Making a career out of my creative pursuits is always an ongoing dream. I have been blessed to be able to realize parts of that while telling stories in front of the camera. But an even older childhood dream of mine seemed a further reach. I wanted to swim with dolphins and orca.
This proved tricky, because there was no way, upon education, I could ever be a part of institutions that caged these wonderful mammals in entertainment slavery, so aquariums and their chlorine tanks were out of the question. I cant say all aquariums do so, but most procure these animals from poachers who steal them from their pods and rob these mammals of their freedom in the wilderness and their tight family bonds. I might have to take a whale watching cruise someday and jump off the ship to be near these wild dolphins and whales.
Then. I found Mikurajima.
Mikurajima is about 8 hour ferry ride away from Tokyo. (180km south) It is part of Tokyo prefecture (used to belong to Shizuoka prefecture 100 years ago) and access is from Takeshiba Sanbashi port. (near Hamamatsucho)
The first thing I noticed about the island was the sheer greenery. Less than 30% of the island is built up. The rest of it is left untouched. Eco-tourism is one of the main trades of this island. One cannot travel there without pre-booked accommodation and biking/camping is not allowed. Hiking is only permitted if guided. There are about 300 odd people living on the island and about 200 odd dolphins live in the waters of Mikura Island. The locals know them by name.
One can join dolphin tours from Miyake Island or Mikura Island. I contacted Taguchi from Miyake Island first, but my dates weren’t great for him and he recommended that I call Tamami, an English speaking guide from Mikura Island. We left Tokyo at 1030pm and docked at 630am. Tamami met us at the port and drove us back to her minshuku (Bed and Breakfast).
Tamami has a flashcards with hand drawn pictures each local dolphin highlighting their identifiable traits along with their names. The locals recognize the dolphins by the marks and features on their bodies. As I looked at the list of dolphins I was hoping to meet, I was got excited. Nervous. “Will they like me?” “Will they play with me?” “Will I drown?” “Will the weather be good?” Oh yes… weather is the one most important and volatile factor.
Mikura Island is located in the Pacific Ocean. If the weather is bad, the waters get too choppy, but it is still possible to go out to sea, just that the dolphins will be too busy playing and surfing the waves to chill out with you. Should a thunderstorm descend, all trips will be cancelled. If you aren’t an awesome free diver, it might also be hard to keep up with these fast and graceful creatures. So I prayed and prayed and prayed… I will be really good, please let the weather be nice, Ive come this far to meet these kool kats!
We rented snorkels, fins and wetsuits from Tamami. Scuba diving is strictly not allowed around the island for the preservation of the eco-system. The wetsuits give a natural buoyancy, so free divers who want to show off attract dolphins wear weights to sink deeper into the water. Dolphins are often attracted to good swimmers (or in my case, clumsy ones). I wish my instructor told me that at swim class, I would have worked harder.
Taguchi from Miyake Island was in my group for the day, much to my surprise. He was here as a guest, taking a day off from his own tour business to enjoy a leisurely day on Tamami’s tour. This was a great start to my trip – I got to do my first wild dolphin dive with two experienced guides. Tamami had worked with Taguchi prior to starting her own dolphin tour business in Mikura Island.
We set off at around 820am and met our boat captain. The guides pointed out the natural waterfall around the island and the great eco-system and OMG DOLPHINS! DOLPHINS LEAPING OUT OF THE SEA! DORSAL FINS NEXT TO MY BOAT! I was pointing and shrieking saying ‘Dolphins!’ like a 5 year old at Disneyland.
I felt so alive with the seawater on my face, the beautiful sun (and if you know me, you’d know I generally avoid the sun) on my skin and sea breeze in my hair. There was nowhere else I’d rather be right then. For the next 2 hours, we would speedboat around the island and stop to hop into the water when we saw dolphins, going from spot to spot to play with them. I started getting nervous again. Okay, mainly because, while I CAN swim, (I even took my divers license, um, once) I had never swam in the open ocean before. Still, this was worth it. The captain found a pod of dolphins playing and stopped the boat near them. I shoved my snorkel mask on and waited for Tamami’s signal to jump in.
I hit the water, opened my eyes and saw 3 dolphins swimming towards me about 3 meters away. They were oh. so. beautiful. They took my breath away. They had the sweetest smiles and such graceful movements and I was completely captivated. The cold plus the sight of the dolphins made it slightly difficult to breathe. This pod swam by swiftly so we returned to the boat within 10 minutes.
Tamami told us the weather was perfect that day for viewing dolphins. The waters were calm and sunlight could penetrate through so we could see the dolphins clearly AND the dolphins were all in a good mood. My prayers were answered. She said these weather conditions rarely occur. When the waters are this calm and warm, the dolphins get sleepy and seem to move slower. I would find out on Day 2 that they aren’t always cruising lazily in the water making it easier for us humble humanfolks to keep up.
A short ride away later, we hit the waters again and my body started adjusting to the temperature and pressure underwater. I could concentrate more easily on the dolphins now. We were on their turf… we were there to provide entertainment for them, not the other way around. If they weren’t too busy with their own dolphin socialization, they would curiously come up to play with us for a longer time, and that day, they did. As I spent the day swimming, the songs the dolphins sang calmed me. It was music I could listen to all day.
I’ll let the pictures here speak for themselves.
At one point, I looked down and saw Tamami with her huge underwater video camera surrounded by a pod of dolphins. There were all in vertical position, facing her and cocking their heads, opening their mouths and squaking at her. Then, they sped off. I thought they reminded me of a group of nagging aunties. When we got up to the boat later, Tamami told us that was a group of male dolphins. She had interrupted some “important social activity” and they were telling her off. It was hilarious, it really did look like that. The dolphins looked disgruntled, but ever so civilized as they nagged and left.
I felt really small being in the ocean next to these huge, wild animals. If dolphins ever chose to, they could easily hurt us, but just being near them, I knew for sure that they just would never do that. They are so intuitive, and the more I watched them the more convinced I was of their high level of intelligence. A good number of them swimming close to check us out, but they were also very gentle. We counted 5 baby dolphins swimming close to their mothers, some of them nursing, and Tamami said we were really lucky to be able to spend that much time with the babies. Usually mothers were more protective and kept babies further away from people.
On less crowded days, the dolphins were friendlier. On weekends if the dolphins found their space too crowded, they would swim further away.
Tamami told us to watch the family relationships. Mother and babies, or mother and teenage dolphins were extremely close. They were always touching, at every point, they would swim holding fins or the babies would swim touching their dorsal area between the mother’s stomach and side fin. We also sometimes saw two adult dolphins flanking a baby. Right there in my face I witness the famous close bond dolphins have with their families. Every minute, it was strikingly clear that it is just cruel to separate dolphins from their mother and pod to place them in tanks.
I saw lots of stuff on that first day!
I met this joker, the photo bomber. A baby dolphin was approaching and Tamami wanted to film it when this guy cuts in and teases her. How adorable? At the end of the video you can also see how close they come to us curiously for a quick look sometimes. Other times they hang around to play.
Dolphins seem really curious about big underwater cameras too and often swim by to look at the camera.
We met another joker, the plastic bag guy.
So I saw this dolphin with this white plastic bag on his dorsal fin. He was swimming circles around us, round and round, hanging out. Of course my immediate thought was oh dear, pollution!! Human waste, this poor dude probably wants us to help remove that evil plastic bag. Turns out, dolphins find “treasures” in the ocean all day. Sometimes they get curious and wear their finds as accessories for a while. This joker was circling us to show us how cleverly he was wearing that plastic bag. Tamami explained on the boat. If we tried to remove it, he would have been upset. She recognizes some dolphin behaviors. She pointed out a dolphin to us later. He was the plastic bag guy sans plastic bag. He got tired of it and dropped it. I cant find the video of this joker at the moment, but Ill get to it.
We spent the rest of the morning chasing after dolphins.
For these dolphin tours, breakfast, lunch and dinner are included. We finished our morning swim near noon and Tamami and Kei made spaghetti for lunch. We chatted about life and the sea and at that moment I felt like this is it, life really can be that simple. There is nature, and there is us, and there is a blissful point of contentment breathing clean air, being near amazing nature and intelligent creatures and having basic good food. No unnecessary complications or fancy pants. Taguchi tells us that once he was filming dolphins underwater when one of them came up to him, picked up a piece of seaweed from the ocean floor and came up close. He released the seaweed to Taguchi, as if saying “Present for you” Taguchi lets it float for a few seconds before taking it and drawing it near his own body. He then reaches out again and returns the seaweed to the friendly dolphin, who takes it back into his mouth and swims off. Taguchi has this all on film! They are such sensitive and self aware creatures, so gentle as well.
Taguchi had to catch his 2pm ferry back to Miyake so we all hopped onto the van to see him off, but not before a group picture.
Then we went back and got ready for our afternoon dolphin swim. We still had a great time and the weather continued staying calm and sunny for us. We got back, showered, changed and while Kei started preparing dinner, Tamami took us out on a small island tour. We visit some of the nature spots, including a gigantic tree known to be popular with birds for nest building during mating season.
Tamami then takes us to an area with wild Ashitaba vegetables growing. She shows us how to pick them and avoid the sticky, yellow sap before driving off and meeting us at the end of the road. We picked our way back to the van all proudly showing off our harvest for dinner!
I love the nighttime in rural areas. The calmness and darkness lets me rest extremely well. Sleeping in the city is simply not comparable. After dinner, Tamami takes out pieces of paper with printed columns for us to log our day’s highlights. There were about six of us that night, including Tamami and Kei our guides. Kei had logged over 200 dolphin swim. (Jealous much!) There was a small map and Tamami points out the spots we encountered the dolphins. We write our thoughts for the day down and pass the paper around to leave comments for one another. It was such a pure day, interacting with the purest creatures and just indulging in the memories of it with new friends. Nobody was too cool to play with the dolphin shaped rubber stamps provided either. Tamami then plays the videos she took of us swimming with dolphins from the day and we all reminisce over red wine, our magical day.
We head back to our rooms to lay our own futons out (there is a very communal living culture here at Tamami’s place, sometimes if fully booked strangers share rooms, but there are not really strangers amongst dolphin lovers. Many of her visitors are regulars as well and Tamami tries to get everyone to make friends.) We talked about many things and could have chatted all night but it was time to get some sleep. Tamami and Kei had worked tirelessly all day to take care of us.
We get some rest before Day 2, more swimming with dolphins. I was exhausted in a good way, and dreaming of dolphins. I think I literally dreamed of dolphins that night. I sometimes still do.
Day 2 turned out very different with a bit of a struggle and deeper dolphin discoveries for me, but more on that with my next post.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to find out more, check out :
Tamami’s Dolphin Tour in Mikura Island