Drift Ice See drift ice covering the sea

Drift ice covers the sea of Utoro
Shiretoko Shari-cho Tourist Association

Experts' Voice

"That drift ice goes all the way to the North Pole."
Yasunaga Ogita
Yasunaga Ogita
Polar explorer
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"You can walk on the drift ice! An incredible experience."
Keizo Funatsu
Adventurer / General Manager of NIKI Hills Village
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"Magnificent views."
Ting Pui
Ting Pui
Managing Director of Travel Alliance Japan
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"Hokkaido is the only place in Japan where you can see these natural works of art."
Noriko Suga
Chairperson, Okami Association of Hokkaido Hotel and Ryokan
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"OKHOTSK SEA ICE: A gorgeous winter spectacle with eagles, orca, and seals."
Mark Brazil
Dr Mark Brazil
Ornithologist, Naturalist, Author, Founder of "Japan Nature Guides”, Consultant of "HOKKAIDO Adventure Travel Association (HATA)”
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"Feel and listen to the sound of breaking ice will please your senses."
Man Kin Wong
Man Kin Wong
Chiiki Okoshi Kyoryoku Tai (Volunteers for Cooperation in Community Revitalization)
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"Touch and taste sea ice (drifting ice) but do not walk on the sea ice without the assistance of experts."
Takayuki Shiraiwa
Takayuki Shiraiwa
Associate Professor, Dr. at the Institute of Low Temperature Science, Hokkaido University
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Visit Hokkaido in the winter and you'll see drift ice, a natural phenomenon in which the whole of the Sea of Okhotsk is covered with ice floes. Hokkaido is the southernmost place in the whole of the Northern Hemisphere where you can see this. And in true Hokkaido fashion, there are all kinds of ways to enjoy it. Abashiri and Mombetsu both offer cruises on icebreaker ships that crunch their way through the ice. You can also take a wildlife cruise, see drift ice up close in various unique observation facilities and even go for a walk on the ice!
What is it? Gigantic pieces of ice covering the sea.
Where is it found? Seas in cold regions during winter. Hokkaido's is the southernmost drift ice in the Northern Hemisphere.
How does it form? Fresh water enters the sea from rivers and lowers the salt concentration in the water, causing it to freeze.
When can it be seen? Late January until March (best season February to March)
What lives there? Spotted seals and ribbon seals, cliones (see "Wildlife around the Drift Ice"), seabirds such as Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles, and phytoplankton that feed lots of other sea life.
Soundscapes The creaking sound made by the ice floes pushing against each other has been selected as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan!

Drift ice can transform the Sea of Okhotsk in just one night!

Drift ice
Drift ice floats in the sea of Utoro
Shiretoko Shari-cho Tourist Association

Hokkaido's drift ice comes from the Amur River, 1,000km away on the border between China and Russia. When the fresh water from the Amur River enters the Sea of Okhotsk, this lowers the salt concentration in that part of the sea, causing the water to freeze and form drift ice. The drift ice spreads further and further and gets thicker and thicker until the whole of the sea is covered with drift ice. The drift ice off the Okhotsk coast of Hokkaido is the southernmost drift ice in the Northern Hemisphere!

Drift ice usually begins to form in late January. At first, the drift ice is far out on the horizon of the Sea of Okhotsk, before gradually coming closer and closer to the shore. By early February, it reaches all the way to the shore, and stays that way until early March. With the right wind, drift ice can spread rapidly in one night - one day it's still in the distance, and the next it's right there in front of you, covering the waves as far as the eye can see.

The drift ice feeds the whole sea!

Krill under drift ice
A large amount of krill comes in search of ice algae, which grows under drift ice
Katsunori Seki

For a long time, people in Hokkaido thought the drift ice was a nuisance because it blocked off the sea and no fishing could be done. But now we know that it plays a vital role in supporting this area's food chain. The drift ice is a source of life for a type of phytoplankton called ice algae, which breed at the beginning of spring. These attract zooplankton such as small fish and shrimp, as well as deep sea crabs and sea urchin, which in turn attract larger fish, seals and birds. The nutrients from the drift ice have a knock-on effect on the entire food chain. The effects even spread inland, as salmon nourished in the Sea of Okhotsk return to Hokkaido's rivers in autumn, providing a food source for the bears. By the time the drift ice recedes and it's possible to fish again, the marine life has been well-nourished by the plankton-rich drift ice, resulting in extra-delicious seafood!

Wildlife around the drift ice

Clione
During the drift ice season, a clione appears in a shallow area and dances gracefully like an angel.
Katsunori Seki

The nutrients from the drift ice attract a unique variety of wildlife. Spotted seals migrate south with the drift ice and use it as a place to breed. If you're lucky, you might see some seals resting on the ice!

The drift ice also brings cliones. Cliones are biologically similar to snails, but they have no shell and instead of crawling, they float through the water with paddle-like "wings" called pteropods. They look just like angels when they move, and people in Hokkaido call them "drift ice angels". Cliones can only be seen when the drift ice is there - once it melts, they are eaten by fish.

Enjoy the drift ice with activities you can only do in Hokkaido!

Walking on drift ice
Walk on drift ice

You can see the drift ice up close! Several cities on the Okhotsk coast have activities available. In Abashiri, you can cruise through the incredible icy scenery on the Aurora sightseeing icebreaker ship. In Mombetsu, you can take a cruise on the Garinko-go II, which has two giant drills on the bow of the ship. You can feel the ship vibrating as it powers through the gigantic floes of drift ice.

If you want an even closer look, you can go for a walk on the drift ice! Wearing a special drysuit, you can walk on the ice, rest on it and look at the glimpses of sea between the ice floes.

Stories

Things To Do

There are plenty of ways to see the drift ice up close! Take a cruise on a ship that cuts through the ice, put on a drysuit and walk on the ice floes, or look for the wildlife that lives there.

Drift ice cruises on the Sea of Okhotsk

Take a cruise through the drift ice on the Aurora (Abashiri) and Garinko-go II (Mombetsu) icebreaker ships. Admire the drift ice around you and hear the crunch of the ship pushing through the ice.

Recommended Tours

Icebreaker ship
Aurora sightseeing icebreaker ship
Hideo Kishimoto

Aurora Sightseeing Icebreaker Ship

Doutou Kanko Kaihatsu
JA

For visitors to Abashiri! Take a cruise through the southernmost drift ice in the Northern Hemisphere. Watch the ice from the comfort of a toasty warm cabin or go out on deck to get a closer look.

Webpage
Icebreaker ship
Garinko-go II icebreaker ship
Okhotsk Garinko & Tower Co.,Ltd.

Garinko-go II Icebreaker Ship

Okhotsk Garinkotower
JA

For visitors to Mombetsu! This ship has two drills at the front so that it can power through the ice. Listen to the crunching of the ice as you admire the white sea around the ship.

Webpage

Drift ice walks

See the drift ice up close in a winter activity that is only possible in Shiretoko. Put on a special drysuit and step out into a magical, icy world like nothing you've experienced before.

Recommended Tours

Walking on drift ice
Walk on drift ice
Nonprofit SHIRETOKO NATURALIST'S ASSOCIATION

Shiretoko Naturalist's Association (SHINRA)

Shiretoko Naturalist's Association
JA

Touch and walk on real drift ice! Wearing a special drysuit, you'll take a walk on the drift ice that covers the Sea of Okhotsk.

Webpage

Look for wildlife on the drift ice

Take a cruise to see the wildlife on the drift ice! In Rausu, you have about a 90% chance of seeing Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles. If you're lucky, you might even see spotted seals or ribbon seals resting on the ice floes.

Recommended Tours

Shiretoko Nature Cruise
Shiretoko-Nature-Cruise

Birdwatching Cruise & Drift Ice Cruise

Shiretoko Nature Cruise
JA

A must for winter trips in particular. From January to April, you can take a cruise through the drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk and see large eagles such as the Steller's sea eagle and white-tailed eagle. With around 700 of these birds, you'll have a 90% chance of spotting them! In summer you can see flocks of petrel (as well as whales and dolphins). Enjoy an up-close view of sperm whales spraying water and flipping their mighty tail fins, and dolphins and orcas swimming gracefully through the water. Take a cruise to see the wildlife that lives on the drift ice, such as seals and rare seabirds such as Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.

Webpage

Discovering Drift Ice

January-March
Shiretoko Shari-cho Tourist Association

Icebreaker and wildlife cruises are available from the time drift ice begins to form on the Sea of Okhotsk - usually in late January. By February and March, drift ice can be seen near the shore on most days. Drift ice walking tours are available around this time, but you'll need to contact the tour operator to make sure the ice is in the right conditions for walking on the day you want to take the tour.

Best Season To See

February-March

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Drift Ice
: Best : Good : Possible

Getting Here

Abashiri, Mombetsu, Shari, Rausu

1
Dock for Aurora Sightseeing Icebreaker Ship
2
Dock for Garinko-go II Icebreaker Ship
3
Shiretoko Nature Cruise
4
Shiretoko Naturalist's Association
5
Okhotsk Ryu-hyo (Drift Ice) Museum
6
Mombetsu Okhotsk Tower
7
Kitahama Station
8
Cape Notoro

Dos & Don'ts

  • Follow the guide's instructions. You'll be out in unpredictable conditions, and accidents can happen. Listen carefully to what the guide says and follow their instructions.
  • Dress very warmly. You'll be out in subzero temperatures and the winds out at sea are strong. If you plan on going out on the deck, make sure you're dressed warmly enough.
  • Be careful with your belongings. The drift ice is floating on open sea. Take care not to slip and drop your camera into the sea, and be careful that it does not get splashed by the waves.