The Amakusa Islands in Kumamoto are known for their unique culture, interesting geological formations, beautiful green hills — and, most importantly, the wild dolphins that live just off the shore. Estimates put the number of Minami bottlenose dolphins (also called Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins) in the area at 200 to 300. On a trip, you can expect to see anywhere from 50 and 200 dolphins swimming together in a group called a pod.
Numerous companies offer boat tours out to see the dolphins. Often, the dolphins swim right up to your boat, giving you the chance to see them up close. Tours typically last about one hour and are on a small boat manned by a local fisherman who knows the top spots to see dolphins and who will provide you with more information about the ecology of the area.
The vast majority of visitors who take these tours do see dolphins. However, if you want to improve your chances, look for a boat tour with an encounter rate of 98% or more. Some tours even offer guests who are unlucky enough to not see any dolphins a free ticket to come back another day. You may also like to look for a boat that has an underwater microphone because as the dolphins approach your vessel, you’ll be able to hear them chattering under the water.
The dolphins live in Amakusa year round, but you can expect a different experience depending on when you go. They are particularly active in the summer as well as in the winter, when the waves are at their largest — the dolphins enjoy surfing these swells. Since the dolphins mostly breed in the fall and winter, the babies tend to become active in the spring. Finally, the dolphins are the most peaceful in the fall, when you may like to consider taking a boat out at sunset for a picturesque scene.
It’s always worth checking the weather forecast before you book a tour. Some tours will still go ahead in light rain (and may even be able to provide you with a raincoat), but it’s unsafe for boats to leave in rough weather.
Amakusa is about 60 kilometers to the west of Kumamoto city. It’s made up of two large islands and hundreds of smaller ones. The best place to see the dolphins is the north. Many of the tours leave from Tsuji-shima (one of the smaller islands), whereas some leave from Futae Port, which is at the northern-most point of Shimoshima Island, the largest island of Amakusa.
Shimoshima is connected to mainland Kumamoto by bridges, meaning you can drive to your tour. There are also buses leaving every hour or two. To reach the smaller islands like Tsuji-shima, you’ll need to take a ferry.
Seeing wild dolphins is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only will you see dolphins as they behave in their natural environment, you’ll have the chance to enjoy some time out on the water and perhaps even spend a few hours exploring more of the Amakusa Islands.