AMAKUSA, KUMAMOTO PREF. - Hiromi Takasaki has loved dolphins for as long as she can remember.
While in high school, she learned about the aquatic mammal through a program at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida, and since then she has enjoyed dolphin watching in various places at home and abroad, including islands off the Izu Peninsula, the Bahamas and Hawaii.
But when she visited tiny Tsuji Island in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 2015, she was stunned.
“Almost every time you go dolphin watching here, you can see wild dolphins right after the boat sails out into the ocean,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it in the world.”
Charmed by the dolphins, Takasaki last year moved to the island, which has a coastline of about 4 kilometers, some 550 residents and is known for its fishing industry.
Takasaki and seven others, including dolphin-watching tour operators and technology experts, last month set up a research center on the island named Amakusa Dolphin Lab.
She hopes it will be a base for dolphin research and the promotion of sustainable tourism.
Nearly 200 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are believed to live in waters off Tsuji Island. With a high chance of encountering dolphins, tours are already popular here and draw about 80,000 tourists a year.
But Takasaki, who now works as a guide for dolphin watching, thinks the current format of such tours doesn’t capitalize on the full potential of the industry.
“More tourists will keep coming back if you give lectures about how dolphins live in the area or include dolphin watching on tours of local islands,” she says.
Amakusa Dolphin Lab plans to launch a study to identify dolphins in the area individually, learn how many live in the area and monitor how the population changes.
Dolphins are usually identified through photos of their dorsal fins. The laboratory, however, is considering using software that shoots video with a camera installed on the boat and automatically identifies them.
Currently, there is no consensus on dolphin-watching protocol, including how close boats should approach them. At times, as many as 10 boats may chase the same group of animals, drawing criticism online.
To improve on the status quo, the laboratory is planning to compile guidelines for tour operators and train guides based on the outcome of its planned study.
“Around Tsuji Island, fishermen often dive to harvest marine products. They haven’t treated dolphins as a nuisance and coexist with them,” Takasaki says. “Through the lab, I want to show the world that Amakusa is a special place where nature and human beings can live in harmony.”