Monthly Archives: June 2011

June 2011: Kumejima, Okinawa, Japan

Sunday 19th June 2011

As I woke up this morning I was hoping today’s dives would be an improvement on yesterday.  I’d signed up for 3, which meant different dive spots and a bigger variety of marine life.  This time I was with a new group, 5 people all aged between 50 and 60, who were very friendly and asked me lots of questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Japan.  Our guide for dive number one was Shin, who gave a really excellent briefing.  He was great at describing the different coral, any dark tunnels or deeper areas we might have to enter, water temperature, hazards, currents, and of course the fish we might see.  As I entered the water I was 100% certain of what to expect, which really helped put my mind at ease. 

We went down to about 25m, and my highlight was swimming through a small dark tunnel, and then out again into the blue open water.  This particular dive spot is called Anmatenbusu (Mother’s Belly), and the coral walls are shaped in such a way that it looks like you are emerging from somebody’s belly.  I remember the water suddenly getting cold, so I knew we were pretty deep.  Shin was really helpful, he let me take my time as I entered the tunnel, and stayed close by as I made my way out, the others following behind.  It was amazing to come out from the dark into the light, to be greeted by lots of fish.  As we came out of the tunnel, we began to ascend, and the water soon became a lot warmer.  We stayed close to a massive wall of coral, holding on occasionally so as not to get swept away by the current, and looking out for different plants and other creatures.  We saw some incredible fan coral which glows bright red when you shine some light over it, and I managed to get a great shot of a parrot fish opening his mouth, about to have his lunch.  We were also introduced to the red-spotted blenny, a tiny little fish, very frog-like, poking his head out from among the coral to take a good look at us.

Shin accompanied us on dive 2 as well, and I felt much more confident descending by myself and meeting the others at the bottom of the rope.  This time the area we went to was flat, and full of dead coral, so we had plenty of space to crouch down in order to take photos, or simply hold on to something if the current was too strong.  But it’s the ideal environment for creatures such as sea snakes that can hide in small open areas and suddenly swim past you when you least expect it.  There was so much dead coral.  I could really see just how much danger it’s in, but after swimming along for a while you soon come to areas that are full of life.  Every time something interesting was found, Shin would lightly tap his tank to call us over.  We found some pink anemone fish, a cousin of Nemo, and a very interesting fish that stayed hidden among the coral watching us, unlike other fish that swim around or away.  Because he stayed in one place, it was really fun trying to get some close up shots. 

We then headed back to the dive school for a quick break, with lots of tea, a delicious sushi lunch, and plenty of space to sit in the shade, enjoy the sun, sleep a bit or simply read one of their many diving magazines and books.  Our 3rd and last dive was the most interesting and challenging.  The current made the descent a little difficult, and holding onto the rope was vital so as not to get swept away.  With this to think about, ear-clearing became much harder, and as it was already past 4pm the water temperature was slowly decreasing, so it wasn’t the most comfortable start.  Fortunately we’d been briefed on the strong current, and once we all descended we swam even deeper to a more protected place where we would have somewhere to hold on to.  Our guide wanted to show us a group of bigeye kingfish that congregate around our particular dive spot, so we swam against the current heading for their hiding place.  They’re a very unpredictable fish.  Either you see plenty, or just a small number.  On a good day you can be surrounded by millions, and as they don’t swim away so fast, there is plenty of time to stay and watch them.   By the time we arrived at the magic spot I was already pretty tired from all the swimming but we were really really lucky – there was a massive school of them, swimming around the cluster of coral walls.  They were quite big, very shiny and silver, with large inquisitive eyes.  They’re not the most exciting-looking fish, but seeing them in large groups like that was wonderful. 

Although Saturday was a bit disappointing, I’ve been really pleased with how the rest of my dives turned out.  This month was different in that I had to do a lot of things myself.  Having to set everything up, and dive with others allowed me to not rely on the guides too much, but to listen to my own body, feel my buoyancy or any ear pain and act accordingly.  That will all be really valuable for next month’s dives, so even though the school caters for the more experienced customer, I can see now that it was a good thing I decided to dive with them, although I don’t recommend Dive Estivant if you’re a beginner or out of practice!  I think I’ll sign up with them again once I’ve got a few more dives under my belt. 

Practical information:

  • I was introduced to Dive Estivan (www7b.biglobe.ne.jp/dive-estivant/ by Tokyo Diving Center and applied to dive with them online.
  • To get to Kumejima, fly from Haneda to Naha (2hrs 30mins) and then transfer to a smaller plane to Kumejima (30mins from Naha).  A return ticket is around 60,000yen, including all taxes, 2 nights in a hotel and breakfast.  I took an 8am flight from Haneda, had a short break at Naha and flew to Kumejima around 12:25.
  • The school offer a pickup service from the airport, and the drive to the school is around 20mins.  Dive Estivant is on the east side of the island, the airport along the west side.
  • First, you’re given a wetsuit and taken to your hotel for check-in.  The school will also pick you up and drive you back to the school after you’ve had a rest.
  • The school’s facilities are good.  They have showers and toilets, plenty of dive magazines and books to buy or borrow, lots of tables and chairs, and a space to sit outside.  Books are around 3,000yen.
  • The boat is also good, plenty of space to sit on the side, small toilet, and tea and sweets provided.  Entry into the water is by backflip.
  • Lunch is also available at the shop.  Many different packed lunches were on offer.  I chose a sushi one with rice, egg, prawns, and pickled vegetables.  Tea is free.
  • One dive costs 8,400yen.  I signed up for one on Saturday, and three on Sunday.  This price includes equipment rental.
  • There are about 30 dive spots on Kumejima.  We headed further east from the port, around Eef beach and beyond.  The time taken from the port to one dive spot is around 20mins.
  • Most divers bring their own gear.  You’re responsible for all your borrowed equipment, including setting up on the boat and tidying up after each dive.  I had to keep my wetsuit with me during my stay, wash it and hang it up on my balcony.
  • The school will drive you back to the airport after your stay. 

June’s dives:

Dive 1:  Anmatenbusu:  depth:27.7m, dive time: 44mins, visibility: 25m, average depth: 11.8m, dive in: 11:12AM, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belts and 5mm wetsuit.  Really enjoyed going through a small tunnel out into the blue sea, and seeing all the fish again!

Dive2: Ryukau: depth: 18.5m, dive time: 49mins, visibility: 25m, average depth: 12.8m, dive in: 13:34, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw pink anemone fish, coral cod and a sea snake.

Dive 3: Imazuni: depth: 15.8m, dive time: 40mins, visibility: 20m, average depth: 10m, dive in: 17:30, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw lots of bigeye kingfish and some parrot fish.

 

 

 

June 2011: Kumejima, Okinawa, Japan

Saturday June 18th 2011

It’s now June, and summer is definitely here as I begin my dives on the island of Kumejima, Okinawa.  4-5 months since I was last in this area, and it’s already boiling hot, a little over 30 degrees, with a very strong sun.  Despite some slight humidity when I got off the plane, in terms of weather this was shaping up to be the ideal weekend for some serious dives. 

Kumejima consists of around 9600 people.  Located in the East China Sea, it’s the most popular of the islands around Okinawa.  The bays are surrounded by sand dunes and coral reefs, while mountains are spread out from north to southeast.  Eef beach, a major resort area, and where I went diving today, has some beautiful white sand.  It’s full of people, drinking and eating establishments, and of course accommodation.  But the most famous place on Kumejima is Hatenohama, a 5km sandbar on the east side of the island, and a popular sightseeing spot.  It’s only accessible through a day tour, and has crystal clear waters that are great for swimming, snorkeling and diving. 

Last month the excellent guys at Tokyo Diving Center recommended that I contact one of Kumejima’s main dive schools, Dive Estivant, for my June dives.  As a friend is off diving with the school next weekend, I decided to give them a try.  They came to pick us up at the airport, and we were soon on our way in a mini-van with about 6 other people.  But as much as I was excited about diving with others, I wasn’t overly impressed with how the day went.

When we arrived, everything was chaotic, rushed and busy.  Tourist season had definitely arrived.  I was immediately given a few wetsuits to try on, but with time limited, I had to rush to put on about 3, and trying on tight wetsuits indoors in boiling temperatures, 3 times, is not easy.  After being driven to my hotel, I had an hour to unpack.  Then I was picked up and driven back to the school.  No explanations were given on how the dive was going to proceed, and I was soon on a boat heading out to our first spot.  It later turned out that the other divers all flew to Kumejima quite regularly, and dived with the same school.  They were extremely experienced, laden with expensive equipment and heavy cameras, and familiar with all the good Kumejima dive spots.  This made me wonder whether a lot of the school’s customers are either local or regular, hence the lack of explanations. 

I dived once today, a deliberate arrangement on my part having learned from Ishigaki how exhausting it is to fly and get straight into the water.  I was paired up with my own guide, while the others paired up with each other, and were assigned another guide.  Our aim was to dive to around 20m, and watch the coral spawning. Corals must rely on environmental factors such as lunar changes, sunset time, and chemical signalling to determine the proper time to release gametes into the water.  As our dive began after 4pm, our guide reckoned we had a pretty good chance of seeing something. 

Unfortunately it was not to be, and despite the excellent visibility and warm water (25 degrees!), I didn’t spot anything that I hadn’t seen on previous dives this year.  There were some incredible tropical fish, but nothing that stood out.  As I swam past the different coral and rocks, I knew there was more to everything, and wished I understood more about spotting unusual fish, or rare coral features.  On the surface all you can see are beautiful coral or colourful fish, but the marine environment is about much more than that.  No spawning either.  The tropical fish did make up for that though, they were extremely fun and relaxing to watch.

During the dive we stayed close together in a group so I was no longer next to my guide all the time.  This was probably a good thing for me to experience. Although our guide was my dive buddy, it was more of an advantage to stay a little behind, and be among the other divers.  With nobody watching me all the time, I had to make my own judgments – control buoyancy, keep an eye on my air, and remove any water that got into my mask.  I began to feel happy about slowly being able to do that alone. 

I’m disappointed that I can’t really write in detail about what I saw.  The dive was smooth and nothing exciting, but it got my confidence levels up a bit.  Back on land, everything was rushed again, and I was told to be back at 10AM the next morning, with no explanation of where I would be going and who with.  It seems Dive Estivant really caters towards the more experienced diver, there was nobody available after the dive to tell me how deep I’d gone, where we went and what we saw.  As a new diver, I’m still keeping a record of all that, but the guides were simply too busy with other stuff.  On the plus side, it will be good to go through my photos and look up the names of fish by myself, rather than being told, and from now on as the summer tourist season begins, more and more people will be out diving, and I may have to get used to going it alone. 

June’s dives:

Tonbarazashi: depth: 15.8m, dive time: 47mins, visibility: 25m, average depth: 7.9m, dive in: 17:08, used a 10L tank, 4kg weight belt (later reduced to 3kg during the dive), and a 5mm wetsuit.  Saw lots of tropical fish, clown fish, parrot fish, moorish idol, and butterfly fish.

June 2011: Save Our Oceans – an exhibition to raise awareness

Today I attended a small exhibition in central Tokyo focusing on a few marine issues.  We all know that coral reefs worldwide are under increasing threat due to pollution, coastal development, farming, or even divers touching the coral, collecting it or dropping anchors on reefs.  This is obviously altering the whole nature of the sea, and the exhibition today offered an opportunity to think about that, as well as some more light-hearted topics like manta rays and popular diving sports in Palau.

There were three main parts: underwater photos, manta rays, and coral.

First up, I headed for the wonderful display of photos by underwater photographer David Doubilet.  Known for his work published in National Geographic Magazine, Doubilet started taking underwater photos aged 12.  He says his goal is to “redefine photographic boundaries” every time he enters the water.  Here are a couple of his comments:

“The sea is the most chaotic street in the world.  And what you have to do is simplify the chaos, to make a pattern out of the chaos that is at least visually arresting and not visually confusing.”

“My job description is to make a picture of a place no one has ever seen before, or to make a picture that’s different of a place that everyone’s seen before.”

Looking at his work made me think of my own photos, especially what I could do to improve.  He’d taken some fantastic shots of sea lions, sharks, clown fish, colourful tropical fish, as well as different seaweeds, rocks and other plants.  The colours were so vivid and his close-up shots of tiny obscure areas like rock surfaces were quite original.  He definitely gave me some ideas for my upcoming dive trip.

In the next section, a couple of Japanese celebrities who are scuba divers themselves, shared their own photographs, recounting trips to Ishigaki island Okinawa, and Palau.  A mini-theatre was available to show visitors the world of manta rays.  Although I didn’t get to see any manta rays when I went to Ishigaki in January and February, watching that simple footage of the animals brought back plenty of memories of my time there.  Palau, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most spectacular diving destinations.  In England I’d never really heard about it, but hoards of Japanese tourists visit to enjoy the crystal clear waters and superb marine life.  Myself and some other divers are hoping to go there in October, and today’s photos gave me plenty to think about. I heard about coral reefs, hidden caves and tunnels, and of course the famous jellyfish lake, teeming with 21 million stingless jellyfish!

The final part of the exhibition focused on coral reefs, with clear explanations of their biology, how they are formed, and many different photos of coral polyps.  Visitors are also able to pick up coral samples, and a special screening of “Umihanamushi” was held, a documentary focusing on the microscopic world of coral.  Here I was most reminded of how much danger the coral reefs are in.

I was also really impressed with a feature on Hope Japan, supporting the sea around Tohoku.  The group consists of voluntary divers who are going underwater to remove debris and clear the area.  A different way of volunteering up north perhaps?

The topics I saw today appeared very simple, but they are extremely important in understanding just a tiny part of the ocean.  As global warming accelerates, the more the oceans will be under threat, so it’s to be expected that many more exhibitions such as today’s will be held, aiming to at least make people aware of what is happening.

This weekend I’ll be in Kumejima, Okinawa, no doubt remembering the issues raised in this exhibition as I head back into the water.

June 2011: The National Institute of Polar Research

On Thursday 26th May, I was given special access to the National Institute of Polar Research west of Tokyo, thanks to a colleague who works there part time.

I had no idea such an institute existed.  Although it’s tiny, it’s buzzing with activity, and full of researchers studying subjects like meteorology, geology, glacier motion, life science and ice dynamics.  At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any obvious direct link with me scuba diving in places like Okinawa, but of course, all these subjects are significant to diving and marine biology, so I was more than keen to check the place out.

The institute’s focus is on Antarctica, a continent that is far from being about cute penguins and ice.  That’s what really struck me on my visit – just how much the continent has to offer, especially when it comes to rocks and magnetic fields.  I spoke with Professor Funaki, a geophysicist who reads the magnetic data of rock samples below the ice’s surface, based on the principle that magnetic particles (iron ore) contained in such samples will align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field.  Professor Funaki explained that this opens doors to even more interesting subjects.  For example, you can find out more about how Antarctica fit together with Australia, and discover clues about early Earth climates and what may have influenced climate change in the past.  All this may also help scientists figure out the nature of the geology there.

Professor Funaki also focuses on the magnetic signal in the rock samples he collects.  I got to hold some, and the heavier ones have much more magnetic data than the lighter ones.  The strength of the magnetic signal is key to telling you how many magnetic minerals the rocks contain.  Volcanic rocks for example, apparently contain more magnetic minerals, whereas sedimentary rocks have much less.  A lot can be learned about the composition of the rocks as well.

What really got my attention was a plane the Professor is developing, which will contain a magnetometer to detect the magnetic properties of rocks below the ice, from high up in the air.  It’s a tiny piece of equipment that can be attached to the plane’s wings, but sometimes it can hang from the plane in a special container.  I was really impressed, not just by how far research has come, but also by the whole complexity and detail that went into this operation, how vast our planet really is, and how many different things there are out there waiting to be explored.