May 2011: Miyakejima, Japan

I was disappointed last month at the cancellation of a charity dive to raise money for the Tohoku earthquake victims.  This happened because of bad weather, but this month Japan is warming up, and the Kuroshio current is bringing with it higher temperatures and plenty of interesting marine life.  This month my journey began at night, as I headed to the island of Miyakejima, a 6hour overnight boat trip from Tokyo Bay, way south of the Izu Peninsula where I dived last month.

Japan tends to be overlooked as a dive destination but the island chain south of Tokyo is teeming with fish and other marine creatures.  I went to the first 3 islands of the chain as a child, but had never ventured further south, so I was really keen on going to Miyakejima.  The island was formed by eruptions and lava flows.  It contains thousands of tropical fish living in crystal clear water, while forests offer a quiet peaceful environment and 250 different types of birds.  There is excellent transparency and a rich marine life that attracts plenty of scuba divers.  It’s a paradise for marine sports.

Shimazaki-san from Tokyo Diving Center had come to meet me.  About my age, he operates the Miyakejima branch with a couple of other people.  I found the dive school online as I was searching for possible options for my May dives.  I got in touch with the owner who is based in Tokyo.  He was great in giving me plenty of detail about what to expect on a typical dive trip.  He’d told me there was a high chance of catching the bigfin reef squid laying eggs, as they tend to congregate around Miyakejima in May so I’d chosen the perfect time.

When we got to the dive school, I discovered that it works together with the hotel next door.  Because customers arrive from Tokyo at 5am and are usually pretty shattered, the hotel gives them a room to sleep in for a couple of hours and a buffet breakfast.  Facilities are old and basic, I had a comfortable mattress and blanket on the floor of a bare room, but the breakfast was excellent, consisting of rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, grilled fish, salad and plenty of green tea.

After breakfast I helped Shimazaki-san load our equipment into the van.  I couldn’t help noticing that all their rental gear was relatively new.  I’d already formed a good impression of Tokyo Diving Center, and this just added to it.  I was going to enter the water from the beach, walking into the sea and swimming straight ahead before slowly descending.  I felt sure that this would help with my ear-clearing problems.

And it did.  We dived twice at Okubohama beach, one of Miyakejima’s main dive spots and a good place to spot squid.  As we moved out into deeper water, there was nothing but sand but I did spot my first turtle swimming off into the distance!  Further on, we arrived at a cluster of large round rocks covered with seaweed and various creatures, including a very small sting ray chilling out by himself, and a huge slug which we were able to pick up and hold.  He was massive, very slimy with interesting complex patterns.  Swimming on, we crossed a bed of sand and eventually arrived at some tree branches.  At 16m, this was where the squid came to lay their eggs.  The branches were surrounded by small fish and even a moray eel, so we swam up close and found a massive cluster of long white tubes stuck to the branches.  These were the squid eggs.  As I got closer I could make out tiny little white eggs inside the tubes.  They seemed to be hanging on to the branches by a thread, the slightest push or shove and I felt sure they would fall off.  There must have been hundreds, all clustered together to make a huge ball of white tubes.  As I looked closer, even the leaves seemed to be covered in them.

Once the squid feel that the area is safe, they slowly swim over in groups and deposit their eggs.  It was really magical to be surrounded by them.  I stayed near a rock, controlling my buoyancy, trying to get some good shots and making sure I didn’t disturb them.  The male and female swim in pairs, and once the female is ready to lay, the male which is darker, shields her from view.  They can rapidly change the colour of their skin which is used for camouflage and communication.  They can be over 30cm and eat small fish and crustaceans.  Each spring and summer they gather for courtship, mating and egg-laying.  When the water is warm they come inshore.  The male protects the female all the time as she deposits her eggs.  If another male approaches, the original male becomes defensive and agitated, sometimes flaring out its legs.  I was lucky enough to see this!  When they finish mating they die, which probably explains the presence of moray eels, waiting to grab a bite out of any squid (dead or alive) that they can find.

On my second dive I was able to observe this a lot more, having learned a bit about it and what to look out for.  It was impossible to get a photo of the actual moment the female deposits her eggs, but I did see plenty of other behaviour, in particular the males shielding the females, which seemed really romantic until Shimazaki-san later told me that the male is just making sure that the eggs have been deposited safely and correctly!

I think I saw a much larger variety of creatures than I had on previous dives.  The visibility was excellent, by far the best this year.  After our dives we still had plenty of time for a basic lunch at the shop and a quick shower before I was driven back to port for my 6hour trip back to Tokyo.  It was great sitting outside afterwards, enjoying the sun and going over my dives with Shimazaki-san discussing what we saw.  I’m not confident enough yet to dive with a large group of people, so I really appreciated the one-to-one guidance I got today.  Slowly but surely the weather is getting better and no doubt there will be plenty more opportunities for wetsuit dives around the Tokyo area.

Practical information

  • I found Tokyo Diving Center ( online when their advertisement appeared on Facebook while I was searching for dive schools.
  • The Miyakejima branch is a 15min drive from the port
  • To get to Miyakejima, take the overnight ferry from Takeshiba pier, Tokyo Bay at 22:20.  This is the only boat that goes to the island.  To book, ring up the company Tokai Kisen (03-5472-9999, 9:30AM to 20:00 open 7 days a week).  They’ll give you a booking number.  Take your booking number on the day of travel and collect your ticket at Takeshiba pier after 20:00 on the night of travel.  I paid 10,000yen for a bunk bed.  Sleeping on the floor costs around 6,000yen (one way) and you can also get a reclining chair for the same price, or upgrade to a cabin which will cost more than 10,000yen.  It’s quite an expensive journey, the boat is also quite old with very basic food and vending machines, but there is plenty of room out on deck.
  • The school will pick you up at the port when you get in at 5am.  Then you’ll be taken to the hotel next door for a short sleep and breakfast.
  • The route to the school from the port is interesting – look out for rocks and other volcanic features!
  • Facilities at the school are good, their equipment is very new, and you can buy dolphin-shaped bottles of water (expensive at 300yen) and postcards.
  • Lunch, sweets and tea are provided.  Lunch is a small box of rice, chicken and vegetables, with a can of green tea.
  • Two guided dives with all equipment hire (except for mask, snorkel and fins as I have my own now) cost 20,000yen.
  • The main dive site on the island is Okubohama, 15-20mins by van.  Load all the equipment at the school, and set up on the beach.
  • Entry into the water is walking from the beach.  Because of the waves and everything you’re carrying, this is a little more difficult than you think!
  • Equipment is removed and rinsed back at the van.  The beach also has excellent warm showers.  I made the most of these after my first dive, during our break which is usually 30 to 45mins.
  • Back at the hotel you can take another shower.  Hair dryers, shampoo and shower gel are provided but bring your own towel.
  • The boat to Tokyo is 1 per day, leaving at 14:20, arriving at 20:25.  Tickets are sold at the port between 12:30 and 14:00.  The school will drive you in plenty of time, and wave goodbye as you said off!

May’s dives

Okubohama dive 1: depth 16.4m, dive time: 40mins, water temp: 22C, used a 10L tank, 4kg weight belts and a 5mm wet suit size ML.  Saw my first green turtle, bluespotted stingray, clown fish, and of course plenty of bigfin reef squid!

Okubohama dive 2: depth 15.4m, dive time: 41mins, water temp: 22C, used a 10L tank, 4kg weight belts and a 5mm wet suit size ML.  Saw an armored weasel fish, more bigfin reef squid, moray eels and clown fish.

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