From early February until around mid-March, it is possible to see drift ice floating off the north-eastern coast of Hokkaido. This natural phenomenon occurs when ice breaks off the frozen Amur river in Russia, and them drifts across the Okhotsk Sea towards Hokkaido, creating stunning scenery which cannot be seen elsewhere in Japan.
The drift ice, which stretches out as far as the eye can see across the surface of the water, is surprisingly light. The unique properties of the drift ice which float around the coast of Hokkaido make it possible for ships to sail around the frozen area, forging a path directly through the ice. Some ships offer drift ice tours, allowing visitors to board a boat and head out onto the frozen sea for a winter experience unique to Hokkaido!
Apart from the incredible scenery, the east of Hokkaido is known for its great bird-watching opportunities. Still largely unknown outside of Japan, each winter a huge number of uncommon sea birds flock to the east coast of Hokkaido, and it is not at all unusual to see rare sea eagles such as the White-tailed eagle and the Steller’s sea eagle, which has been designated a “National Treasure” of Japan.
Due to the pollack fishing which is carried out in the area during the winter, White-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles gather in large numbers around the coast, waiting atop the drift ice for a chance too swoop in and claim some of the catch. As such, if you board a drift ice and nature watching cruise ship there is a stunning 90 percent chance of you catching a sight of these rare birds!
Although there are several drift ice/wildlife cruises available, this time we went with the Shiretoko Wildlife Cruise, which departs on its two hour long round-trip from Rausu three times a day during the winter season (January to March). The experienced team on board decide the best route to take on the day based on weather conditions and previous sightings to maximize the chances of encountering wildlife during the trip.
We set off just before sunrise on the earliest trip of the day, with the sun rising just as we made it out of the dock. Straight away we could see a few sea eagles in the distance, silhouetted against an orange sky.
An endangered species, there are few Steller’s sea eagles worldwide, however it is said that as many as 2,000 birds make their way to this small section of Japan every winter. As we moved further out to sea the sheer number of sea eagles which visit the area became apparent, with at least 30 White-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles swooping down into the water to pick up fish just a few meters away from the boat.
Featuring great views of the eagles in their natural environment, this trip is excellent for nature lovers and aspiring wildlife photographers alike. Surrounded by keep photographers sporting huge cameras which looked to me a lot like dangerous weapons of mass-destruction, I felt a bit out of my depth with my own little DSLR. However, the birds came so close to the ship that I had no problems at all taking some great shots with a 300mm lens. In fact, even a modern smart phone with a half decent camera could capture some great shots with a bit of patience!
NOTE: Hokkaido’s temperatures can drop down to around -20 degrees during the night in the winter, so it’s important to remember to dress appropriately for the cruise with a hat, gloves, and several layers of warm clothing, particularly if you plan to board in the early morning. The boat has an indoors cabin to warm up in, however you won’t want to tear your eyes away from the scenery above deck for one moment!
Bonus: The Shiretoko Wildlife cruise also runs through the summer, during which time it is possible to see some amazing sea creatures such as whales and dolphins!
For more information and booking check out the Shiretoko Wildlife Cruise Homepage: https://www.e-shiretoko.com/en/
To find out more about East Hokkaido check out our webpage: https://en.visit-hokkaido.jp/destinations/eastern_hokkaido
Author: Phoenix Scotney, Coordinator of International Relations at Hokkaido Tourism Organization.