Whichever way you cut it, dolphins are big in Japan. Appreciation for the cheesy grinning mammals takes almost every imaginable form. For example, on the weekend before the cinema release of the US documentary The Cove – an exposé of the traditional dolphin massacre in the Pacific village of Taiji – I swam with a pod of wild dolphins in the gorgeous cyan waters of … Tokyo.
The exact site of this sublime experience is Mikurajima, a small volcanic outcrop that’s officially a district of Tokyo, albeit an overnight boat ride south. It’s home to some 130 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, who convincingly demonstrate there may be no better salve for those petty urban peeves than to don a snorkel and goggles and have one of them taunt you to dive with it until your ears and lungs begin to pop.
So far, the dolphins tolerate visitors, and have been known to stick around for 15 or 20 minutes, eyeballing you, gently twisting and rolling, saying “eek!” and so on. But tourist numbers are rising and what used to be a little publicised pilgrimage for those in the know has become a mini-industry that swells the island’s population by one third through the warmer months. Despite agreements among residents that keep the dolphin-swims running smoothly, it seems that if fortune is to continue smiling on the islanders, there may have to be more rules.
At present visitors are served by around a dozen small open boats that seat about eight passengers. Most of the boat operators also run Mikurajima’s nine inns, at which you are generally obliged to stay. There are virtually no shops, only a couple of eateries and, apart from walking in the dense forests (an experience not unlike entering one of the dark, enchanting backdrops of a Miyazaki anime), almost no attractions apart from the dolphins.
With such a focus on the mammals, conditions can sometimes be cramped, particularly when rough weather renders half the island waters inaccessible, as it did on our visit. Add to this the additional crowding of larger tourist boats from neighbouring Miyakejima – at least one of them on this occasion spewed a massive black cloud of diesel exhaust as it made a surging U-turn near the dolphins – and you have the makings of some tension.
“There have been cases of bad manners,” says second-generation boatman Shingo Hirose. “But in general we all get on.”
Whether the dolphins enjoy the attention is harder to gauge. At the tourist information centre, a guide whose name is also Hirose (like one third of the islanders – it has been an insulated community) says dolphin numbers have dropped. “We hope they don’t move away,” he said.
So do we. And in the sad event they do, let’s hope they avoid “the cove”.