Unesco status – a curse or a blessing for Shiretoko?

I love visiting Unesco world heritage sites. There are many types now – cultural, geo parks, historic buildings even food and literature related. The natural world ones are in some of the most beautiful places on earth – the Galapagos, the Rockies in Canada or the Western fjiords of Norway. But today visiting Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido in Japan during Golden Week, I had mixed feelings about exactly how beneficial they are.

I had been lured by wonderful photos of brown bears, Stellar’s sea eagles (only found in the Sea of Okhotsk), Blackiston’s Fish owls (only 140 birds survive in Hokkaido – half of them in Shiretoko) and deers and that is what I saw – more wonderful photos in the visitor centre. Oh, and a glimpse of two deer, but then they reckon there are 10,000 of them in the park. So perhaps we should all stay at home and leave these places to the naturalist who are working so hard to preserve them. The last thing they need is more humans crawling all over them. But then without Unesco status, they would not have that protection. A catch 22 situation.

We had hoped to take a boat trip to try to see whales, but when we arrived in Utoro early in the morning, it was cold and grey. Visibility was very poor. So after a look at the fishing boats and the dinosaur rock, we decided to head to the Five Lakes to avoid the traffic jam that builds up waiting for the Shiretoko Pass to open at ten o’clock. But we encountered another traffic jam on the way to there, so we turned round and thankfully the jam at the pass entrance had cleared and the weather cleared as we reached the top, giving us lovely views to the Russian islands.

So we ended up at Rausu and drove to the end of the coast road, past a little beach hot spring and a great waterfall and went for a walk on the beach. It is a fishing community and they also harvest huge quantities of kelp and other seaweed which they dry. As it was early spring, none of the activity associated with the seaweed harvesting was happening, just lots of close drying sheds. The boats in the harbours too, were idle all gleaming from fresh paint, ready to take to sea. We watched some kayakers heading our into the mist where the warm air was meeting the cold air. Perhaps they would get to see wildlife? We saw man’s ability to mess up – vans left to rust and rot on the beach. Not what I had expected from a national park but I appreciate how hard life must be for the locals on an island that gets 6m of snow in winter and making a living from fishing or farming is difficult. Disposing of vehicles is not a top priority.

So will I continue to visit Unesco world heritage sites? Maybe but certainly not on bank holidays!

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