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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — For those who love nature, once again it’s the time of year you can get up close and personal with one of nature’s largest mammals: the humpback whale.

Whale watching season around Okinawa begins in January and runs through April, with February and March being peak months, according to the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site, www.ocvb.or.jp/en/index.html.

Prime locations, according to the site, are waters off the Kerama Islands 25 miles off Naha’s west coast.

Those waters once were known for whale fishing but were over-fished. To restore the area as a whale breeding ground, the Zamami Village Whale Watching Society was formed and new rules were enacted. Now, the huge mammals appear every January to give birth and nurture their young in the warm waters.

Okinawa whale watching can be attempted by land or sea.

The Whale Conservatory in Unazati, Zamami Island, offers one of the best viewpoints from land; the conservatory is where whales are spotted and information about their locations radioed to whale-watching boats.

Such boats allow getting a little closer to the creatures. Dive shops in Naha, and on the islands of Zamami and Tokashiki, offer several tours. Various travel agencies also offer tours that depart from Naha. Kadena Marina is the only military facility offering tours but it has yet to set dates or prices.

The official season for whale watching by boat will begin Jan. 5, according to the Zamami Whale Watching Association.

“The first humpback whale for this season was spotted Dec. 14 by the captain of a ferry boat,” said a Zamami village official.

The number of humpback whales spotted in this area is increasing each year, said Miyoshi Fujitsuna of Zamami village office.

“During the season last year, there were 18 whales at most that were spotted in a day,” she said. “We think it is a result of a strict whale watching guidelines made by the whale watching association to minimize impact on whales.”

Fujitsuna said she saw a humpback whale for the first time four years ago when she moved to Zamami from Kobe.

“It was such a moving moment to see a huge creature in the water,” she said.

For more information on tours, call the Kadena Marina at DSN 634-6344, or the Zamami Village Whale Watching Society at 098-896-4141.

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