A Shiretokular day for cruising!
Today was magnificent – sunshine, blue skies, barely a wisp of wind, and a flat, glassy expanse of ocean. It was, in fact, a perfect day for cruising…. which is exactly what we did!
We were told that one of the highlights when visiting Shiretoko National Park is seeing the mountainous wilderness from out in the sea. These cruises are a hugely popular way to see the remotest parts of the peninsula, especially because much of the park is inaccessible by land (unless you fancy a multi-day hike into the wilderness and are equipped with your own camping gear, bush toilet, food, water, bear bells, and bear spray*). After doing the longer “Shiretoko Cape” cruise today, we can totally understand why these cruises come so highly recommended. The views were incredible!
*Like pepper spray but for bears. Nice idea, but seriously?? As if you’d wait for the bear to get close enough that your only option is to spray it in the face?!
Our boat trip took us all the way up the Western side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, from the township of Utoro (45 minutes by bus from Shari), all the way to the very tip of the cape (see “Cape Shiretoko course” below).
Along the way we pulled into many of the small bays to get a close-up view* of the 200m high cliffs, deep caves and cascading waterfalls.
*There are a number of companies that do cruises along the Shiretoko Peninsula. We intentionally chose a company that uses a small boat as they can go much closer to the cliffs and beaches along the cape.
The sheer scale of the mountains and cliffs was mesmerising. It’s the sort of terrain that makes you feel very small, and makes you wonder at the forces of nature that created such an immense, rugged landscape.
We saw a huge number of sea birds during the cruise. There were cormorants and gulls perched on rocks and feeding on schools of small fish. We saw white-tailed sea eagles soaring high above the craggy cliffs, and kestrels gliding over the glassy surface of the sea.
Part of what makes the Shiretoko Peninsula so unique is that is it the lowest latitude in the world where sea waters freeze seasonally. This creates a unique ecosystem that spans the sea, rivers, and land. Essnetially what happens is, ever spring, phytoplankton multiply and feed off nutrients supplied by the seawater when it melts. Shellfish and fish (especially slamon) then gather in the Sea of Okhotsk around the Shiretoko Peninsula to feed on the plankton. This in turn attracts fish-eating mammals such as seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and, on land, foxes and bears. We were lucky enough to see some Minke whales during our trip, though they were a few hundred metres away.
Another highlight of the cruise was when we pulled into the inaccessible Rusha Bay and saw a young brown bear hunting for shellfish along the rocky shore.
Surprisingly there were even a few bays where tiny, wooden fishing shacks had been built. Obviously these huts are used as shelter by the salmon fishermen who work along the coastline here. The mind boggles to think what it must be like for those fishermen, when they have to seek protection from a storm in those frail wooden cabins – especially knowing there are bears roaming around on the beach looking for a tasty snack!!
Our ultimate destination was the cape itself – the very tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Out there, where the Sea of Okhotsk meets the Pacific Ocean, a lonely lighthouse stood vigil. Not that there was much to see today – it was so incredibly calm and smooth out there that at times we couldn’t see where the sea finished and the sky began.
Turning around from the cape we headed back towards Utoro, this time a bit further back from the coastline. From that distance the cliffs and mountains still looked pretty spectacular, and no less daunting in scale. Definitely a memorable day here in Shiretoko.