Pelagic Birding and Whale Watching in Japan

20-25 APRIL 2002

The rich waters surrounding Japan provide some of the best seabird and marine mammal watching opportunities in the world. During a recent visit to Japan, I was able to travel to the wonderful Ogasawara Archipelago, located 1000 kilometers south of Tokyo. The only way to reach the islands is by ship, principally the ferry the Ogasawara Maru.  Each leg takes about 25 hours.

The ferry passes within 74 km of Torishima, the main breeding locality for Short-tailed Albatross, but unfortunately this happens during the middle of the night! A slower cargo ship passes during daylight hours and is a much better bet. With the magnificent increase in the Short-tailed Albatross population, one might hope for more sightings in surrounding waters and I would be interested to learn of any Short-tailed Albatross sightings from the 'Ogasawara Maru' on its normal timetable. Periodically, local Japanese birders charter a ship to circle the island (advertised in ‘Birder’ magazine). This is a bit pricey but obviously the most certain option for those intent on seeing these birds on their home turf!

Please note that the current 'Ogasawara Maru'’ is scheduled to be replaced by a much faster boat in 2004. I'm guessing the new ship will be a giant hydrofoil (likely unsuitable for birders) as they hope to cut the sailing time to fifteen hours!! The islands themselves are fascinating and the residents are extremely generous and welcoming.

During my visit this April, the weather was pretty mixed.  I was accompanied by Naoko Tanese and Ben Wilson who helped keep watch for marine life.  We sailed into strong winds on both the outward and return legs with some areas of moderate swells, noticeable even on a ship of this size. The return trip also ran into an unpleasant band of heavy rain that lasted for several hours and made seawatching difficult. Abundant white caps hampered efforts to sight marine mammals and may have kept storm-petrel numbers down. Within the islands, the weather was windy but at least gloriously sunny.

As we edged out of the calm of Tokyo Bay into the rougher water of the open ocean, we encountered immense flocks of STREAKED SHEARWATERS with small groups of JAPANESE MURRELETS (15 total) amongst them. We also encountered several large flocks of TRISTRAM'S STORM-PETREL as well as numerous scattered individuals. The few SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS we ran into seemed intent on a rapid northward movement and zipped past the ship at great speed. In the early morning of the second day, we crossed a temperature line marked by a bizarre wall of heavy rain. Immediately we were greeted with lots of BONIN PETRELS and other warm water species such as WEDGE-TAILED SHEARWATER, BULWARKS PETREL and SOOTY TERN. TRISTRAM'S STORM-PETREL remained common except when we approached the islands. Closer to the islands we encountered BROWN BOOBY and BROWN NODDY as well as a good number of HUMPBACK WHALES. Apparently between 800 and 1000 different HUMPBACKs visit the islands each year which is phenomenal. Although we were approaching the end of the season, these whales were still much in evidence.

The highlight of the return leg was the migration of LONG-TAILED and POMARINE JAEGERS. Predominantly adults, these were the most abundant bird during the dull hours just after dawn on the second day.  Most were traveling NE, presumably heading for the arctic breeding grounds from equatorial or southern hemisphere wintering grounds.  The only Matsudaira’s Storm-Petrel of the trip was seen between Chichi-jima and Haha-jima. It was relatively close to the ship (150-200 ft) and I was struck by its large square-headed look, as well as the obvious band of white primary shafts easily visible on down strokes as well as when banking.

Haha-jima viewed from the 'Haha-jima Maru' ferry.

It is interesting to compare my observations with those of Jim Danzenbaker’s midsummer trip. His superb trip report can be found here <>. I suspect the Dazenbaker's had better weather for the ferry rides as they were able to use scopes from the deck - out of the question for us.


Black-footed Albatross - 11
Streaked Shearwater - 9,451
Wedge-tailed Shearwater - 391
Short-tailed Shearwater - 13
Bonin Petrel - 31
Bulwer's Petrel - 3
Tristram's Storm-Petrel - 3,140
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 1
Unidentified storm-petrel - 1
Brown Booby - 4
Unidentified Sterna tern (possibly Arctic or Common Tern)
Sooty Tern - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 3
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
Long-tailed Jaeger - 1
Unidentified jaeger - 1
South Polar Skua - 1
Red-necked Phalarope - 45+
Common Dolphin - 30+
Bottlenosed Dolphin - 3
Humpack Whale - 11
Mola mola - 1

WHALE WATCHING DAY (island circumnavigation)

Black-footed Albatross - 3
Wedge-tailed Shearwater - 1
Brown Booby - 200+ (including Peregrine attaching nesting birds)
Brown Noddy - 1
Humpack Whale - 10
Spinner Dolphin - 20+
Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin - 7
Manta Ray - 1
Green Turtle - 1 or 2


Black-footed Albatross - 4
Streaked Shearwater - 1
Wedge-tailed Shearwater - 819
Bannerman's Shearwater - 31
Bonin Petrel - 25
Bulwer’s Petrel - 2
Tristram'’s Storm-Petrel - 10
Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel - 1
Brown Booby - 292
Sooty Tern - 5
Brown Noddy - 2
Humpback Whale - 4

A colony of Brown Booby nested on this small islet at the southern tip of Haha-jima.


Black-footed Albatross - 4
Laysan Albatross - 1
Streaked Shearwater - 12,927!!
Wedge-tailed Shearwater - 531
Short-tailed Shearwater - 1
Bonin Petrel - 2
Tristram's Storm-Petrel - 329
Unidentified storm-petrel - 1
Brown Booby - 5
Sooty Tern - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 6
Long-tailed Jaeger - 26
Unidentified jaeger - 1
Skua spp. ? 1 (too distant for safe identification)

Travel Information: The Ogasawara Islands are composed of about 30 small rocky islands, only two of which are inhabited: Chichi-jima, about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo, and Haha-jima, 50 kilometers farther south. The population is about 2,300 totally. The 25-hour cruise from Tokyo departs four to six times a month. The cost ranges from ¥22,570 to ¥56,490 (one way).

The 'Ogasawara Maru' at dock in Futami Port, Chichi-jima.

For more information or bookings contact: Ogasawara Kaiun K.K., Asahi Bldg., 5-29-19 Shiba, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 108-0014, Japan. Phone. +81(Japan)-3-3451-5171.

There are 42 inns on Chichi-jima and 12 on Haha-jima, costing about ¥6,500 - 8,000 per person often with wonderful Japanese-style breakfast and dinner included. For general tourism information contact the Ogasawara Tourist Association, Chichi-jima, Ogasawara-mura, Tokyo, 100-2101, Japan. Phone. +81 (Japan)-4998-2-2587 Fax. +81 (Japan)-4998-2-3555.

Whale watching: Together with scuba diving and sport fishing this has become a major industry on the islands, with 20 or so small companies in operation.  We spent a day with 'SeaTac' who were superb. Most are members of the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association (OWA) which has an office in the main town on Chichi-jima. The center offers latest information on whale sightings and can help with bookings.

The OWA can be contacted at Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, Chichi-jima, Ogasawara-mura, Tokyo, 100-2101, Japan. Ph. +81(Japan)-4998-2-3215 Fax. +81 (Japan)-4998-2-3500. On the web go to:

Postscript: I would love to hear from others who've visited these islands or done any sea birding and whale watching in Japan.

Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.

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