SAPPORO – Rumiko Hamaya, 52, of Nemuro, the easternmost city in Hokkaido, was surprised to see a brown bear swimming in nearby Lake Furen in mid-August.
“It might have been swimming for about 15 minutes, dog paddling for about 800 meters,” Hamaya said. One of her colleagues told her that a bear was out in the lake.
Through binoculars, she could see the bear swimming smoothly with only its head above the water. As she took photos, the bear reached the opposite shore and disappeared.
“I’ve been working at this roadside store (beside the lake) since it opened in 2000, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a bear swim,” said Hamaya.
Bears swimming in lakes and the sea have been witnessed in several places across the nation.
Earlier this year on the island of Rishiri, in northern Hokkaido, a brown bear was seen for the first time in 106 years, leading experts to point out that the bears, which normally remain on land, may be looking for other bears to mate with or possibly searching for a new home. Others said it was taking a dip because of the scorching hot weather.
After bear tracks were found on Rishiri, which is located 20 kilometers off Hokkaido, at the end of May, a surveillance camera captured images of a bear walking in the forest. The last time a brown bear was seen near the island was one swimming in 1912.
Tsutomu Mano, a division chief at Hokkaido Research Organization, says studies have shown polar bears can swim for more than 100 km and brown bears can also swim for dozens of kilometers.
“Bears in heat are probably swimming to find a male bear to mate with,” he said. “Islanders should avoid going out at night so that they don’t bump into bears.”
On Oshima Island in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, where Asiatic black bears were not believed to be inhabitants, local residents witnessed the bears for the first time in May.
Local fishers also saw them arriving on the island’s rocky shores in June and July, with some witnessing the animals returning to the mainland.
“They may be going back and forth,” said a local police officer.
Toru Oi, a professor at Ishikawa Prefectural University and leader of the Japan Bear Network research institute, says it is common knowledge among academics that bears can swim using their forefeet.
“I’ve heard about bears swimming in Lake Towada, which straddles the prefectures of Aomori and Akita, and the shores of Iwate Prefecture,” he said. “They may be looking for a new place where young bears have less competition (to set up a territory).”
Oi added that bears also go into the water to cool down.
“Because this year was particularly hot, they may be swimming to cool down.”