• Leanne Rosser

Risso's dolphins - Wakayama

It had been almost a year since my last dolphin encounter. My days scanning the Welsh seas for bottlenose dolphins with Sea Watch Foundation seemed so far from my life in Osaka. I had to get a dolphin fix quick!


Finding a reliable dolphin watching company proved difficult, partly due to language barriers but also, considering the diversity of species around Japan, opportunities to see them in the wild are limited. The list of dolphinariums here far outweighs that of watching companies so the idea of witnessing these extraordinary creatures in their natural environment appears to be a relatively new and less-popular concept than viewing them in captivity. Osaka’s closest access to the open Pacific Ocean is Wakayama prefecture, a world away from the bustling city. It encapsulates the beautiful rural side of Japan and also happens to be a great place to spot a wonderful variety of cetaceans. Leviathan sperm whales pass through in the spring, pilot whales, humpback whales, a number of dolphin species and even the mysterious Cuvier’s beaked whale can be spotted, all chasing the Kuroshio current that brings warm water and plentiful feeding opportunities. I found a whale watching company that focused on the star of these waters, the sperm whale, and hopped on a boat from a sleepy port in Nachikatsuura to see what fins I could find.

Sunrise at the sleepy port

I had come for the Risso’s, a species I had been longing to see for a while but proved elusive back in the UK. In Japanese they are called ハナゴンドイルカ (Hanagondo Iruka) which loosely translates as ‘flowery big-head', an obviously fantastic name! They are unique looking cetaceans recognisable by their bulbous heads and distinctive white scars which they accumulate throughout their life. These scars are caused by social interactions and mating conflicts with other Risso’s and by encounters with the squid on which they feed. Risso's don't have any teeth in their upper jaw and swallow their prey whole, so the 7 pairs of teeth they have in their lower jaw are primarily used to add to each others scar collection.

Risso's scars caused by social interactions

With the sea wind in my face and the bobbing of the boat on the blue waves, I felt at home again. I was very excited at the possibility of spotting a species I hadn't seen yet. The sea was calm, with only a few other boats out, some also hoping to find dolphins. The captain spoke and the engine halted. We veered off course and caught sight of a dolphin-shaped figure soaring through the air, except it wasn't a dolphin, it was a gigantic tuna! Clearly this was a good spot for large predators. Risso's are usually quite active at the surface so it wasn't long before we spotted their tall, pointed dorsal fins slicing through the waves. At 4m long they are the largest of the dolphin-named species. We came across a group of around 8 individuals breaching, synchronised swimming and speedily skimming along the surface, a behaviour I hadn’t observed in bottlenose dolphins. Up close you can see how striking these cetaceans are, the swirls and curves of their scars really catch your eye. They flaunted their incredible agility and gave us just a glimpse into their world and their group life. It was a truly thrilling encounter with a fascinating species that I can only hope to study and learn more about.

The scarred body and tall, curved dorsal fin characteristic of the Risso's dolphin

Yet instead of preserving these spectacular dolphins, Wakayama and the small fishing town of Taiji has become renowned for its hunting of Risso’s and many other dolphin species. This unsustainable, outdated and unnecessary practice is backed by the Japanese government but largely opposed by the rest of the international community. The dolphins are killed for their meat, (which is deemed to be toxic due to the build up of chemical pollutants in the marine ecosystem) and as a culling device in a misguided attempt to counteract the global overfishing problem and improve fish stocks. More recently, these dolphin drives are fueled by the demand for aquarium dolphins, whereby wild dolphins are captured and trained, and then sent to dolphinariums. With news of a five-year deal being made with China to supply hundreds of live dolphins, I don’t see these drives ending anytime soon. The argument from Taiji is that the practice of dolphin and whale hunting is a traditional part of their maritime culture. However, when these fishermen first started hunting cetaceans they were not powered by motorised boats and they were not being paid large amounts of money to sell these wild animals. This is a complex issue, complicated further by cultural differences in attitudes towards animal welfare and conservation, and one that I feel compelled to explore later in greater detail in another post, but for now it is important that at the very least, we all avoid dolphinariums and explore effective ways to bring about a cultural change in attitudes regarding the exploitation and annihilation of Japan’s cetaceans.

Wild and free

By Leanne Dixon


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