Swimming with dolphins near Mikura Island

by Tetsuo Nakahara
Stripes Okinawa

Just off the coast of Mikura Island, a pod of dolphins slowly swam by with their dorsal fins piercing the blue ocean surface. “Dolphins!” someone shouted with excitement. The captain quickly steered the boat closer, desperate not to disturb them. “Get in,” he said.

Our group silently slipped into the water so as not to scare them away. I held my breath and duck-dived 20 feet down to the ocean floor with my snorkel and fins. I waited for them to come.

I soon heard the high-pitch chirping of dolphins. Then, out of the blue, they appeared and slowly swim over to me. I began swimming alongside them while making eye contact. For a moment, I almost forgot I was holding my breath. I felt like a member of their pod.

There are about 120 bottlenose dolphins inhabiting the coastal waters of Mikura Jima. Just 125 miles off Tokyo shores, this aquatic wilderness sustains about 25 swim-with-the-dolphins services, a model of eco-tourism that has attracted visitors for nearly 20 years. You can swim with dolphins in their natural habitat any day of the year, weather permitting.

I had joined 14 teens from Camp Zama and Naval Air Facility Atsugi for a stay on Mikura as a part of a July 21-24 Camp Zama Youth Service summer program. It is one of several excursions youth center staff conduct, including monthly trips that begin from September as well as seasonal snowboarding, according to Robert Chance, lead program assistant.

“This is a way for American teens to get out and explore Japan, and actually see what is out there to enjoy,” explained Chance, who has been leading the dolphin tours for 10 years. “The program was initially the brainchild of scientist Kathleen Dudzinski, who had researched dolphins at Mikura Island and around the world. The tour was planned after Dudzinski contacted the Hawaii office of the Boys and Girls Club of America, which has strong ties to Zama’s Youth Center.”   

The tour was definitely helping to create an unforgettable summer for these youth.

“It was good and exciting, and a different experience,” said Cierra Baldwin, 17, from Zama American High School. “I think I liked being in nature – liked having a one-on-one connection with the dolphins. Because this is something I am normally kind scared of, I wanted to face my fears and just do it. It was kind of weird because I wasn’t expecting (the dolphins) to come up as close as they did.”       

Dolphins are friendly here. Even if you are floating with a life vest, they still come right up to you. But it’s best if you learn to snorkel beforehand if you want to swim with them. The offshore depth ranges from 10 to 40 feet, and just like us, dolphins can be moody. Whether they want to stick around and play depends on how they feel at any given moment.

I saw some dolphins swimming with their eyes closed the whole time; they were sleeping as they swam. I also saw a baby dolphin and mother swimming together fin in fin. It was amazing to see the adorable happy faces of dolphins in the water. If you are lucky, you may also see sea turtles here.

A typical dolphin tour is about three hours, both onboard the boat and in the water. You usually have a chance to swim with the dolphins at least five times. The captain will drop you off where they are and pick you up, then move to another spot off the island’s coast. The views from the boat are gorgeous and include dynamic waterfalls and pristine mountains. 

The best time to swim with dolphins here is from April to October. The sea gets rough during winter. A wetsuit is usually needed, but from July to mid-September the water temperatures rise to up to 77 degrees. Individual dolphins can be identified by scars or the shape of their fins.

There are rules for respecting the dolphins and preserving their habitat. They include no touching, feeding or chasing them, and no scuba diving or flash cameras. Nonetheless, their numbers have decreased by about 50 in the past couple of years, possibly as a result of stress related to tourists, according to Yoshinori Hirose, dolphin boat captain and owner of Shigeo Kobo Hotel.

“It is interesting that some dolphins leave this island and come back after one or two years. Maybe they leave because they don’t like people disturbing their world,” he said. “It is important for us to respect dolphins and keep the environment safe so they can live with us in harmony. They have inhabited these waters long before we started eco-tourism. We need to remember that we are visitors to their world.”

How to get there
Mikura Jima (Island) is approximately eight hours on a Tokai Kisen passenger ship from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier near JR Hamamatsucho Station. One-way fares range from 7,390 to 22,180 yen. For details, visit www.tokyo-islands.com/v3/e_contents/mikura/top.html

For information on Camp Zama Youth Services programs, call at 263-4500.

Mikura Island
Mikura Jima (Island) is one of the seven Izu Islands that fall under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. So you can say, “I swam with wild dolphins in Japan’s biggest most bustling city.”

With a population of only about 300, the island is surrounded by high cliffs which help preserve pristine environment. Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Mikura Island linked an “eco-tourism” deal that began promoting the appropriate use of natural resource and environmental conservation on island in 2004.

In addition to swimming with dolphins, mountain hiking is a popular eco-tourism activity here. Most of the island’s trails are off limits without licensed local guides. The guide fee cost from 4,000 yen for half day. If you are solo, it costs 6,000 yen.

Oyama, with its 2792-foot-high peak, is the most popular course; it takes about three to four hours to traverse. Some of the island’s trees are more than 500 years old. A variety of rare and scenic flora can be seen throughout the island’s highest peaks, which offer 360-degree breathtaking vistas.

The mineral water here is some of the best in Japan, and it’s shipped nationwide. There are no convenience stores or fancy cafés here – just a few local restaurants. Green tea shaved ice made with Mikura mineral water is a local favorite at Yamaya restaurant. This is a great place to relax in the sea breeze after enjoying the island’s natural beauty.

There are some restrictions in place to preserve the island’s natural environment. They include a requirement to book hotel rooms before arriving and no camping or cycling on island. There is no rental car service on the island.

 

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