Japan’s 31st national park is now to be found in the waters near the prefecture of Okinawa. The Kerama Islands, famous among whale watchers and divers, was declared the country’s first national park in 27 years on March 5.
The Kerama Islands, made up of 30 islets and many reefs found 40 kilometers west of Naha, are a known breeding ground for whales. Migration and mating season for humpback whales in the waters near the new park takes place between December to April every year. A whale watching association set up by Zamami divers in 1991 aims to protect the sea mammals, whose number rose from 26 in 1992 to a whopping 269 in 2012. The national park also boasts of coral reefs found within its 90,475 hectares of waters roughly 7 kilometers away from the islands. 250 species of reef-building corals have been found in the islands, equal to 60 percent of all species found across Japan. The temperature and color of the water has helped greatly for the reefs to thrive.
Sometime ago, many crown-of-thorns starfish, a known predator of corals, propagated in 2001, killing much of the marine life. To prevent that from happening again, the government is thinking of setting up a protection facility for the corals. A local whale watching guide, Kiyoshi Miyagi believes that establishing the island as a national park will benefit them greatly. “The designation as a national park will help preserve the humpback whale ecology and have a favorable impact on local tourism.” He added, “If the designation had come earlier, we could have protected more coral reefs.”