take the local bus (300 yen for adults) from the port to Furuzamami Beach, one of the most popular beaches on the island. Furuzamami was voted the best beach in Japan on TripAdvisor and has two stars from the renowned Michelin Guide.
The waters of Furuzamami Beach are relatively warm in winter, reaching about 68 degrees Fahrenheit — so it is nice enough to dip your feet in or snorkel, if you bring your own gear. There are few local restaurants on Zamami Island, and the information desk at the port is always happy to offer recommendations.
To see a whale up close is a rare opportunity, and many enthusiasts travel great distances hoping to catch a glimpse. But on Okinawa, world-class whale-watching in the winter is only a short ferry ride away.
OKINAWA WHALE WATCHINGCOSTS: Prices for whale watching excursions vary based on the company and length of the tour. Individuals should also factor in the cost of the ferry to an excursion’s departure point if not purchasing a tour that departs directly from Naha. The Zamami Whale Watching Association’s tour, which departs from Zamami Island, costs 6,000 yen (or about $55) for adults and 3,000 yen for children.