Sperm whale expedition to Ogasawara, Japan

Purpose of Trip: To swim with and photograph sperm whales.

Trip Leaders: Tony Wu and Eric Cheng

Location: Ogasawara islands, known as the Bonin Islands in English. Approximately 1,000km from Tokyo. Ogasawara is officially a part of Tokyo.

Depart Tokyo by ferry on 8 October and return to Tokyo on 20 October. The inter-island ferry is the only way to get to Ogasawara.

Participants: 6

Days on water: Every day possible, depending on ferry schedule and prevailing weather conditions.

Boat: 42ft custom-built boat that specializes in cetacean encounters, with one of the most experienced cetacean-encounter captains in the islands.

Accommodation: Twin-share rooms with private showers (hopefully)

Meals: Breakfast possibly included with accommodation. Lunch and dinner not included. We’ll have to purchase food to take aboard each day for lunch. Many restaurants and bars to choose from for dinner.

Cost: Targeting Yen 600,000-700,000 per person (Includes ferry to/ from Tokyo/ Ogasawara, accommodation twin-share basis, boat. Excludes air transport, accommodation/ transport in Tokyo, meals).

Deposit and Payment:
1. Yen 200,000/ person to confirm (non-refundable)
2. Yen 300,000 no later than 30 March 2009.
3. Balance of payment to be calculated at end of trip (to adjust for actual costs incurred, primarily to account for actual days spent on the water). Please prepare sufficient funds in Yen (est. Yen 200,000).

To book, please contact Tony Wu at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Getting There: The only way to get to/ from Ogasawara is via ferry departing from Tokyo. The trip requires 25 hours, so we will be spending the night on the ferry both going and coming back (This means that for a 12-day round trip itinerary, we spend 4 days on the ferry). The ferry is big and sucks, but there’s no other choice. On the positive side, it shouldn’t be crowded at the time of our trip. The inconvenience of the ferry is also one of the reasons the islands remain relatively undisturbed and are a haven for marine life. You’ll have to get to Tokyo on your own, and we will work out how best to get you to the ferry terminal from your accommodation in Tokyo.

Swimming with Sperm Whales: Sperm whales are the largest carnivores on the planet. They have big teeth and can be highly inquisitive. There are inherent risks involved with interacting with large predators like sperm whales. The areas where we will be looking for sperm whales are deep ocean, with no land nearby. There can be big swells, and occasionally big fish that swim by to check us out. To join this trip, you need to be a confident/ strong swimmer/ snorkeller in deep, open ocean, and you need to be comfortable with the prospect of facing large, potentially aggressive, open-ocean animals. Please be aware that snorkelling with big animals and scuba diving are very different skills. Finally, please be aware that once we’re out at sea, we’re far away from land and won’t turn back except for emergency situations. (interview about a previous encounter: http://tinyurl.com/5kf9tz)

If we encounter other cetaceans, we might get in the water, at the captain’s discretion. There are several species of dolphins in the area, as well as occasional encounters with larger cetaceans.

Swimming Equipment: I recommend a 3mm wetsuit. The water tends to hover around 25ºC, but generally, you’re only in the water for short periods of time, so a 3mm wetsuit tends to be sufficient. If you use anything thicker, you’ll have more drag in the water and find it more difficult to swim. It’s ok to use something thinner if you’re ok with chilly water, but you should definitely use some sort of protective suit to guard against stinging organisms.

You need a good mask and snorkel. Get a snorkel that doesn’t have flexible bits, as the drag you encounter while swimming from flexible snorkels made for diving can be really annoying. For fins, don’t use heavy scuba diving fins. I recommend using full-foot fins, not fins which require boots, as you’ll have to don/ remove the fins rapidly in many cases.

Camera Equipment: For photography, use wide-angle lenses (whales are big) and don’t bring any strobes. The lighter your camera is, the easier you’ll find it to swim.

Power Supply:
Plug shape is two-prong US-style, voltage is 100V.

Cash: Local currency is Japanese Yen. You can use your ATM card to withdraw cash in Ogasawara, though it’s a good idea to have Yen in hand before you go. Japan is a largely cash-based economy, so don’t count on using your credit card to pay for things. Some facilities will take credit cards, but cash is king. There are a few nice shops for souvenirs, T-shirts, etc.

Other Considerations: Bring sunscreen, a hat if you need it, and good sunglasses. Seasickness pills if you’re prone to get ill in swelly conditions. It will be between summer and autumn while we’re in Ogasawara. The temperatures can vary from sweltering hot to downright chilly. I recommend you take a fleece jacket for warmth, and a durable raincoat in case of storms.

Ogasawara is Japanese territory. You’ll need to be comfortable in an environment in which most people are unable to communicate effectively in English. There are around 2,000 residents in the community where we will be staying, so by the end of the stay, there’s a decent chance that you will know many people there. They’ll certainly recognise you!

Peak sperm whale season unfortunately coincides with peak typhoon season. This does not mean there will necessarily be storms while we are there, but there is a reasonably probability that a typhoon may hit while we’re there, which is one of the reasons I’m targeting a stay of 10-14 days.

The practical implication of this is that you should be prepared to be patient if the weather turns sour. There are a few things we can do on land if we can’t head out to sea, but it’ll depend on the prevailing weather conditions. Bring a deck of cards or a few e-books along, just in case.

Also, most of the food is Japanese, though there are some (Japan-ized) western food options available. If you’re a fussy eater, this may pose problems.