Taiwan Fun Magazine, June 2004

Getting Close To Nature: Whale Watching

By Jacques Van Wersch Translated by Josephine Hong
Photos and Map provided by the "Sea Whale"

     Whale watching is a relatively new amusement in Taiwan. It was inspired by cetologists who, after going out on marine field trips, thought landlubbers would probably get a kick out of seeing whales and porpoises in their natural environment, and realized there's actually a pretty good chance of seeing one of these swimming mammals during a half-day outing.

     Boat captain Lin Kuo-cheng took cetologists out on research trips in the 1990s, and founded Sea Whale Tours in 1997. For him, as for other whale-watching operators, business grew for the first few years, though sustaining interest has proven to be a challenge.

     Lin's foray into whale watching was an extension of his fishing business. In a bid to win new customers, he's turned his two/three-hour boat trips into the centerpiece of an overall experience blending education, entertainment, and sightseeing.

     If Lin can't provide the service you require, odds are he's developed a relationship with someone who can.

     When I called Sea Whale from Taipei, I was recommended a package that included a night's stay in an aboriginal village, an evening meal the night before going out, breakfast and lunch on the day of the tour--and an aboriginal dancing show. Also, Sea Whale can arrange car-rental deals in Hualien at reasonable rates.

     I opted to rent a car from Taipei but, considering the slow traffic coming and going, I recommend traveling by train and arranging car rental from Hualien. The scenery from Suao to Hualien is magnificent, but south of Hualien there's much less traffic and the scenery is also terrific.

     In our honor, Lin engaged a former guide, Vicky Lin, to ensure we understood what we were seeing.

     As we headed out of the harbor, another guide called Joseph--an Ami Aborigine--pointed out landmarks, and played on people's sense of anticipation by shouting out, " I see, I see, I see," then groaning: "a fishing boat."

Vicky said that one of Joseph's strengths is that he knows how to keep customers entertained, even if no cetaceans are spotted. Another of Sea Whale's strengths, she said, is that it emphasizes education. As if to prove her point, Joseph and Captain Lin then explained that the fishing boat we were passing was a long-line fishing boat, and it was after mahi mahi.

     We were fortunate enough to spot a trio of Risso's dolphins; we followed them with great interest for about 20 minutes.

     Statistically, whale-watching customers have a 90 percent chance of spotting either porpoises or whales each time out. If the odds work against you, Sea Whale will give you another ticket, though you do have to pay a NT$300 insurance fee the second time around.

     Shiti is about an hour's drive south of Hualien. It can easily be reached by car or scooter. Sea Whale will arrange a 26-hour car rental from Hualien on request, for NT$1,200.

     A typical Sea Whale tour is two-and-a-half-hours long, and is preceded by a 30-minute slide show/presentation given by the guide in Chinese. Price, including insurance, is NT$1,200 per adult (NT$850 for ages 6-12; NT$300 for kids under 6). Itineraries that include lodging are available.

     Boats go out so long as one person makes a reservation (online or by phone) at set times (6 am, 9 am, 2 pm, and on Saturdays only, at 4 pm) from April through mid-October. Charters for up to 80 people at a time can be arranged.

     Be sure to take along your passport, ARC or Taiwan ID, since the Coast Guard may ask to see it.

     Tel: (02) 2783-7151, (03) 878-1233; www.seawhale.com.tw
Sea Whale is recommended by the Taiwan Cetacean Society (www.whale.org.tw) because of its eco-friendly philosophy. There are other whale-watching outfits in Hualien, and an operator in Shiti. Ilan County also offers whale-watching tours, but the chance of a sighting is lower, around 70 percent.