Sometimes it takes a few minutes on the deck to get my sea legs, but today, excitement has overshadowed my usual mal de mer. Aboard the triple-deck Kanrinmaru, cruising along the Naruto Strait in the Seto Inland Sea, I gaze in anticipation at the majestic Onaruto Bridge arcing across the horizon.
The structure connects Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture with Naruto City in Tokushima — one of four prefectures on the island of Shikoku. Underneath it, swirling as if part of a giant ocean vortex, is one of Mother Nature’s mysterious gems — the Naruto whirlpools.
Cruising at a casual 10 knots, the cool ocean winds whip strands of hair across my cheeks. The salt-tinged air seasons the tip of my tongue, as I lean against the cold metal safety rail that snakes around the perimeter of the deck. I’m already snapping away with my camera, trying to get my best shot of the beautiful Onaruto Bridge.
Soaring over the deep, low whirr of the Kanrinmaru’s motor are the high-pitched screeches of frenetic seagulls. Gliding centimetres above the water, then zooming high into the air, the birds seem to have no trouble keeping up with our vessel.
I soon understand the cause of the stir — the breadcrumb-clad palms of 33-year-old crew member Jiro Kurume. “Sometimes they get really confident and eat the bread out of your hand,” he chuckled, handing me a bag of bready bird treats. “But today they’re shy.”
Our hungry, feathered friends vanish with the last of the bread rations just in time for us to meet the first of the moody, swelling seas we are so keenly anticipating. As the bridge stretches overhead, I wave to the people peering down at us from behind the glass panels of Uzu no Michi — Onaruto Bridge’s whirlpool viewing platform.
As I turn my attention to the ocean once more, I see that we are steadily approaching the fierce spirals of seawater. Whirling and whipping around as if giant plugs were pulled from the the ocean floor, water appears to be draining through to the unknown depths below.
The phenomenon occurs when opposing currents from the Seto Inland Sea and the Kii Channel meet in the Naruto Strait, a 1.3 km wide channel connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Seto Inland Sea. These powerful whirlpools form the point at which the large volumes of water and strong currents moving between the two oceans collide. Elusive on some days, and ever-present on others, the whirlpools vary in size depending on the intensity of the tides.
“Spring and autumn are when they’re at their most spectacular,” Kurume explained. “They’re also best around the time of a full moon — under ideal conditions, the whirlpools can reach at least 20 meters in diameter.”
Groups of camera-wielding spectators gather at the side of the deck, vying for that enviable “whirlpool money shot,” oohing and aahing and giggling like children. The crowd is delighted and so am I. As we contemplate the extremes of Mother Nature and our place as keen observers within it, we are amazed to be sailing within meters of some of the world’s biggest and fastest whirlpools.
After two laps of the whirlpools, the brisk air whipping over the the deck starts to chill our extremities, so we drop down below, and cruise back to port in the warmth of the Kanrinmaru’s tatami-mat saloon. As we disembark, lamenting that it’s ended all too soon, Kurume reassures us that our whirlpool experience isn’t yet over. He leads us past the boarding area in front of the Uzushio Dome Nanairo building, and on to the Ashiyu Uzunoyu hot spring — a free, 100-percent-natural, hot-spring foot bath, where the water swirls around the tub in its own mini-whirlpool. What more could we possibly ask for? The perfect antidote to our chilled fingers and toes, we peel off gloves and socks, roll up our trousers and give it a whirl.
Photographs by Jason Haidar & Text by Celia Polkinghorne