This is the first entry of what I hope will be a long and detailed blog of my underwater adventures in 2011. I’ve set myself a new challenge this year – to dive once a month, in Japan or abroad. It’s not going to be easy, especially financially, so why have I done this? To become a better diver. When I learned to dive last year, I soon realised that to get better, you need to continue. By diving once a month, not only do I hope to improve my skills but I also want to feel more relaxed and confident in the water, and learn something about all the wonderful marine life I’m going to see.
I’m writing my first entry in a tiny inn on Ishigaki island, Okinawa, where I’ve just completed my January dives. There is a storm outside, not the weather I was hoping for, but on the plus side coming here at such a time has been extremely interesting and a good chance to see the island which is normally a huge tourist spot. There is nobody around, and the city centre is really quiet. The island is full of coral reefs and the water crystal clear, which makes diving a very popular activity. There’s an area off the north coast for manta ray spotting, but this time I was unable to go due to the weather and strong currents.
At the northwest corner of the island is the stunning Kabira Bay where I’m staying. The emerald blue waters and white sand are beautiful (when it’s not raining!) and there are a few glass-bottomed boats around, so I made the most of a tour which gave me a taste of the marine life I was about to encounter.
I dived in two locations, Hanagoi Reef (16.5m dive) and Coral Bridge (14m dive). I rented my equipment and booked my dives with Umikoza (www.umikoza.com), an extremely friendly, family-run dive school recommended to me by a couple of friends in Tokyo, and which I would highly recommend myself. As we headed out on the boat to Hanagoi Reef, it was cold, wet and windy. I couldn’t believe I was about to go diving in such conditions, but the water temperature was quite warm, about 23 degrees, so once inside I felt much more comfortable.
The first thing that struck me was just how clear the water was. This seemed to be due to a lack of plankton as the water is not yet warm enough for them to appear. I could catch every single detail of the different coral, sea slugs and fish that we saw. There really is an incredibly rich marine life in Ishigaki, and so much colour!! My dive buddy Fanie was excellent. Positive and knowledgeable, she encouraged me throughout and made me feel totally at ease. I didn’t take my camera with me as Fanie didn’t want to risk it breaking. It’s only good until about 10m, and she knew we would probably go deeper than that. I wasn’t able to photograph anything, but what I saw was just like something out of a magazine – walls of coral rising up towards the surface, tomato anemone fish, purple queen, cornet fish…and the highlight? Two cuttlefish that slowly glided past us, lost in their own little world.
About 45 minutes after Hanagoi Reef, we headed to Coral Bridge for our second dive. This time we were in a coral garden. The coral spread out underneath us for miles around, with millions of tiny fish swimming between the branches. Here my buoyancy skills were really put to the test! I felt terrified of harming the coral, and it was painful to hear it breaking underneath me every time I came too close. I must have destroyed quite a bit, but it was the perfect location to practice neutral buoyancy. On this dive we found reef-top pipefish, box cleaner fish and trumpet fish. Fanie had a torch, which we used to look into holes and other dark areas at the bottom of the coral. I’d been following Fanie the whole time but towards the end she let me lead the way for a little while. I was much more calm, and stayed underwater for 46 minutes.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dive with Umikoza once again, I’d been looked after so well and had such an incredible time, so after a delicious lunch with everyone, I booked my February dives and will return at the end of that month. Hopefully next time we’ll spot some manta rays.
The dive school Umikoza booked my flights, accommodation (2 nights, breakfast and dinner included) and two dives (including equipment rental) for about 70,000yen. To get to Ishigaki, the usual route is to fly from Tokyo to Naha, then change for an hour flight to Ishigaki. The best diving spots on the island are north, especially Kabira Bay, which is 30mins by car from the city centre. Staff at Umikoza will pick you up at the airport and take you to your accommodation. Public transport consists of one bus into town from Kabira Bay every 3 hrs, so it’s worth looking into car rental at the airport. Flat wide roads make driving easy, and you can also cycle around the island in a day.
I stayed at a traditional inn based in Kabira Bay. The place was old and run down, but the elderly couple running it were extremely friendly and made me some excellent meals – I ate set meals of rice, miso soup, fish (raw and cooked), tofu, salad, pickled cucumbers, noodles, very filling and healthy.
Umikoza is very well equipped, excellent shower facilities, lovely warm water (but bring your own soap and shampoo) and they are very organised in fixing you up with the right gear and wetsuit. They offer courses in PADI Open Water, Advanced, Rescue and Dive Master, in addition to snorkel tours and fun dives. On a typical day we did 2 dives starting around 9:30AM, with a break of 45mins or so in between, and then headed back to the school for lunch made by the owner’s wife. Lunch was rice, soup, pasta, salad, bread, and she also caters to vegetarians if notified in advance. The family have dogs and cats, and live next to the dive school overlooking the sea. It’s a very homely, relaxed place, with a big garden.
Hanagoi Reef: 16.5m, dive time: 43mins, average depth: 9.8m, water temp: 23C, land temp: 25C, visibility: 25m, used a 10L tank, wore a 5mm wetsuit and 2mm vest underneath. Saw two cuttle fish, tomato anemone fish, cornet fish.
Coral Bridge: 14m, dive time: 46 mins, average depth: 8.5m, water temp: 22C, land temp: 20C, visibility: 20m, used a 10L tank, wore a 5mm wetsuit and 2mm vest underneath. Saw reef-top pipefish, mandarine fish, box cleaner shrimps and trumpet fish