Patrolling the seas from on high


On February 28 this year, I was invited by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force base at Hachinohe to give a lecture on naval history to the officers of Fleet Air Wing Two. So for me it was to be a sudden switch from the coral seas and pleasant climate of Okinawa (with which I regaled you in this column last month), to the wintery snows of Aomori Prefecture.

“Wait a minute,” some will say, “what’s Old Nic doing talking about the navy?”

Well, the Nicols have been a navy family in a pretty much unbroken line back to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. My Dad’s name was James Nelson Nicol, although admittedly, the Nelson part came from the fact that granddad Nicol was serving aboard the battleship HMS Nelson when Dad was born.

As for myself, although I didn’t join the navy, I have spent a lot of time at sea, beginning with a stint as a marine mammal technician with the Arctic Biological Station, Fisheries Research Board of Canada, when I worked on seals and whales. I was an observer aboard whaling ships off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada. As well, I lived in the whaling town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture for a year, sailed down to the Antarctic with the Japanese whaling fleet, attended university in Japan studying fisheries, and have made documentaries all over the world on all kinds of sea-related topics. Besides that I’ve written historical novels and done a lot of research not only on whaling, but also on the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-21). It appears that those novels have become quite popular with the men of the modern Japanese navy, even if they’re not supposed to call themselves that.

Bonus air miles

As a bonus for giving the lecture, I got to fly on a routine anti-submarine patrol aboard a P-3C, the name of a turbo-propeller aircraft built under license in Japan by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. The original aircraft were American, built by Lockheed. The P-3C weighs 56,000 kg and has four engines that deliver 4,910 horsepower each. It can fly at 395 knots. (One “knot” is the speed of 1 nautical mile per hour. A nautical mile is 1.1516 statute miles. If you think in kilometers, that’s your fault mate!) [Editor’s note: As a rule of thumb, 8 km is roughly equal to 5 miles.]

We took off from Hachinohe at 11.30 a.m., getting off the ground in 19 seconds before heading north, with Lake Towada in clear view to port. We crossed Mutsu Bay where there is a perfectly sheltered little harbor on the Shimokita Peninsula side that used to be a navy base and is still used by the coast guard and by the MSDF. We could see four gray-painted warships tied up below as we passed over to cross the peninsula and head toward Chitose in Hokkaido.

The weather was clear and visibility was perfect. As we were flying at just 11,000 feet (3,350 meters), the view was fabulous. We crossed Hokkaido, and witnessed the magnificent spectacle of the peaks of the Daisetsu National Park, gleaming with snow beneath us as we headed for the coast. We soon passed over the town of Kitami, then the fishing and whaling port of Abashiri, which is perhaps better known for its high-security prison, where the more active members of the yakuza go to complete their education.

At 12:21 we started to descend, with great views of the frozen coastal lakes of Saroma and Notoro. The Sea of Okhotsk was open as we descended to a mere 500 feet (150 meters) above the water. At 12:30 we began to see patches of sea ice, then five minutes later we came to a large sea-ice front. Here we descended to 300 feet (90 meters), which I can tell you doesn’t feel very far up! It was a bit misty, and I was straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of seals, sea eagles and other birds. To me, though, the ice looked very thin and all broken up, certainly not stable enough for a seal to pup on.

The equipment aboard the plane is very sensitive and will pick out any large mass of metal under the water. If it does so, then the aircraft drops an acoustic buoy before climbing a bit to circle and listen. If they pick up the sounds of a submarine, then their computerized sensors will not only tell them whose it is, but which particular vessel it is. Things can get serious then, because next they would drop a sonar buoy that pings out a signal that bounces off the submarine and transmits back its exact position, direction and speed. The sonar also gives away the fact that the submarine has been detected, and if its captain doesn’t like that it will begin evasive actions.

If the orders are given, and God forbid this ever happens, then the P-3C would go right down close to the water again, tracking the submarine until the order is given to drop a torpedo that will home in on the target and explode. If, somehow, the submarine escapes the first torpedo then the aircraft carries seven more. We did a few practice runs through this procedure, and although I knew it was not for real, I felt very tense.

After that we turned to fly along the Shiretoko Peninsula of northeast Hokkaido at the height of the wave-dashed cliffs where, a few years before, I had filmed bears and deer on the slopes above. Then we gained altitude to cross land again, enjoying a great view of frozen Kussharo Lake before heading out over Akeshu Bay.

A little way out to sea we picked up a ship dead in the water. Homing in on it we saw that it was a Russian fishing vessel, very scruffy and looking suspicious as it didn’t seem to be fishing. We circled and reported its location before continuing out over the sea before descending to just 200 feet (60 meters) for torpedo-dropping practice. I stood just above the bomb bay as it opened, looking through a glass viewing port. We were doing 45-degree turns at this low altitude, and I can tell you, I was really hoping the pilots knew what they were doing!

Touchdown and takeoff

Then we headed back to the base, but it wasn’t over yet. We had to do a touchdown and immediate takeoff practice.

The total flight time was 3 hours, and for most of it I was right up in the cockpit keeping a sharp lookout for any wildlife. It seemed to me that the sea ice was a lot sparser than I had noted in previous years of observing from the shore of from a ship. My friends in Canada tell me that the sea ice is dwindling there, which will have a serious impact on the life and pupping of ringed seals — and therefore on the survival of polar bears.

This patrol gave me a lot of things to think about. It wasn’t my first, by the way, because I have also flown on a southern patrol. Foreign submarines are constantly probing Japanese waters and the men and women who watch out for them do a harrowing, demanding and mostly thankless task. I for one feel a great deal of respect for them.