By Koichi Saijo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMINAMI, Tokushima — White waves come and go at Ohama beach in the town of Minami, Tokushima Prefecture. As the Japanese for its name Minami suggests, the town is famous for its beautiful (mi) waves (nami) and sandy beach.
You will never grow tired looking at the waves lapping against this 500-meter-long beach, well known as a spawning ground for loggerhead turtles. Minami was also the setting of the fiscal 2009 NHK serial drama “Welkame” (a combination of welcome and kame, the Japanese word for turtle). The town advertises its loggerhead turtles as a tourist attraction and has worked to ensure their conservation.
I visited the town in late July, as summer is spawning season for sea turtles. Entry into the beach is restricted at night (from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.) from May 20 to Aug. 20, when conservation guards patrol the beach.
Roads near the beach are closed to vehicles at night during the same period in order to protect the turtles, who tend to prefer the tranquility of nighttime. Yet the number of sea turtles arriving at the beach has declined recently. In the 1960s, it was not uncommon for more than 300 turtles to come ashore in a year. The past few years, however, the number has hovered in the low dozens. Last year, the number dropped to seven, with only two laying eggs.
Tomoya Kurata, 42, curator of the Caretta sea turtle museum, said, “There could be various causes, but it will become increasingly difficult for sea turtles to spawn because the amount of sand at the beach has gradually decreased due to the development of neighboring areas.”
Visitors ‘deeply moved’
The number of sea turtles increased this year, with 25 coming ashore as of the end of July. I thought ordinary people were prohibited from watching the turtles’ nighttime spawning, but I learned it was possible if one follows the conservation guards’ instructions.
Those who register a cell phone address with the “Umigamail” information service, operated by the town and other entities, will receive notifications from a beach warden when a sea turtle arrives. The turtles take about 30 minutes to dig holes for laying eggs. The warden asks participants to account for this in timing their arrival to view the spawning. Shining a dull light at the turtles from behind is said to not disturb them during their activity.
Toshiaki Minami, 72, one of the wardens, said, “Those who watch the spawning for the first time are deeply moved by the turtles shedding tears.” The turtles do not actually weep, but rather discharge seawater as a means of adjusting their internal salt levels, an act that resembles crying. “Women in particular might associate spawning with the pain of childbirth. Humans are more easily moved to tears.”
Volunteers serve as guides
The next morning, members of the Hiwasa volunteer tour guide association busily guided tourists around the area.
Kiyofumi Sakae, 68, retired around the time that production of “Welkame” was confirmed. Sakae learned about local history at a guide training course run by the local commerce and industry association in anticipation of a surge in tourists to Minami.
He guides more than 50 tourists a year now. “I feel great pleasure when visitors on sightseeing trips take interest in my hometown,” he said with a smile.
“I feel blessed when I read letters from people I guided who enjoyed hearing about the sea turtles. If not for ‘Welkame,’ I wonder what I’d be doing now. That show changed my life.”
Looking forward to next chance
Driven by a desire to see the spawning, I also registered with the “Umigamail” service and stayed for two nights at an inn near the beach. Unfortunately, I never saw any sea turtles come ashore.
Around 11:30 p.m. on the day I went back to Tokyo from my trip, I received a notification that read, “Digging for spawning has started. Observation is possible in 20 minutes.” I wish the message had been sent the previous day. I had no choice but to look forward to viewing spawning next year or at some other point in the future.
A flight from Haneda Airport to Tokushima Awaodori Airport takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes. From the airport, take the airport bus for 30 minutes to JR Tokushima Station. From there, take the JR Mugi Line limited express for about 55 minutes to JR Hiwasa Station. Call the Minami Tourist Association at (0884) 77-1875 for details.
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