People packed the decks of the whale-watching boat, screaming in joy as a pod of orcas put on a show: splashing tails at each other, rolling over and leaping out of the water.

In Kushiro, just 160 km south of Rausu, where the four dozen people laughed and cheered, whaling boats were setting off on Japan's first commercial hunt in 31 years. Killed that day were two minke whales, which the tour boats in Rausu also search for — a situation the skipper of the whale-watching boat confessed had him worried.

"They won't come into this area — it's a national park — or there'd be big trouble," former pollock fisherman Masato Hasegawa, 57, said. "And the whales we saw today, the sperm whales and orca, aren't things they hunt."