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Record high 971 humpback whales observed off southwestern Japan island

A humpback whale is seen in the waters off Amami-Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture in March 2020, in this photograph provided by Amami whale and dolphin association chairman Katsuki Oki.

AMAMI, Kagoshima -- The number of humpback whales seen in waters surrounding Amami-Oshima Island in southwestern Japan during the winter season has reached a record high of 971.

According to the Amami whale and dolphin association, which is in charge of counting the number of confirmed humpback whales as part of the Ministry of the Environment's research, 578 groups consisting of a total of 971 humpback whales were seen this season, between December 2019 and the end of March 2020 -- the largest number since 2014 when full-scale research was first launched.

The association says this figure outnumbered that of the same season last year by 131 groups totaling 238 humpback whales. Furthermore, 96 groups including a mother and a calf were confirmed -- a significant increase from the 52 groups in the previous period. Many whale groups travel south in January and February, and north in March.

Association head Katsuki Oki, 49, said, "They don't all just travel along the island, many groups with mothers and calves stay here. The waters surrounding Amami are believed to be suitable for raising (humpback whales) calves."

A humpback parent and calf are seen in the waters off Amami-Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture in March 2020, in this photograph provided by Amami whale and dolphin association chairman Katsuki Oki.

The number of tourists visiting the islet, which lies off Kagoshima Prefecture on the larger Kyushu island, to observe whales is increasing, with 3,684 people coming with eight tour operators under the association this season. Watching whales while swimming in the ocean was especially popular, with 1,526 attendances. However, 355 people reportedly canceled their scheduled tours due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Adult humpback whales can measure around 11 to 14 meters and weigh about 30 metric tons. In the breeding season, they travel south to the waters off Amami-Oshima Island and Okinawa from the Kamchatka Peninsula, and travel back northward after breeding.

(Japanese original by Kazuaki Kanda, Amami Local Bureau)

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