9 September 2016

Wild encounters in Okinawa

Giant moths, whale sharks and rare mountain cats are just a taster of the incredible wildlife you might happen upon on Okinawa’s mysterious isles. Exotic wildlife is a given when you’re in a subtropical archipelago set adrift in the East China Sea, but exploring Okinawa’s islands is more like stepping into a land before time. Here’s a few of our favourite wild encounters.

Swimming with rare-breed horses

For horse lovers, enjoying a playful dip with Yonaguni island’s beautiful pure-breed horses is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And we’re inclined to agree. Another of Okinawa’s charming enigmas, the origins of these renowned Yonaguni residents are unknown, but you can enjoy a coastal ride on one of these fine native chestnut-coloured ponies, followed by a quick cool-off together in the waters.

Night hunting for coconut crabs

There must be something in the water in Okinawa. Not only do the human residents happily reach over 100 years old, but their wild neighbours often reach supersized proportions. Like the Okinawan coconut crab, a colossal relative of the hermit crab and the largest land-living arthropod. Despite weighing around 1.3kg, a night trek might mean bumping into one of these climbing a palm tree in search of a midnight coconut snack.

Majestic moths

A foot-long moth sounds more like a something you’d find in a Jules Verne novel, but is alive and well in Okinawa. Another super-sized Okinawan resident, the Atlas Moth is the world’s largest moth and its beautifully marked wings can reach up to 25 centimetres. You can spot these across a few of the islands but your best bet is Yonaguni. In fact, most Okinawans know this goliath of the insect world as “Yonaguni-san”.

Gentle giants at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

For a truly humbling encounter, a visit to the Churaumi Aquarium to marvel at the whale sharks and manta rays is a must. Okinawa had to build one of the world’s largest aquarium tanks in order to help reproduce and understand these gentle giants, which you can appreciate in awe as they drift by. A rare spectacle that makes this aquarium a bucket-list destination in its own right.

Whale watching

Okinawa also lays claim to Japan’s best whale watching spot. Every winter, humpback whales spindle their way through Kerama’s smattering of 22 mostly uninhabited islands on migration. A sighting is basically guaranteed and the whales here like to show off, providing Kodak moments for any passing boats with jumps, blows and by happily slapping their fins.

Iriomote wildcats

Count yourself lucky if you spot one of these elusive leopard-like cats prowling around, they’re endangered and highly rare, but the only chance you’ll get to spy one is on Okinawa’s island of Iriomote. The largest of the Yaeyama Islands, wildlife-dense mangroves and jungle take up 90% of Iriomote’s land space, making a trip in search of this mythical cat even more enigmatic.

The Ryukyu flying fox

OK, this is not actually a fox, it’s a bat. But, like many of Okinawa’s inhabitants, it’s both rare and exceedingly large—it’s a megabat. It roams the skies at night in search of fruit and flowers and is another rare species to add to Okinawa’s wildlife-spotting credentials. Don’t be surprised to stumble upon one of these resting in the trees on some of Okinawa’s more jungle-y isles.

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