My first Research Trip in Japan
It was my second New Years in Japan and I had been assisting with the local university’s research for 8 months when the professor invited me on a research trip to an island I hadn’t even heard of. Until then my work had kept me on dry land analyzing underwater footage but I was very keen to test out the waters of Japan and see more cetacean species for myself. Amami Oshima is a small, subtropical island in southern Japan, situated in the Pacific Ocean between Kyushu and Okinawa. It’s a beautiful, unique place with clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and, most importantly, a range of cetacean species. We were headed to the island in search of Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins to explore the possibilities of continuing previous research at this site. I had seen this species many times on video but this would be the first time with my own eyes.
At first sight Amami is strikingly different to mainland Japan. The roads are lined with vast green shades of trees that give the island an instant tropical feel. After being welcomed by a traditional dish of Keihan (chicken soup poured over rice) we spent the day checking out the ocean, keeping our eyes peeled for any passing humpbacks, and testing out the drone.
After a night of communal Japanese style living, we headed out to sea in search of the dolphins. Although the presence of these dolphins has been known since the 70's it was only between 2007 - 2013 that a thorough investigation of the distribution and identification of this species was carried out. One of the professors on the trip had been part of that study and so guided the captain to the familiar hot spots. It was a windy day with choppy seas and took us some time before we came across a pod. As soon as we spotted the distinctive dorsal fins surface we got to work taking photos for identification, documenting group size, the GPS location and sea conditions. The group of around 20 individuals were inactive at the surface and only stayed in the area for a couple of minutes. Amami's bottlenose dolphin pod sizes are similar to other dolphin groups living in Japanese waters. Group sizes tend to differ from one side of the island to the other depending on dolphin behaviour, usually forming larger groups when chasing prey together. As the wind picked up, the captain decided to head back to shore.
Back at the apartment we sorted through the photos, categorizing them in order of photo quality and usability and comparing any marked dorsal fins with the Amami Island catalogue, from the 2007-2013 study, for any potential rematches. In the evening we were treated to a feast by the captain and his family. The two professors and the students each gave a presentation on their own research, from Indo-pacific bottlenose socio-sexual behaviour to comparative research on dolphin yawns.
The university I voluntarily work for is famous for their tuna farms, one of which is situated on Amami Island. The fisherman there had reported dolphins attempting to steal a fish or two from the farms, eventually resulting in the use of an acoustic deterrent device to keep the dolphins away, an example of the ongoing conflict between man and nature. We went to record drone footage of the sea pens in which the fish are raised and on the way were wowed by the luminous blues of the surrounding vast ocean.
That evening we were joined by Amami Island’s expert wildlife guide who took us on a night tour of the forest to spot some of the indigenous Amami wildlife. Amami-Oshima is unique in that the majority of its diverse flora and fauna are endemic rare species. As the guide slowly crept the car through the deep darkness of the woods, we could hear the night time howls and cries of the nocturnal creatures that lived there. Our first sighting was a gorgeous little Ryukyu Scops Owl, a tiny, beautiful bird with large yellow eyes, perched on top of a telephone wire. We were also lucky enough to spot the famous Amami Black Rabbit scuttling through the undergrowth and, not so lucky for a rat-phobic like me, a Ryukyu long-tailed giant rat climbing up a tree. It was a unique and captivating experience.
To end our research trip we tried our luck finding a humpback whale, which migrate through the area every winter to their warmer breeding grounds. The seas were rough and practically deserted. We searched for hours without whales but fortunately encountered a group of Pantropical spotted dolphins passing by on their journey through the turbulent waves.
My time on Amami Island had come to an end but had certainly left its mark. A unique, tropical paradise which I can only hope to revisit one day. Amami had given me a unique taste of Japanese island life and an inside look into the world of Japanese cetacean research.
By Leanne Dixon