Monthly Archives: April 2011

April 2011: Shirosaki near Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan

This month I began my dives back in Shizuoka prefecture, following on from my trip to Atami in March, although this time I ventured further south to the beautiful chilled out areas of Ito and Rendaiji near the tip of the Izu Peninsula, which runs from Atami. Despite the high chance of aftershocks (since last month’s earthquake Tokyo has had at least 3 powerful tremors in the last few days) and feeling quite hesitant as a result, I decided to go ahead with my dives. The weather was a wonderful 22C, warm, dry and sunny, so I would have been crazy not to go. And over the past few weeks getting on with life as usual has been really comforting.

I booked my dives with Tago Diving Centre, an excellent school recommended to me by a fellow diver I met in Okinawa, extremely knowledgeable and professional with 300 or so dives in his log book. Tago Diving Centre is quite a difficult place to get to, taking over an hour after changing trains at Atami station. And that doesn’t include the time it takes to get to Atami from Tokyo! Because of the aftershocks the trains were running behind schedule, so I arrived one hour late, but the owner’s daughter Yoshida-san was waiting for me in her car, and despite my arrival time was really chatty and friendly. About my age and already a dive instructor, we talked loads on the short trip to the dive school. She dived for the first time aged 7, and I felt fortunate to be preparing to dive with someone so experienced.

Like last month I was going to be using a dry suit but Yoshida-san was very much of the opinion that, even though I’ve only dived 10 times, I’m qualified so I don’t need any lengthy explanations or somebody to hold my hand as I got my equipment ready. I was on my own, but we were pushed for time and soon I was all kitted up and ready to head out. I felt a slight boost of confidence at being left to my own devices.

Our first dive spot was Shirosaki Bay. The dive school is located right on this bay so the boat journey was about 2 mins. We boarded a medium-sized boat with plenty of space and more than adequate for our trips to the dive sites. The rope we used to descend only went down to about 5m, after which we had to swim downwards ourselves. This was quite difficult and took time, but surprisingly I was quite calm, perhaps because I’d already tried a dry suit last month and been in murky water. Once down below (23m), we saw some incredible marine life. Compared to Atami, visibility was a lot better. Shirosaki Bay is much more out there, and far from any busy congested areas. Soft corals several feet high were attached to rocky outcrops and boulders. My highlight was spotting a lion fish and taking a quick photo as it sat on the rocks observing us closely. I also noticed crabs nestled amongst the rocks, algae covering the sea floor, a moray eel quickly swimming back into the rocks, and plenty of striking sea anemones and sea slugs, with stunning orange, white and purple colours. During our ascent and while completing a decompression stop at 5m, we got to rest near the buoy close to the boat, and study the different shellfish and seaweed clinging to the rope.

After our first dive Yoshida-san let me soak in the school’s hot tub wearing my dry suit, a fantastic way to get warm and enjoy the feeling of sitting in water and being 100% dry. After donning our gear and preparing our cameras, we headed out to Benten-jima for our 2nd dive. Benten-jima is a small island just off Shirosaki Bay and seemed the ideal place for more fascinating discoveries. The descent was extremely smooth, and before I knew it I was swimming quite comfortably but the current was fairly strong and I found buoyancy control really difficult. Yoshida-san had to take my hand and lead me around most of the time, but the marine life more than made up for that. The waters off Benten-jima are relatively clear, and the soft corals large and healthy-looking. I saw venomous sea urchins, some with tiny crabs nestled inside, a red brittle star stretching out its long arms, a large stingray that swam off behind Yoshida-san leaving a cloud of sand, and two frogfish sharing a rock ledge, both brilliant orange. At one point, we approached a cave. Cold and pitch black, I wondered how deep we’d come. I could really feel the chill through my dry suit and was a bit apprehensive as we peered inside only to find nothing, when just as we were swimming off, a Zeiform fish (a small order of marine ray-finned fish) slowly appeared from inside the cave. He was quite big, a mysterious creature from the deep with a dark spot on his side. Finding him was very special, and we watched him slowly disappear into the distance. Bentenjima is surrounded by rocks to hold on to, and offered plenty of areas to shine torches through, poke around and discover more fascinating things. I loved watching the sea slugs chilling out on the huge seaweed and moving with the current.

I wanted to sit and talk to Yoshida-san a lot more, but we were still short of time and I had to take a mid-afternoon train if I wanted to reach Tokyo at a reasonable hour, so after quickly going over my dives and listing the creatures we saw, she sent me on my way armed with a bag of seaweed that her Mum had prepared and which I can use in salads and other dishes.

Fortunately my April dives are not yet over! I’m delighted to have been asked to take part in a charity dive on Saturday 23rd, to raise money for the earthquake victims up north. We’ll all be making a donation to the dive school and doing 2 dry suit dives in Osezaki, west of where I dived today. Am really really excited!

Practical information

  • Tago Diving Centre (www.tagodc.com) is close to Shimoda, a city located south of the Izu Peninsula.
  • The nearest station is Rendaiji. Take the bullet train to Atami from central Tokyo which takes about 45mins, and change to the Itokyu line which takes you direct to Rendaiji. A one-way trip is 1800yen. When I went I had to change trains due to the earthquake but usually this is not required.
  • When you arrive at Rendaiji, the school will pick you up by car. The journey is about 30mins from Rendaiji station.
  • Along the route are plenty of cherry trees and mountains. It’s a stunning area.
  • Tago Diving Centre is family-run by Mr and Mrs Yoshida and their daughter who was my guide for the day.
  • Facilities are excellent – 2 toilets, 3 showers, basic but spacious changing rooms with private cubicles, and a bathtub overlooking the bay. You can use the bathtub anytime to get warm, it’s always full of hot water.
  • No lunch, snacks, tea or coffee provided so try and bring your own.
  • Two guided dives with all equipment hire and drysuit rental came to about 20,000yen.
  • Set up your equipment and put it on before you get on to the boat.
  • The boat is basic, no seats, roof, it’s completely open. Perch on the side and put on your fins, mask and gloves before arriving at the site.
  • Entry into the water is the backward roll. A rope is provided for the descent.
  • Equipment is removed after arriving back at the dive school. The school will also drive you back to the nearest station after your dives, and look up train times for you.
  • Diving in this area is possible year-round but conditions vary. In summer and early autumn popular dive sites can be extremely crowded but visibility is much better. In winter although the water temperature drops, there is still plenty to see as long as you can relax, and put up with some murky water.

April’s dives:

Shirosaki: depth: 22.6m, dive time: 37mins, average depth: 13.7m, water temp: 14-15C, visibility: 5m, used a 10L tank, 8kg aluminium weight belts and ankle belts, and a dry suit. Saw a lion fish, algae, crabs, a moray eel, sea anemones, sea slugs.

Benten-jima: depth: 27.9m, dive time: 37mins, average depth: 12.9m, water temp: 14-15C, visibility: 5-6m, used a 10L tank, 8kg aluminium weight belts and ankle belts, and a dry suit. Saw sea urchins, crabs, a red brittle star, a stingray, frogfish, sea slugs, sea anemones and a Zeiform fish.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brittle_star

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stingray

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pterois

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeiformes

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moray_eel

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frogfish

March 2011: Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan

Wednesday March 30th

Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, March has quite naturally been crazy and unpredictable.  I’d just received my course materials for my marine biology diploma when the earthquake struck.  With so many things to think about, I wasn’t focusing on studying or diving at all.  During a recent trip to Thailand I’d hoped to complete my March dives, but a huge thunderstorm made conditions too dangerous.  I’d begun to wonder whether I was destined to dive this month, when I came across a school in Atami that was more than happy to take me diving for a day.  Atami, meaning “hot ocean,” a reference to the town’s famous hot springs, is at the far eastern corner of Shizuoka prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

Diving Service Atami is a tiny school about 10mins by bus from the train station and just next to Atami port.  I thought about how cold the water was going to be, and how insane I was to contemplate diving in such conditions, but perhaps it would be fun after all, so I decided to be brave and head out.  My guide Toyoshima-san met me at the bus stop.  He was extremely professional, lending me all my gear, showing me a safety video and requesting that I fill in a couple of forms declaring that I am fit to dive.  But the most important thing he had to cover was how to use a dry suit for today’s cold dives.

Dry suit dives are not usually recommended to beginner divers, especially ones like me who only have 8 certified dives in their logbooks, but Toyoshima-san’s attitude was “let’s try it and see what happens.”  He was very good at explaining the advantages of a dry suit.  Obviously the whole point is you stay dry during your dive.  As I put my suit on over a pair of yoga trousers, ordinary socks and a couple of thin long-sleeved tops, I began to wonder about the feeling of staying dry while in water.  The suit has an inflator on the chest and another valve on the left arm to release air.  It must be inflated and deflated upon ascent and descent, to avoid “squeeze” when the suit sticks to you the deeper you go, and to avoid a rapid ascent due to over-buoyancy.  Mine fit quite well, and I thought it must be nice afterwards to just rinse your hair and not have to take a whole shower.  I was also given a hood, gloves and my own dive computer.  I felt very well prepared.

Our first dive site was called Bitagane, about 5mins away from the port.  Atami’s main dive spots are deep, some go to about 70m, and certified divers usually go to 18m or maybe more.  I was happy to try going over 18m, but when we began to descend, I freaked out.  It was green and murky all around me, except for the sight of Toyoshima-san using the rope to slowly descend next to me.  Not knowing where I was going, and seeing nothing below was pretty scary.  I wanted to give the ascend signal and cancel the dive, but Toyoshima-san was so calm and patient!  I took forever descending, and must have used up so much air, but once we started to swim around, we found some incredible stuff thanks to Toyoshima-san’s torch – lots of moray eels, beautiful orange starfish, some nudibranches and crabs.  Obviously Atami’s marine life is totally different to Okinawa – much more in the way of rocks, sand, soft coral, starfish, and seaweed.  It’s not the world’s most exciting dive spot but there was still plenty to see.  During our ascent we even swam through a school of shimmering sardines looking beautiful against the sunlight.

We also practised using the dry suit.  As it began to feel tighter, Toyoshima-san helped me put more air into it, and remove the air again, to achieve neutral buoyancy. I was definitely dry underneath, and it felt good.  Despite a few headaches brought on by the sudden temperature change from entering cold water, I felt fine, and very snug.

After an hour’s break back at the dive shop, we headed to our second site, about 10mins from the port, called Soudaine.  We found walls of rocks everywhere, and slowly worked our way up these before starting our final ascent.  This time I knew what to expect, and was much more calm during the descent, holding onto the rope, clearing my ears and staying calm.  I’d been so impressed with what I saw at Bitagane, that I asked Toyoshima-san to bring a camera in case we found anything worth capturing.  What we saw was very similar to our previous dive – sea urchins, starfish and different seaweed.  The walls of rock allowed me to hold on and get up close to several creatures, taking in their different patterns, shapes and sizes.  One nudibranch was fairly big with a wonderful orange colour, and we also saw a big purple sea urchin with long protective spines like a hedgehog!  On the surface of the sea urchin was a tiny little zebra crab, so-called because of its brown-ish stripes.

Toyoshima-san was spot on about the dry suit.  After removing and rinsing my equipment, the first thing I did was rinse my hair and then remove the suit.  It felt incredible, to be bone dry and not need a shower.  Soon I was back in my jeans and ready to discuss the dives.  Dry suit diving is definitely an interesting thing to try, but it does take some getting used to, and nobody wants to start out in cold water so I understand why it is not recommended to beginners.  I also found today that I’d dived to 25m.  Such a deep depth but it didn’t feel any different to 10m or 15m!  As much as I loved diving in Atami and am proud of what I achieved today, I would take the warm tropical waters of Okinawa anytime 🙂

Photos coming soon!

Practical information

l       I found Diving Service Atami (www.atami.biz) online after a Google search.

l       Atami is about 50mins by bullet train.

l       To get a full day’s worth of diving, take a train around 7:30AM from Tokyo.  Trains are extremely regular, and the Tokaido line is another option too – longer journey, cheaper tickets.

l       A bullet train return ticket is about 8,000yen with no reserved seat.

l       From Atami station, take the bus to “Korakuen” the final stop.  Diving Service Atami is opposite the bus stop.

l       The school is small and quiet with basic facilities.  Tea and coffee are provided but no lunch or snacks.  Their office is really cosy, with lots of photos and magazines.

l       It costs 16,500yen for 2 guided dives, and an extra 8,500yen to rent a dry suit.

l       At the school you set up the equipment and put it on before getting on to the boat.  The boat is basic, with bench-style seating for the divers.  Take off your equipment on land when you’re safely off the boat.

l       Breaks in between dives are long – return to the school, then an hour to take it easy before starting your next dive.

l       Because of the Tohoku earthquake, power cuts and fears over aftershocks, business is very quiet.  Diving with me were 6 other divers from the area.

l       The waters of Atami are cold and murky in March.  A friend cleverly described them as “miso soup” waters.  Summer is a much better time, when the water becomes clear and blue, especially around June

l       Other good dive spots in the Atami area include a 30m dive to see an 85m cargo vessel called the Chinsen, and Kosaga Dokutsu (cave), open from Nov to Mar.

March’s dives

Bitagane: depth: 25.1m, dive time: 39mins, average depth: 13.7m, water temp: 15C, visibility 5:6m, used a 10L tank, 5kg weight belt, 1kg ankle belt and a dry suit.  Saw moray eels, orange starfish, nudibranches, and sardines!

Soudaine: depth:22.3m, dive time: 41mins, average depth 13.6m, water temp: 15.9C, visibility: 5-6m, used a 10L tank, 5kg weight belt, 1kg ankle belt and a dry suit.  Saw purple sea urchins and zebra crabs.

http://library.thinkquest.org/J002608/urchin.html

http://www.animalsandearth.com/photo/view/id/47972-xeno-crab-xenocarcinus-tuberculatus-on-wire-coral-cirrhipathes-sp-70-feet-deep-papua-new-guinea#1#tag#Xenocarcinus%20tuberculatus#viewed#

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moray_eel

http://www.seadb.net/en_Zebra-crab-Zebrida-adamsii_664.htm