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Okinawa Churashima RESEARCH CENTER

Research on marine organisms

Surveys of the humpback whale

Surveys of the humpback whale

Humpback whales travel to areas of Russia and Alaska to feed during summer and in winter they migrate to Okinawa, the Ogasawara Islands and Hawaii to breed and to raise their young.

Every year from the end of December though to the beginning of April, whale watching of humpback whales takes place off the coast of Okinawa. The humpback whales have become an important resource that supports the tourism industry during the winter season.
Our foundation is working together with the local people along with domestic and foreign researchers to study the ecology and resource conditions of these humpback whales.

Latest Information

Mar. 31, 2016

Off the coast of the Bise Saki Peninsula, Motobu

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 4 groups, 6 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 4 groups, 10 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)

Today is the last day for whale watching, and the survey will come to a close. During this survey, conducted from January through March 2016, we have succeeded in photographing 280 whale tails around the Kerama Islands, and 257 whale tails from around Motobu. Now we will compare to 1,500 previously identified humpback whales before the next season arrives.

We would like to thank all the people from Zamami Island, Naha, Onna Village, Motobu Town and the Amami Oshima whale watching industries for their help and support for this survey, and we also would like to show our gratitude to the captains of the survey boats, and their researchers for their cooperation. Thank you very much!

Mar. 30, 2016

In Nago Bay

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 5 groups, 9 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 4 group, 6 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)

We observed a mother and calf pair swimming along near the Nago Bay in the waters off of Motobu. The mother whale at times would lift both of her pectoral fins out of the water and the calf would breach (jump) right beside her. They looked to be having a relaxing swim within the bay.

Mar. 29, 2016

Off the northwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 4 groups, 8 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 2 groups, 5 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 5 groups, 9 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)

March is nearly over, and the whale watching season is also coming to an end. It is very clear from the data collected from the Kerama Islands, Motobu and Naha that the number of humpback whales is decreasing compared to previous weeks.
It is more difficult to see humpback whales at the end of the season as the numbers start to decline. However, with the cooperation of the local fishermen and researchers in Okinawa, we are still able to observe humpback whales. They share data and provide us with reports on the numbers of humpback whales and where they were spotted.

Mar. 28, 2016

Right in front of the aquarium

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 5 groups, 9 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 1 group, 3 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)

We spotted a herd of 30 to 40 false killer whales in the waters off of Motobu, right in front of the aquarium (see photo on the left). The herd was spotted swimming rapidly north right in front of the aquarium. We were able to hear them making active high pitch sounds through the underwater microphone.

Mar. 27, 2016

Off the coast of Sesoko Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 2 groups, 6 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 6 groups, 13 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 2 groups, 6 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)

Today we spotted the whale known as “F” (identification number R-844) with her calf in the waters off of Motobu. This is the third time this pair of mother and calf have been spotted there this season. (See blogs on March 4th and 19th). “F” had also been spotted in the waters off of Naha the night before, meaning they had swum 50 kilometers in just one day.

Mar. 23, 2016

Off of the Minna Island coast near the port (Zed suddenly emerging from the water)

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 3 groups, 6 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 2 groups, 6 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 3 groups, 3 whales (0 pair of mother and calf)

Today, we have spotted “Zed” (identification number R-8) in the waters off of Motobu, this is the seventh time he has been spotted in Okinawa this season, and the fourth time spotted near Motobu this season. We have observed “Zed” escorting a mother and calf (a gesture that the male whale is seeking to mate with the mother whale). We also have witnessed another whale approaching the mother and calf and as it did so “Zed” would swiftly swim towards the approaching whale, emerging between the mother and calf hindering the other whale from approaching any closer.

Mar. 22, 2016

North coast of Minna Island (mother and calf pair)

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 1 group, 3 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Motobu : 6 groups, 10 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 3 groups, 8 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we saw three mother and calf pairs in the waters off of Motobu. The photo on the left shows the calf’s flukes (on the left hand side) and the mother whale’s flukes (on the right hand side). When a humpback whale reaches adulthood its full size can be approximately from 11 to 16 meters. By observing the photo, you can tell that the whale calf that was born this year is definitely smaller in size compared to its mother. However, although it may seem small, a new born whale calf is around 4 to 5 meters in body length. If you were to compare this with animals in the aquarium, it would be equivalent or even lager than an adult bottlenose dolphin.

Mar. 21, 2016

Off the north coast of Ie Island (with whale calf).

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 5 groups, 12 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 5 groups, 14 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

We have observed many mother and calf pairs at each of the locations today. It is very hard to photograph the flukes of whale calves for identification purposes because most of the time they will dive from the surface without raising their flukes from the water. However, there are moments when the calf makes a tail slap (raising its flukes and slapping them on the surface of the water) and at this time they expose their flukes. These are the moments we look for and we are constantly clutching our cameras trying very hard not to miss that one shot. It has been shown that the patterns on a calf’s flukes can alter when young, but once they reach two or three years old, the pattern will set and will hardly make any significant change.

Mar. 19, 2016

Off the east coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 5 groups, 11 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 3 groups, 6 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)

Today we spotted the humpback whale “F” (identification number R-844) with her calf in the waters off of Motobu. This mother and calf pair has now been spotted twice this season, previously they were seen two weeks ago in the waters off of Motobu (see March 4th blog). According to the findings at our research foundation, we know that most mothers and calves are distributed in areas where the water depth is shallow, and in areas surrounded by islands where the sea conditions are relatively stable. We were able to observe the mother and calf pair spending a day swimming slowly and lingering in the waters beside the Motobu Peninsula, Ie Island and Sesoko Island.

Mar. 17, 2016

Right in front of the aquarium. (Photo taken from the roof of the research center)

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 7 groups, 10 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 8 groups, 14 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 5 groups, 9 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

We spotted a mother and calf pair in the shallow waters right in front of the aquarium. They were also visible from the roof of the research center. This mother and calf pair were breaching (jumping) and pec slapping (slapping their fins on the surface of the water). After a while they were simply floating on the surface of the water. At times we would see the calf trying to swim over its mother’s head and they seemed to be having a comfortable and relaxed time.

Mar. 16, 2016

Mother and calf pair in Nago Bay

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 2 groups, 6 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 4 groups, 6 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 2 groups, 3 whales (0 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we spotted fewer humpback whales near Okinawa than on previous days. It seems that the whale watching season for this year is slowly coming to an end as the number of whales passing Okinawa decreases. If you haven’t had the opportunity to go whale watching yet, now is the time to go for it.

Mar. 13, 2016

Off the southwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 4 groups, 8 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 12 groups, 16 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups, 12 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we spotted “Zed” (identification number R-8) off of the northwest coast of Ie Island. This whale got its nickname due to the “Z” pattern on its right fluke. Zed had been spotted five times previously this season near the Kerama Islands, Motobu and Naha. Today is the sixth time it was spotted in Okinawa this season (the third time in Motobu). We also heard the songs of whales (a distinctive vocalization a male whale makes primarily in the breeding area). We recorded their songs and compared the flukes of the whales with previous photographs.

Mar. 12, 2016

Collecting whale skin samples

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 4 groups, 7 whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 3 groups, 6 whales (0 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups, 12 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

Sometimes there are pieces of skin floating on the water that have fallen off from the body of a humpback whale. This usually occurs when they whales breach (jump). The skin is a real treasure for researchers as it contains valuable information. For instance, by conducting a DNA analysis of the skin, we are able to determine the sex of the whale. Furthermore, we are able to determine the genetic similarity of the whales that migrate to Okinawa, Ogasawara and Hawaii based on this genetic information. That is why when our research team observe humpback whales breaching they will look carefully for these valuable “treasures” floating on the ocean surface.

Mar. 8, 2016

Off the northwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 8 groups, 10 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Motobu : 10 groups, 13 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 9 groups, 17 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we spotted around twenty bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside the humpback whales off the northwest coast of Ie Island (image on the left). There are times when we are conducting these surveys where we can observe other cetaceans. These have included species from the toothed whale family such as rough-tooth dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, false killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, and the short-finned pilot whales. For a while, the bottlenose dolphins we spotted today jumped and swam along the wave created by the research boat, then as time passed they eventually swam towards the coast.

Mar. 7, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 5 groups 6 Whales (0 pair of mother and calf)
Motobu : 8 groups 13 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 8 groups 15 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

When you say “whale watching” it often gives the impression of riding on a boat and heading out to sea, however, did you know that you can actually observe whales from land depending on the location?
Today for an example, we were able to observe two whales from the rooftop of our foundation and from the Churaumi Aquarium (a blow in the center of the image). These two humpback whales were in the waters in front of the aquarium and were peck slapping (slapping their fins on the surface of the water) and swam between Ie Island and the Motobu Peninsula heading north towards Izena Island. Each year in the northern part of Okinawa we receive reports of humpback whales that were seen from the higher ground where a view of Ie island is visible or even from the road along Nago Bay. Why not try whale watching from land on your next break or day off?

Mar. 4, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 8 groups 16 Whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 3 groups 4 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 7groups 15 whales (5 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we spotted a mother whale and her calf, seen in the image (identification number : R-844). Previously, this individual whale has been spotted near the Ogasawara Islands which is a breeding ground similar to Okinawa. She was first identified in Okinawa in 2012, then identified with a calf in 2014. The calves are also given identification numbers (year 08/R-873, year 12/R-1272, year 14/R-1435). The female whale is nicknamed “F” by whale watching parties.

Mar. 3, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 12 groups 9 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Motobu : 6 groups 12 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 9 groups 19 whales (8 pairs of mother and calf)

Can you tell what the white thing is on each side of the whale in the image? These are the long pectoral fins, the most distinctive feature of a humpback whale. Most of a humpback whale’s pectoral fins are black, however there were times where we have seen some that are predominately white. When the whales are underwater the best chance to spot their white fins is just before they reach the surface, particularly when there is sunny weather as we had today.

Mar. 2, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 5 groups 10 Whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 7 groups 13 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups 13 whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)

During our surveys we sometimes spot a humpback whale that is slightly smaller than the average grown humpback whale. The whale in the image has been identified as one of the calves that migrated with its mother the year before. This identification was possible by looking back on the migration records that have been documented. It is known that for humpback whales a calf will become independent from its mother when it reaches a year. As shown by this 1-year-old whale, even if it does not participate in breeding activities, we know that it will migrate to the waters of Okinawa yearly.

Mar. 1, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 11 groups 20 Whales (3 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 6 groups 9 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 4 groups 7 whales (1 pair of mother and calf)

Today we spotted the whale in the above photo (Identification Number:R-294) in the waters off of Motobu. This individual whale has been spotted numerous times in the waters of Okinawa and is called “Snoopy” by some of the whale watching parties. Can anyone guess why it got the nickname “Snoopy”? If you take a closer look at the flukes in the photo above, you will see that on half of the right fluke is a pattern of Snoopy facing right, and this gave the whale its nickname. There are many humpback whales that have been given friendly and unique nicknames like “Zed”, “Ayumi” and “Snoopy” due to migrating to the same waters each year. Even today we were able to spot the famous “Zed” in the waters off of the Keramas.

Feb. 28, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : - ( - )
Motobu : 12 groups 24 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 5 groups 8 whales (0 pair of mother and calf)

There are occasions where a male humpback whale swims along with a pair of mother and calf. However, the male humpback whale is not the father but merely called an “escort” and it is thought that the male whale is seeking an opportunity to mate with the mother whale.

Feb. 27, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : - ( - )
Motobu : 12 groups 19 Whales (1 pair of mother and calf)
Naha : 8 groups 21 whales (6 pairs of mother and calf)

Today we have recorded the cries of a humpback whale in the waters off of Motobu (The individual whale in the photo). Male humpback whales are known to vocalize periodically with a complex cry called a “song.” This occurs primarily in breeding areas, and the male that vocalizes is often called a “singer.” There are common characteristics in whale songs sung in a particular area, in a particular year. It is already known that the songs heard in the waters of Okinawa can have very similar characteristics. There are theories as to why the humpback whales vocalize: it is thought to be possibly courtship with females, or even to warn off another male whale, however, the definitive reasons are not clear. For those who are interested, the Churashima Foundation has recorded whale songs and several can be heard on their Facebook page.

Feb. 26, 2016

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 5 groups, 11 Whales (2 pairs of mother and calf)
Motobu : 8 groups, 12 Whales (0 pairs of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups, 14 whales (4 pairs of mother and calf)

While observing humpback whales, there are times where you can see an unusual cluster of air bubbles rising from under the water (Seen in this photo). This actually indicates a humpback whale has just exhaled underwater which creates these particular bubbles. Usually, whales including humpback whales will breathe when reaching the surface of the water, the reasons for this unusual exhaling underwater is not clear.

Feb. 22, 2016

Off the southwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 8 groups 16 Whales (4 sets of mother and calf)
Motobu : 10 groups 15 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Naha : 5 groups 12 whales (3 sets of mother and calf)

The whale in the above photo (Identification Number: R-8) has been spotted in the waters off of Motobu. This particular whale has a pattern on its flukes (tail fin) that looks like a “Z.” It is a well known whale and has been given the nickname “Zed.” This individual whale was first discovered in 1991 near Zamami island, since then it has returned every year migrating through the waters of Okinawa. This year the whale has been seen in Motobu on January 31st, near the Keramas on February 9th, and near Naha on February 18th. “Zed” is one of the most well known whales in the waters of Okinawa and many have witnessed the recognizable “Z” pattern on its flukes.

Feb. 18, 2016

Off the northwest coast of Ie island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 7 groups 12 Whales (2 sets of mother and calf)
Motobu : 9 groups 15 Whales (0 set of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups 13 whales (3 sets of mother and calf)

Today the whale in the above photo (Identification Number: R612) was spotted in the waters off the Motobu coast. This individual whale was first identified in 2006 as a whale calf. Since then it has been confirmed that this whale migrates every year to the waters of Okinawa (2006~2012,2015). Between the participants of the whale watching industry in Zamami some of them refer to the whale by the nickname “Ayumi.”

Feb. 17, 2016

A whale calf jump

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 7 groups 11 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Motobu : 7 groups 9 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Naha : 9 groups 15 whales (4 sets of mother and calf)

During today’s survey we confirmed pairs of mother and calf at all of the sea regions listed above. Okinawa is the breeding ground for humpback whales, and at times it is possible to see a whale calf (newborn) cuddling right next to their mother. It has been made clear through our foundation’s research results, that mother and calf pairs are spotted with increasing frequency from February until the end of March, the end of their migration season.

Feb. 14, 2016

Off the southwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 4 groups 8 Whales (4 sets of mother and calf)
Motobu : 9 groups 14 Whales (2 sets of mother and calf)
Naha : 2 groups 4 whales (0 sets of mother and calf)

Today we spotted the whale in the above photo (Identification Number : R796) in the waters off the coast of Motobu. This individual whale was first identified in 2006 as a whale calf. Since then we have confirmed this particular whale migrating in the years 2007,10,11,12,13, and 2015. This whale will turn 10 years old this year. By using the photos taken and matching the patterns we can calculate the age of some whales.

Feb. 11, 2016

Off the north coast of Kouri island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : -
Motobu : 7 groups 9 Whales (0 set of mother and calf)
Naha : 6 groups 12 whales (0 sets of mother and calf)

We witnessed multiple “Breaching” jumps of humpback whales in many different areas off the coast of Motobu on today’s survey. Possible reasons for humpback whales breaching is to remove parasites or for communication, however it seams the real reasons are not yet clear. Breaching is one of the big attractions for whale watching tours so that visitors can behold this mysterious and spectacular sight.

Feb. 10, 2016

Off the southwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 7 groups 15 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Motobu : 15 groups 24 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Naha : 9 groups 17 whales (3 sets of mother and calf)

Humpback whales migrate to the waters of Okinawa throughout December to April, and are in peak season from February until the middle of March. Every day, we observe increasing numbers of whales in the southwest areas off Ie island, and today we spotted six to seven groups of them already. For those who are interested, it can be a wonderful experience to actually see a humpback whale, and this is the perfect season to go on a whale watching tour.

Feb. 9, 2016

Off the southwest coast of Ie Island

[Today’s reports on humpback whales]
Kerama : 8 groups 14 Whales (2 sets of mother and calf)
Motobu : 12 groups 24 Whales (0 sets of mother and calf)
Naha : 7 groups 14 whales (4 sets of mother and calf)

Today in the waters off the coast of Motobu we spotted a humpback whale that was spotted 11 days ago (January 28th) in the waters off of Amami Island (It was confirmed by the Amami Whale and Dolphin Association – left photo). By photographing the flukes (tail fins) of whales and comparing them we are able to locate them and understand their migration. Our foundation is collaborating with researchers around the world using the images of the flukes to conduct further research in order to understand the ecology along the migration routes of the humpback whales.

Feb. 4, 2016

Today’s reports on humpback whales spotted near Okinawa

Kerama:9 groups 16 Whales (2 set of mother and calf)
Motobu:9 groups 16 Whales (1 set of mother and calf)
Naha:6 groups 12 Whales (2 sets of mother and calf)

Whilst conducting surveys in the waters around the Kerama Islands and the Motobu Peninsula our foundation also received photos of humpback whale tail flukes along with information on when they were spotted in the waters near Naha by whale watching businesses. (South-Central Whale Network)
We will continue to report on information collected from the waters around the Kerama Islands, Motobu Peninsula and Naha.

Jan. 28, 2016

Surveys of humpback whales have stated for this year!

Our foundation conducts surveys in the waters around the Kerama Islands and the Motobu Peninsula each year and a full scale survey has begun in the waters around the Kerama Islands starting today.
From the surveys done just this day we have spotted 4 groups, 9 humpback whales including a group of a mother and calf.

We are planning to update this page with information every time a humpback whale is found in the seas around Okinawa. So stay tuned.

What is a Humpback Whale?

Humpback whales are one of the largest species of baleen whale, they range in length from 12 to 14 meters and weigh around 30 to 40 tons. Bumps on their head and long pectoral fins are their distinctive features. They are known to inhabit the seas around the world and seasonally migrate for feeding and breeding. During summer they feed in the cold waters of the North Pacific such as Russia and Alaska, then during winter they migrate to Hawaii, Mexico, Okinawa and the Ogasawara Islands to breed and to raise their young in the warmer waters.

Every year the humpback whales are observed from around the end of December through to the beginning of April by the whale watching industries that are flourishing in the Kerama Islands, on the Motobu Peninsula and near Naha City.

What is a Humpback Whale?

Identifying individuals by their flukes (a whale’s tail)

The forms and patterns on the ventral surfaces of the flukes of a humpback whale are like fingerprints and vary individually. There are white flukes, black flukes, flukes with white and black mixed. Even if there are the same color the edge of the tail could be jagged which makes every individual distinct. By using this feature, identifying individual humpback whales with photographs of their flukes is now being conducted around the world.

Identifying individuals by their flukes (a whale’s tail)
Identifying individuals by their flukes (a whale’s tail)

Surveys by the Okinawa Churashima Foundation on Humpback Whales

The foundation has been and is conducting surveys of Humpback Whales in order to understand their ecology and resource condition for more than 20 years.

In all this time we have identified 1,265 humpback whales passing by the Kerama Islands and the Motobu Peninsula by identifying the individuals using gathered photographs. (2015 Present Time)
With this information we can estimate the number of humpback whales migrating and investigate their migration route. This is done by cooperating with domestic and foreign researchers along with the local people. We are also working to disseminate the survey results to the local whale watching industries and to children.

  • Surveys by the Okinawa Churashima Foundation on Humpback Whales
  • Surveys by the Okinawa Churashima Foundation on Humpback Whales
  • Surveys by the Okinawa Churashima Foundation on Humpback Whales
Okinawa Churashima Foundation Research Center
TEL:0980-48-2266( weekday 9:00 am - 6:00 pm )
FAX:0980-48-2200

 

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