Many areas on the southern and eastern coasts of the Japanese archipelago are close to, or directly on seasonal migration routes of large cetaceans including humpback, Bryde’s and sperm whales, and many islands also have healthy resident populations of dolphins.
We really hope the development of whale watching activities in the country will somehow help being its controversial research whaling to a close…
Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli), orcas (Orcinus orca), Berardius/Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii) are sometimes spotted in Hokkaidō, along with other migratory whales and cetaceans.
Beyond cetaceans, other marine mammals spotted in Hokkaidō include harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus).
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are spotted, mostly from boats or from the shore, but quite regularly underwater in the winter to spring months, in the Ogasawara/Bonin Islands (usually between February and April), and also around the Izu Islands in the winter months (December to March).
Keep in mind that unless you encounter a whale while already in the water, interaction are not allowed in the Ogasawara islands, as boats are required to respect a 100 m exclusion zone around humpbacks.
Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are also common in the Ogasawara islands during the summer to autumn months, and the islands are one of Japan’s best whale watching / spotting destinations, along with the north of the Okinawa island chain.
A 50 m exclusion zone is to be respected around sperm whales, again, unless you are already in the water and the whale comes up to you.
Seasonal whale watching in the Izu islands (such as Hachijō, where whales can sometimes be seen from some of the island’s outdoor hot springs / rotenburo) is still developing as an activity, so expect to hear more on that in the future.
Swimming and freediving/snorkeling with pods of wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiop aduncus) is also one of the highlights of the Nanpō islands, both in the Izu and Ogasawara island groups.
In the Izu island, the hub is Miyake-jima, from which a one-hour boat trip takes you Mikura-jima, where it is possible to join the 3 or 4 boat trips per day organised to snorkel/freedive with the island’s resident pods of 200+ wild (non-captive) bottlenose dolphins, who often come up to swimmers and snorkelers and play around them.
The Miyake branch of the Dolphin Communication Project tracks the pods of dolphins that live around the island.
Dolphins are sometimes also seen on dive sites of other Izu islands.
The Ogasawara/Bonin Islands also offer many great opportunities freedive /snorkel with wild dolphins and other cetaceans, and they are frequently spotted by scuba divers underwater.
Dolphins are regularly seen at Mikomoto island and around the Izu Peninsula.
Migratory whales are common in south Shikoku.
On Kōchi Prefecture’s Pacific coast, especially in the Kuroshio-chō area, the season runs from April to September, with the peak from July through September.
Common encounters include humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and also Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei) Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) or bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus)
Amami Ōshima or the Tokara islands offer good seasonal whale watching of migratory humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and also Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei)) or bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), but the main hotspot is a little further south, in Okinawa’s Kerama islands.
Kyūshū’s dolphin watching is mostly done around the Amami or Tokara islands, but also up north. A large pod of wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) live around the Amakusa islands in Kumamoto Prefecture, and dolphin-watching tours are organised around the famous group of 1,200 islands.
Migratory whale watching is big in the Okinawa region, in the winter months, especially to the north of Okinawa’s main island.
The Kerama islands are one of Japan’s main humpback whale watching hotspot, especially between December and April.
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and pilot whales (Globicephala) and false killer-whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are also spotted in the Yaeyama islands during their migration north in the winter months.
Humpback whales are also sometimes spotted near Kume Island, roughly 100km west of Okinawa Main Island, especially in the Tombara area in the winter months.
More on whale watching in Okinawa here.