Monday, August 17, 2009

Way behind, as usual... but, Dolphins!

So a friend has kindly pointed out to me that I did promise more frequent updates on this blog, which is true. In fact, I have been promising them for some months now and still I do not deliver. For shame.

But I can explain, I promise! I've been busy.

Okay, so that won't quite satisfy you. I've been *really* busy.

Now I'm just pushing it, so I'll just get on with the blog post and admit that I've been lazy and neglectful of my 3.5 readers.

During June and a little of July, I was lucky enough to get a five week visit from Alex :) She had just finished uni and came over to see me so we could spend some time together in Japan. It was wonderful to see her and we had a great time catching up with our Japanese friends, exploring Tokyo and experimenting with various crazy foods from the convenience store.

We had planned to take a trip to Kyoto originally, for it is highly placed on Alex's list of wonderful places in Japan (to say the least) and also somewhere I had yet to visit but wanted to.

A couple of weeks, a few health warnings and an outbreak of swine flu later, we decided perhaps Kyoto wasn't the best place to be taking a trip. Disheartened, we began to look for alternatives. One of the ones we found was an island south of Tokyo called Mikura-jima. Through the magic of google we discovered it, and discovered also that it was a popular place at which to swim with wild dolphins. My interest was well and truly piqued at this point and we booked some accommodation and made plans to go there.

Mikura-jima is home to a small population of around three hundred people. It is only accessible by ferry, which we took overnight from Tokyo. Boarding the ferry at 10pm at night, we were excited to discover what we thought would be our lodging for the evening - a bed in a massive room full of small bunks. It turned out we were mistaken, and our hearts sunk at about the same rate we descended the levels of the ship, eventually arriving at our designated 'beds' - a rectangle on a carpeted floor, the borders clearly outlined in electrical tape, on what had to have been the lowest level of the ship. Of course there were blankets and 'pillows' (seriously, they were pathetic), but despite these luxuries it still turned out to be a terrible nights' sleep. The seas were fairly rough too, so sleeping on your side meant that you would roll back and forth as the ship crested waves and wobbled about on the water.

The second stop was Mikura-jima, where we would arrive around 5am. That is, if the sea had cooperated. Unfortunately due to rough seas we were unable to stop at Mikura-jima, and so ended up on the ship for another seven hours or so, reaching the final island and then eventually coming back the way we came. Fortune would have it that the seas were a bit calmer this time, so we were able to dock.

Our host, Tama, met us at the port and took us up to the accommodation. She spoke English very well (she's only been studying for two years, too) and after settling us in to our room took us on a driving tour around the island. The weather was poor for swimming with dolphins, so we settled for waterfalls, beautiful scenery, old-style Japanese homes and an ancient tree.

Our food was included with the accommodation and we had some delicious meals there. The first night was tempura, featuring, among other things, a plant known as "Ashitaba", or "Tommorrow's Leaf". This stuff grows prolifically around the island and is named for the fact that if you take the leaves one day, they have grown back again the next. The locals are obsessed with putting this in every meal they possibly can, to varying degrees of culinary success (in our opinion). I enjoyed it in some meals though.

We also had a taste of some delicious mulberries, growing wild on the island (this is for you, Ally and Rich).

The following day we set out to swim with dolphins. We made a quick stop just out of the harbour for Alex to have a snorkeling lesson and then we were off. The island is really beautiful to see from the water. So green and with stark cliffs and small meandering waterfalls littered about.

I was suitably impressed with the scenery.

Soon enough we encountered dolphins, and in we hopped. We were earlier informed that we were not to touch or chase the dolphins, but rather just sit in the water and wait for them to come to us. They will choose if they want to engage with us or not. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation we entered the water, wondering how the dolphins would respond to us and what the experience was going to be like.

We sat in the water, able to hear the calls of the dolphins but as yet not able to see them. As we watched, dolphins started to appear out of the green blur in front of us. They would swim past, eyeing you off as they did, taking in what they saw. I had a few close encounters where one was coming straight for me, it's mouth open and making a sound, only to veer away at the last minute and continue on it's path.

It's an amazing feeling being so close to these beautiful creatures. Hearing their song beneath the waves is equally as amazing, and I can certainly see why Tama left her office job in Saitama (sort of part of Tokyo) to come here and start a dolphin tour business.

Unfortunately I don't have an underwater camera or case so there are no photos of the dolphins from beneath the surface. But, to redeem myself for that horrid failure, I have uploaded a YouTube video of some of our time with the dolphins, courtesy of Tama and her massive undersea camera. You can check it out here.

As it turned out, this was the best swimming experience we had the entire time. The dolphins were very playful and would swim around us a little before moving on. We went out again that afternoon, with two additional guests (it was just Alex and I in the morning) and the dolphins were slightly less playful, but still definitely curious.

That night, as I was enjoying a beer and watching the sun go down, I was rewarded with one of the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Amazing colours, a flouro moon ducking beneath the clouds and some downright fantastic cloud action. Some favourite photos follow, though there are nearly a hundred in total.

The following day we decided to shell out and go for one final swim. It was about $120 per person for one outing, but seeing as though this is not something you do every day we decided to pay the money and go for it. The tour was full on this last day, and the dolphins were less than keen for swimming with humans. A few times they would either swim straight past us, or we would jump in the water (they place you in their trajectory) and they would disappear. It was starting to get a little much in my opinion - it was obvious this pod of dolphins did not want to swim with us but we tried several times. Just as I was thinking that this is pushing it to the point of dolphin discomfort, Tama said that we were just going to watch.

The boat slowly moved along and the pod of dolphins flanked us, a large number of them swimming along at a rapid pace. They are so beautiful to see swimming like this, and I'm glad we got to have the experience of just moving alongside them above the water.

We had some lunch and said our goodbyes, leaving for the ferry back to Tokyo. Another seven hour journey later - part of it shared chatting and hanging out with the two girls who were staying with Tama as well - and we were back in Tokyo. It seemed like an entirely different world to the beautiful island we had just come from.

You can view a larger set of photos on Facebook, here and here.

Coming soon: Amami o Shima, and the climbing of Mount Fuji.


Unknown said...

About time!!!

So envious.

Bri said...

Hey Dwight,

After reading this, I thought you might be interested in a movie that is coming out here shortly, called The Cove. I doubt it is coming out in Japan, or receiving much publicity over there. The trailer is here:

I am really enjoying reading your adventures, so please keep them coming :) Sam and I have started Japanese lessons now, and still want to live there in a few years (just have to find something to do so that we can support ourselves).

Dwight said...

Hey Bri!

Thanks, I would like to see that movie. I would say there is very little chance that it would be released here, though I wish it would.

I'm sure you know already but this island has nothing to do with the cove ;) The cove is about catching dolphins for swimming with dolphins programs in places like Sea World, and selling the rest as meat. Mikura-jima is host to wild dolphins who are not mistreated in any way.

Great that you're learning Japanese! We'll have to have a practice when I get back :) The most obvious thing people do is teach English. Outside of that from what I've seen, it's difficult to get a job with a Japanese company unless you have at least conversation-level Japanese, if not fluency. You'll love it here!

There's more coming, I'm glad you're enjoying reading them!

HappyEarth said...

Thanks for the update Dwight, and the pic of the mulberries for us!

Wow, that clip of you guys swimming with the dolphins is just so magical - want an incredible experience it must have been. They can up so close!

As usualy, gorgeous photos - thanks for sharing and great to hear you enjoyed your time with Alex so much :-)

Your blog loving friends :-)

erica. said...

Wow, I've arrived at this blog unfortunately late. So many questions!