In Japan, the business of watching whales is far larger than hunting them

A tourist on a whale watching tour boat photographs whales in the sea near Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 1, 2019. Picture taken July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

RAUSU, Japan (Reuters) – People packed the decks of the Japanese whale-watching boat, screaming in joy as a pod of orcas put on a show: splashing tails at each other, rolling over, and leaping out of the water.

In Kushiro, just 160 kilometres south of Rausu, where the four dozen people laughed and cheered, boats were setting off on Japan’s first commercial whale hunt in 31 years.

Killed that day were two minke whales, which the boats in Rausu also search for glimpses of – a situation that whale-watching boat captain Masato Hasegawa confessed had him worried.

“They won’t come into this area – it’s a national park – or there’d be big trouble,” the 57-year-old former pollock fisherman said. “And the whales we saw today, the sperm whales and orcas, aren’t things they hunt.”

“But we also watch minkes,” he added. “If they take a lot in the (nearby) Sea of Okhotsk, we could well see a change, and that would be too bad for whale watching.”

Whale-watching is a growing business around Japan, with popular spots from the southern Okinawa islands up to Rausu, a fishing village on the island of Hokkaido, so far north that it’s closer to Russia than to Tokyo.

The number of whale watchers around Japan has more than doubled between 1998 and 2015, the latest year for which national data is available. One company in Okinawa had 18,000 customers between January and March this year.

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