There was chirping, too

By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--Drab olive green yet well beloved Gonbei had his (the name doesn't really lend itself to "her") first taste of the open North Pacific today. A tiny tiny slice but salty nevertheless. At Iioka fishing harbor, near Choshi, at the very north end of that interminable boat-hostile Kujukurihama crescent.

The algae slime-covered slope looks serviceable as a launching pad. The weather forecast is good, which for this area means fairly steady two-meter waves, kept from the harbor basin by utilitarian breakwater tetrapods. There is only a very light breeze; the sky is slightly hazy but not in violent motion. The time is early afternoon--why o why do I never manage the mornings?

Getting out of the harbor isn't much of a challenge for the ocean-going commercial fishing boats with their burly bows and potent diesels, but Gonbei is a different story. Having upgraded from the five horsepower Honda outboard to a 9.8 HP Tohatsu, the maximum my 10-foot inflatable can take, helps, but I still nervously eye the wave crests just outside the harbor entrance. Some of the bigger waves break right there, and my hand on the throttle twists nervously as I thread through the shifting hills and dales looking for the smooth gaps.

Waves still substantial

Once a bit further out, the waves are still substantial but slightly more predictable and therefore less menacing. Still, I need to keep a much sharper lookout than when I putter around some small inlet on Tokyo bay. The movement of the boat is fairly violent, thanks to some minor crosswise curls that spring up here and there simply to liven up the mix.

After about an hour I end up becoming seasick in no uncertain terms. First time this has ever happened to anybody on Gonbei. But I console myself that I am in good company. After all, Dr. Alain Bombard who in the nineteen-fifties crossed the Atlantic on an early-model inflatable with just a small sail but no motor and no food or water (to prove that shipwrecked sailors can subsist on seawater, plankton, and raw fish--it is despair rather than physical deprivation that kills them) confessed to having to battle repeatedly with seasickness.

Not to worry

Now, dear pandits, never you worry, I am not about to cross the Pacific on a similar quest. In fact, the two miles I am out, still well within sight of land, are quite enough for me. More than enough, in fact, because suddenly a magical thing happens.

Luckily, I have turned off the motor for a bit of a ricocheting rest, otherwise I probably would not have heard the strange burbling breathing noises. Startled, I look around: no other boat is anywhere near. I stand up, carefully, to get a better look, steadying myself with the grip of the outboard. I curse the fact that the wooden mast that I have made just recently for Gonbei had to stay in the car because I had forgotten to bring the equally handmade (Tokyu Hands, that is) wooden thwart.

Then I see them

And then, I see them. Brown smooth glistening shapes that briefly rise above the gray-green surface of the water. Swimming in pairs and groups of three. Some moving quickly out of sight, others coming close enough that I can see the blow hole at the top of the head opening and contracting, the source of the breathing sound that I heard. My first thought is whales because this area is famous for them in summer, but they are supposed to be further out, and they should be bigger. These are about two meters, with some smaller ones (calves?) also swimming along. Still, I see mostly round heads, smooth brownish backs and not the dorsal fins that one usually associates with dolphins.

Some quick encyclopedia perusal after my return suggests that I may have met a school of porpoises, although the brown color doesn't quite fit the picture. In either case, whales, dolphins, and porpoises are closely related and equally beguiling creatures. Still seriously queasy in the stomach but humming nevertheless I turn for the harbor, and head for home, a bath, a quickie, and the keyboard.


Wolfgang Bechstein was born in Germany but says he has always felt more comfortable observing his country from the outside. While roaming the world in his youth, he briefly set foot in Japan, worked as a movie extra, and became fascinated by the local lingo. After studying linguistics and Japanese at Tübingen university, he came back to Japan in earnest in 1974 to work for a publishing company. He earned a B.A. in Japanese linguistics from ICU in Tokyo.   Turning a passion for audio into a profession, he started working as a freelance translator in 1981. He established his own company, Prisma, in 1988, and translates mainly from Japanese into English and German, specializing in electronics and computers. He and his family relocated to Yowie Bay, New South Wales, in March 2001. Although he has applied for membership in the cafe latte society of Sydney, just between you and me, what he really came for are the waters.

by Wolfgang Bechstein: Other salt-water adventures
"Thar she squirts"
"Lights across the bay"
"Sail ho"

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