Photo/Illutration Korin, a beluga whale, peers at a small camera as it swims in Lake Notoroko in Abashiri, Hokkaido, on July 16, 2016. (Yumi Nakayama)

ABASHIRI, Hokkaido--Fisherman Yoichi Ishigaki has such fond memories of a lone but sociable beluga whale he bonded with while battling cancer that he erected a memorial to his “friend” after it met with an apparent boating accident.

The creature that provided inspiration and emotional support at such a critical period in Ishigaki’s life had strayed far from its natural Arctic habitat and settled in Lake Notoroko, a coastal lagoon here connected to the Okhotsk Sea.

The young female white whale dubbed Korin stayed for five years before it washed ashore in June last year with injuries apparently caused by a boat’s propellers.

Beloved by locals, too, Korin often made a beeline for the scallop farmer’s boat and played with the anchor.

Ishigaki, 60, always looked forward to his interactions with the marine mammal.

In memory of Korin, Ishigaki built a lakeside memorial. He held a memorial service on July 9 and released a video of its “singing” voice.

The inscription on the memorial set up in the Lakeside Park Notoro camping site in Abashiri, Hokkaido, reads: “Korin, a wild beluga whale that lived in Lake Notoroko for five years and enjoyed interactions with humans, rests in peace in this lake.” The kanji word for “bond” is also inscribed. (Yoichi Ishigaki) 

Korin was first spotted in Lake Notoroko in 2015, perhaps after getting separated from its herd.

Locals feared the beluga whale could come to harm because of the many boats that ply the lake, a popular fishing spot for shrimp and flatfish.

An association comprised of a sea life researcher, an environmental expert and others was established to help ensure Korin stayed out of harm’s way.

It called on the local fisheries cooperative association and others to always be on the lookout for Korin when operating boats, for example. It also discussed ways to form a symbiotic relationship with the white whale.

For the five years Ishigaki bonded with Korin, he was in and out of hospital for cancer treatment. But every time he felt uneasy about what lay ahead, he was encouraged by the thought of seeing the beluga whale again.

Ishigaki was discharged from hospital in January 2020. The lake ices over in winter, but when he returned to work in spring, Korin showed up as always.

The fisherman shot videos of Korin that May, not realizing he would never see the white whale alive again.

On June 4, 2020, Korin was found washed ashore, scarred and bruised. Previously, it had suffered injuries from boat propellers on its back and stomach.

“It feels like I got better and Korin took away my illness,” Ishigaki said.

Photographer Masato Sakano, known for his images of stray dolphins around the world, made frequent visits to Lake Notoroko to snap shots of Korin.

He said the beluga whale’s natural friendliness toward people might have led to the misfortune, given that it had sustained injuries from boats but still seemed unalarmed.

“There were mixed opinions (among locals), but I still don’t know what was the best thing to do,” Sakano, 67, said. “Like other cases of stray dolphins elsewhere, there is no ‘correct answer.’ I feel like I’m tasked with thinking about the symbiotic relationship with wild animals yet again.”

After Korin’s death, Sakano started sorting out videos of the white whale and was astonished to find a clip in which Korin appeared to be vocalizing.

Beluga whales are nicknamed “canaries of the sea” for their cute, high-pitched sounds. In this particular clip, Korin seemed to be enjoying singing even though no other members of its species were around to join in.

“This might be the first recording of a wild individual seen like this,” he said.

The video clips can be viewed on the association’s website at (

Korin is seen snuggling up to Yoichi Ishigaki in Lake Notoroko in Abashiri, Hokkaido, on June 21, 2016. (Yumi Nakayama)