Shiretoko Peninsula

The Shiretoko Peninsula—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is known to be the southernmost point where ice pack flows from the northern hemisphere, making this a favourite destination for many photographers.

The Shiretoko National Park encompasses a large portion of the peninsula, and is also the home to the largest population of brown bears in Japan. While I wasn’t able to see any of these bears on my trip here, I was, however, able to admire views of the powerful Mount Rausu and the shores of the peninsula.

The Shiretoko Peninsula and the Rausu mountain range.

With the ice floe from Siberia, Steller’s Sea Eagles migrate down from Russia every winter. This migration brings in hundreds of Steller’s Sea eagles to the peninsula accompanying the white-tailed eagles, letting tourists see a glimpse of the wonders of these species.

White-tailed eagle (left) and the Steller’s Sea Eagle (right) fighting over a fish.

I drove up the eastern coastline from the Notsuke Peninsula, making my way to the town of Rausu, where we stayed for the night.

Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, Japan

The town of Rausu

Rausu

Rausu is a relatively small town but has many tourist attractions like the Steller’s Sea Eagles, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, waterfalls, and more. My primary purpose in Rausu was to see the eagles since I only had the one night planned in the town.

Shopping at the only michi-no-eki (roadside station) in Rausu, we were able to buy many products that feature the town’s specialty: seaweed. I highly recommend you stop by here to take advantage of the variety of things they sell here.

Since this station was so close to the port we had to be at for 5am the next morning, we parked our van in the parking lot here and slept the night. Be warned though, that since it’s a small town, many shops and restaurants close up for the winter season—and the ones that are open, close very early into the evening. We had some difficulty trying to find a decent place to eat dinner that evening—but eventually found a great little restaurant serving local foods.

Another sunrise cruise boat surrounded by eagles and pigeons.

Steller’s Sea Eagle Sunrise Cruise

There are a few companies offering sunrise cruises at Rausu, and I believe they work together in getting all participants out to sea. I went with Shiretoko Nature Cruise, who informed me that if there weren’t at least five people interested in going that morning, then they would try their best to put us on another boat from another company. That wasn’t necessary as there were about 15 people on the boat that morning. You can see the pricing and timing on the left. It’s not cheap but an experience I do recommend at least once in your lifetime.

Shiretoko Nature Cruise

Adults with camera: ¥11,000 / CAD $143
Adults without camera: ¥8,800 / CAD $114

Departs at Sunrise, and 9:00am only throughout February and mid March; one-hour day cruises available from 1pm.

The town of Rausu as seen from the port.

We were to be at the port by about 5:00-5:15am to register and pay. Be sure to line up in the correct line since other companies were doing the same thing along the port. We were one of the last boats to leave the port, around 5:40am, but as you can see in the photo on the left, it was still fairly dark with the early dawn light coming through the clouds.


Make sure to line up in the correct line as each company has their own lineups.


While there was some ice packs floating by the port, the majority of the ice was still located a good 10min. boat ride away from the port, further into the Sea of Okhotsk, just by the tip of the peninsula. Once we arrived at our location, the boat slowed down and maneuvered to a location away from other boats and into a location where there were lots of eagles…and that’s when the action began.

An eagle coming in for a landing.

That morning was fairly overcast, except for a sliver of an opening at the horizon. This gave way to some beautiful pink hues at the horizon, but dark everywhere else. The light was very dim so you couldn’t exactly take many photos unless you opted for silhouettes of the birds flying in the early morning light. Trying to capture a clear shot of the eagles in the dark at such a high shutter speed is next to impossible—even with a camera like the Nikon Z 7.

One way to get around this is to concentrate on taking wider shots that encompass the entire landscape.

A group of Steller’s Sea Eagles and white-tailed eagles on the pack ice, with another boat in the background.

If there aren’t enough eagles around the boat, don’t worry. The staff of the touring company brings with them a bucket full of fish to throw off the boat onto the ice to attract more eagles to come closer.

Eventually as the morning progressed, the sound of the camera shutters started over-powering the sounds of the birds at sea. With eagles left, right, and center, it was hard to just focus on one! With enough patience though, you were able to get some decent shots of the eagles flying, eating, fighting, and just chilling on the ice pack. In the photo below, you can see the Steller’s Sea eagles eating the fish thrown by the staff member.

A group of Steller’s Sea Eagles attack the feed being thrown out from the boat.

I love the glare on this fella as he looked for more fish to feed on. I wouldn’t want to be in front of him when he’s angry!

The fierce look of a Steller’s sea eagle as he hunts for food.

And while it’s difficult to pan and track these fast-flying birds, with enough trial and error (and patience), you’ll be rewarded with some great bird-in-flight shots.

The beautiful Steller’s Sea Eagle flying.

Don’t forget about the white-tailed eagles while you’re there! There are some fierce competition when it comes to feeding time, so it’s a great opportunity to see these birds in action.

A white-tailed eagle coming in for a landing.

Photographing the Moment

There are several opportunities for you to get the shots you are looking for. In fact, the two and a half hours or so of shooting felt much shorter as I was so busy admiring the birds in their natural habitat. For the most part, you can categorize your shots into three different styles:

  1. Birds-in-flight
  2. Eating
  3. Landscapes

When you’re out there, it might be hard to remember this out of all the excitement, but try and vary your shots by incorporating each of these categories. It will make for a more varied collection of photos that you will be happy to look at over and over again.

Birds-In-Flight

I’ve already included some examples of birds-in-flght shots in this blog post, but here’s a few more to give you an idea or perhaps inspire you to take some when/if you ever go on this tour as well.

You can have birds-in-flight shots with or without any backgrounds. While the backgrounds may be a distraction to the birds, they give context to where the birds are flying. Take both kinds to see which ones you like more.

Shutter Speed

You can take birds-in-flight with fast or slow shutter speeds for different effects. A faster shutter speed will freeze the wings in action while the slower shutter speed will provide a blurred motion of the wings as you pan and track the birds in the sky. The opening photo for this section is a bird-in-flight photo with a slower shutter speed to blur the movement of the wings while retaining the sharpness in the head of the eagle. This was achieved by panning my camera and tracking the eagle’s movement as I pressed the shutter button.

A faster shutter speed will freeze the motion like in this shot below. You can see the wings are sharp as they fly in the air.

Action Shots

When the eagles land on the ice pack or dive down to grab some fish, this makes for some great moments to photograph as well. The eagles move fast though, so this makes it a little more challenging. Using a faster shutter speed will help you freeze the fast motion. Burst mode in this case may also prove helpful. The photographer standing next to me had his camera on burst mode for the entire two-hour trip and barely took a break from releasing the shutter button. I can’t even imagine all the photos he would have to look through just to find a useable shot. If you take the time to anticipate the action and time your photos, you may have better luck using burst mode more sparingly, saving yourself the trouble of having to cull through several shots of the same moment. Click on each photo for the larger version.

Eating Shots

It may not be fun to have our photos taken while we eat, but that’s a different story when it comes to eagles feeding on their meal. It’s interesting to see their actions and to see how they go about eating their food. The eagles fly close enough to the boat that you’re able to get several close-up shots of them eating. Just watching them fly, hunt, and fight for their food is quite exciting.

Landscape

The final type of photo that I took was the overall landscape shot that show the eagles in their natural habitat. This wide-angle view is a great way to see all of the eagles on the pack ice interacting with each other. There’s so many in front of you that it’s always hard to decide to focus on one eagle at a time.

Eagles in the morning light.

You may also be relegated to taking landscape photos in the early morning hours when it’s still fairly dark. I mentioned this above, but it’s unlikely you will get any clean and sharp shots of the eagles flying in the early morning glow since there’s very little light.

Eagles are framed with the Shiretoko mountain range in the background, providing context to where they are.

Once the sun rises, you will then have the option to photograph the eagles individually or in groups on the ice. Try for both to get a good variety in your portfolio. Don’t worry if you’re taking wide-shots and you miss out on an opportunity to get a closeup shot of a bird flying by you, there will no doubt be more chances in your two-hour cruise.

Steller’s sea eagles rest on top of an ice pack drifted from Siberia.
Another boat with photographers and tourists on each level of the boat.

No Moving Around

When you’re on a boat full of photographers, chances are you will not be able to move around a lot. All 15 of us were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on one side of the boat. I don’t believe any of us left our spots on the side in fear of losing that spot.

Nevertheless, we’re still able to get a good perspective of the eagles, and from time-to-time if the captain feels like it, he will maneuver to a different area in hopes of attracting more eagles.

It’s a tour that goes by relatively quickly since you’re looking everywhere for anything that catches your eyes. The weather is fairly cold in the mornings as well so take care to bundle up and keep warm. It get especially cold because you’re not moving around anywhere.

If you ever get this opportunity and love to take wildlife photos, I recommend you take it to experience the beauty of these eagles. It’s not only a great way to practice your photography, but it’s a great way to see the behaviour of these fierce yet intriguing birds of prey.


Have you ever seen these eagles before? Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever seen them, or have ever been to Rausu, Hokkaido.

This post is part of my Hokkaido Winter Adventures series.

You may also like my adventures with the Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes, or my drive through the Notsuke Peninsula.

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