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 ( 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.

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