Trip Report: sperm whale expedition to Ogasawara, Japan

Update 1: October 11, 2009

We arrived in the Ogasawara Islands two days ago after enduring a typhoon in Toyko and an arduous 25.5-hour ferry ride. Ogasawara is 1000km due south of Tokyo and sits, isolated, at approximately the same latitude as Okinawa. As the ferry approached land, Tony Wu translated what was being broadcast over the ship-wide speaker system.

"There's another typhoon coming, and it's supposed to hit tomorrow."

Two typhoons in four days?! Given the prospect what high winds and huge swells might do to the tiny island we had just set foot on, an urgency suddenly materialized to get out onto the ocean as soon as possible. The six of us settled in at our modest accommodation for about an hour before heading out on our 42-foot dive vessel (which is very nice). Sea-Tac, the local operator whose vessel we chartered, is very knowledgeable about sperm whales and drove us east to a ridge line in about 1000 meters of water.

The so-called "heart-shaped rock" in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan

Immediately upon arriving at the ridge line, we saw our first blow -- my first sperm whale! I am used to the high, misty blows of baleen whales like humpbacks and was startled by how gurgly a sperm whale's breath is. It shoots out in a water-filled spray at a 45-degree angle.

Luckily, we were able to do more than just whale watch from the boat. Because we are all on permits, we are allowed to get into the water. We slipped carefully into the water and were immediately buzzed by two female sperm whales. In this photo, they are exposing their underbellies:

Two sperm whales, Ogasawara Islands, Japan

Within two hours of boarding the boat, all of us managed to get a few decent images of sperm whales! It was already mid-afternoon by then and clouds had gathered above us, taking away the precious light that photographers need for a decent underwater image. Soon, it was too dark for photography, and we headed back to shore. But -- success on the first day! We were all on a high.

Rainbow, Ogasawara Islands, Japan

Tony and Emiko are our lifelines in the Ogasawara Islands. Very little English is spoken here, and we haven't seen any other people who look like that might be foreigners. We had dinner at a cute little Hawaiian-themed restaurant and ordered at least one of pretty much everything on the menu. Douglas Seifert, whose portfolio will be featured in issue 7 of Wetpixel Quarterly, discovered that the restaurant had shiso peppers on the menu and wasn't satisfied until we had cleaned off 3 plates of the little salted gems.

The next morning, we went out to one of the few grocery stores on the island to buy bento boxes (prepared meals) for the day. We knew that strong winds were coming from the north-west, but decided to give the sperm whales a try anyway. Sure enough, winds and swells picked up as we rounded the protective corner of the island, and by the time we reached the ridge, our boat was being thrown around mercilessly. But we had come all this way to swim with sperm whales, and decided to stay out there despite poor conditions. Luckily, we were rewarded with some close encounters. One sperm whale swam right up to to me and stopped just meters away. I froze. I have experience with humpback whales, but was at a total loss as to what I was supposed to when confronted with the business end of the largest predator on the planet. She approached head-on, looking like an unidentifiable, floating lump, turned, and stared. Then, she suddenly flipped upside-down and splashed around for a bit before swimming off, her powerful fluke pumping up and down slowly.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Ogasawara Islands, Japan

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Ogasawara Islands, Japan

Looking back at the metadata in the images, the entire approach and departure only lasted 30 seconds -- every second of it was truly magical!

The typhoon has turned away from us, but the effects of the storm on the ocean may force us to take the next day or two off. I'll report back the next time Douglas allows me to steal his Blackberry, which I'm using to send this message (AT&T works here, but Verizon doesn't).

Update 2: October 14, 2009

The typhoon to the east continued to throw huge swells into Ogasawara, resulting in extremely difficult conditions during our next couple of days out at sea. On day 3, we decided that the weather was too bad to make it out to the sperm whale area, so we turned around and stayed in the protection of the island's lee. Luckily, we found a school of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in the bay. Swimming with these dolphins are one of the reasons Japanese tourists flock to Ogasawara by the hundreds in high season, and when we jumped in, we could immediately see why. The dolphins simply swam through our small group of snorkelers, allowing us to get within mere feet of them.

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) off of Chichijima, Ogasawara Islands, Japan

The dolphins appeared to still be partially asleep; one of them did do a few loopy loops with Emiko when she dove down to play, but quickly returned to the pod as they drifted lazily out into the open ocean where we were unable to go due to the aforementioned enormous swells. Tony attempted to lure some of the dolphins in by taking off his shirt and flexing (we all swooned at the sight of his bare pectorals); I'm not sure that his muscly technique worked to his satisfaction, but Tony did come back with a fantastic shot of the entire pod.

Tony Wu with Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) off of Chichijima in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan

The next day (day 4), we awoke to beautiful blue skies and relatively calm seas. We motored out on the Dancing Whale to the 1000m ridge and found that the wind and chop of the previous day had vanished. There were still large swells -- remnants of the typhoon to the east -- but they rolled in gently and were easy to manage.

What a difference a few days makes!

What a difference a few days makes!

And so, we had both sunshine and workable seas, but it turned out that there were no sperm whales to be found. The oceans were quiet both to our eyes and to the ears of the hydrophone Sea-Tac uses to listen to sperm whale activity (they echo-locate loudly -- the popping, crackling, and wheezing cannot be missed). The most exciting feature of the day was the spit-up remains of a large pelagic octopus. Tony says that this sort of thing is relatively common in Ogasawara, since the sperm whales are here eating all sorts of deep-water cephalopods.

The remains of a large, pelagic octopus, presumably spit up by a sperm whale.

Today (day 5) was absolutely gorgeous! The sun was shining brightly, and the ocean was nearly flat calm. Best of all, sperm whale activity was off the charts. We followed individuals and mother/calf pairs around for awhile before stumbling serendipitously into frenetic bird activity. Excited, we jumped into the water and discovered the scattered remains of a large squid.

Squid remains were scattered in a trail behind a group of sperm whales -- check out the teeth on the suckers!

It looked as if the squid was torn apart in relatively shallow water. As we floated around investigating squid remains, four sperm whales surfaced not far from us. Soon after, they were joined by a mother and calf we had been in the water with earlier in the day. We had ourselves a social group -- very exciting! In the six years Douglas spent with sperm whales in the Azores, he only witnessed four social groups, so having one materialize on day 5 of our trip was indeed lucky. But it gets better: when we first saw the group underwater, we noticed that the largest female of the group was swimming with her mouth open -- strange, to be sure. Upon closer inspection, we noticed that she had a large balled-up squid in her mouth! I'm told that this is extremely rare to see, and even rarer to see in a photo. It's possible that this is an Architeuthis giant squid, but it's impossible to tell.

Six sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) dive down following a large female, who has a balled-up giant squid in her mouth. If you're counting, the 6th sperm whale is a small calf hiding behind the large female. (Ogasawara Islands, Japan)

We spent the rest of the afternoon making jumps on the social group. They didn't seem to mind our presence that much, but none of the whales took any interest in us, meaning that all of our encounters consisted of slow, single passes. Still, we were all on a high -- most of us managed to get shots with all six sperm whales in a single frame.

We also had some really close encounters. I found that my Tokina 17mm lens (full frame) was not quite wide enough for sperm whales that decided to get really close, but I did manage to get a few shots of them just filling the frame (also very close!).

Earlier in the day, Tony, Emiko and Douglas swam madly while following a seemingly bored sperm whale, which then dove down a bit, turned around, and surfaced within just a few feet of them. It must have been rather exciting to have the largest predator in the world investigating from below!


I love Ogasawara. It has the small island charm of Hawaii without the feeling of being overdeveloped and overrun by tourists. The ferry does potentially bring in hundreds of tourists each week, but it is typically only here for a few days at a time before it returns to Tokyo, meaning that there are contiguous days in which the town gets really sleepy -- perfect, for my tastes. And speaking of tastes, we have been going to a new restaurant each day, and have found local food to be incredibly good.

Everything in Ogasawara is cetacean-themed.

I wish I could post more photos of Ogasawara now, but I'll have to save them for a longer trip report. There is almost no internet access here, and using Douglas' Blackberry to send updates has its limits.

Update 3: October 17, 2009

Those of you reading these updates might think that it's easy to find and photograph a sperm whale underwater. I assure you that it is not. During this expedition, we spent days on the ocean looking for minuscule signs of life above the surface. Noticing a single blow in the huge expanse of ocean extending out to the horizon can mean the difference between success and failure. The crew of Sea-Tac's Dancing Whale work hard, stopping regularly to listen to the ocean via hydrophone. Everything has to be right in order for a photographer to capture a good shot: weather, equipment, positioning, and above all, the presence of the animal(s)!

Photographer Tony Wu in the distance, with a diving sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Ogasawara Islands, Japan

The three days since the last web update have been rather slow, but the action was so good for the first few days that I consider anything more to be a bonus. We spotted beaked whales on the surface twice. Underwater photographs of beaked whales are extremely rare, and indeed, such images continue to elude our group because the whales dove immediately and didn't surface anywhere close. But we did have great luck (topside) with pantropical spotted dolphins, 2-3 dozen of which escorted our vessel for hours, riding the bow wave and jumping out of the water in every direction.

Two pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) jumping out of the water. Ogasawara Islands, Japan.

We dropped into the water a couple of times and confirmed what we had already known: these dolphins are FAST, and they want nothing to do with snorkelers.

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan.

On October 16, we wandered across a huge, solitary sperm whale. It was at least 15 meters long, and the crew quickly identified it as being a large male (by size, presumably). I don't have much experience with sperm whales, but aside from the size, I noticed that this whale's head had huge bulges protruding from it (to hold the spermiceti organ), and that its fluke was quite large. We dropped in a few times and swam out to greet him, and each time, he let us get fairly close before going into a slow dive. It wasn't that he wouldn't tolerate our presence; rather, it was that he stayed just out of good photography distance! As a reminder, we are on permit in Ogasawara, which allows us to get into the water with sperm whales.

During our last drop, the whale went into a shallow dive again. I thought the encounter was over, but then noticed that he had leveled out not far below the surface. I continued to swim ahead, leaving the rest of the group behind. Less than a minute later, the sperm whale surfaced... and slowly turned toward me! I stopped swimming immediately, because this guy was rather gigantic and I wasn't quite sure what his intentions were going to be. As he swam closer, his huge form nearly blotted out the sun, and I thought, "Now, THIS is a whale." -- the spermiceti bulges in his head made him look like a proper sperm whale, like the ones I saw in cartoons and illustrations as a kid.

Look at the bulge in the head of this 15-meter male sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Males sperm whales in Ogasawara are both rare and shy.

Then, as all of the Ogasawaran sperm whales have done, he rolled slightly sideways, exposing his belly and jaw, presumably to get a better look at me. Both of us froze, staring at each other, and after 20 seconds, he swam off with purpose, pumping his massive fluke up and down a few times as he rotated into a gentle dive. Wow.

An enormous 15-meter male sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Males sperm whales in Ogasawara are both rare and shy.

As I have said before, Ogasawara is a magical place. Douglas, Emily, Julia, Tony and Emiko have decided to extend their stay for another six days (one ferry cycle), but I must head home, so I will board the long ferry back to Tokyo tomorrow.

Group shot: Makoto Takahashi (captain), Tomoko Takahashi, Julia Sumerling, Douglas Seifert, Emily Irving, Emiko Miyazaki, Tony Wu, Eric Cheng, Shiho, and crew member

I never imagined that the first Wetpixel sperm whale expedition would be such a success, and hope to come back to the island soon. It is unclear whether we will be given a permit for another expedition, but we will certainly try to obtain one! When we know, we'll certainly post details; as always, we'll announce it first via the Wetpixel mailing list.

Beautiful sunset from a lookout point on Chichijima, Ogasawara Islands, Japan

I'll post one more update (soon), which will include some images from our limited time on land in Ogasawara!

Douglas goes berzerk at the ramen house

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