Monthly Archives: August 2011

August 2011: Oshima, Japan

Sunday August 21st 2011

Despite last night’s drinking, this morning we woke up reasonably early, although a planned 5am dive had to be cancelled, not just because of a late night, but also because of bad weather.  Rough seas, some rain and winds were the main challenges we faced today.

When diving in bad weather, it’s important to understand the flow and direction of the waves, be aware of strong currents, and be prepared to descend quickly.  Divers must be 100% ready to head underwater immediately upon reaching the surface.  This means no stopping to adjust fins, masks or check other equipment (or if absolutely necessary this should be done extremely quickly).  Today we had planned on visiting a new dive site, but conditions were such that we decided to stay at Akinohama, now a familiar spot to everyone.

Visibility was miles better than yesterday.  The current had washed away the sand and sediment leaving behind some reasonably clear water, but having stupidly put on my mask without cleaning it properly at the surface, it soon began to cloud up.  With my vision becoming more and more limited, I realised there was no way I would last the entire dive, and also couldn’t remember how to clear it.  Fortunately I managed to signal to my buddy in good time, and our guide was soon with us, ready to show me what to do.  After a few attempts I was able to remove the mask from my face to let water through, tilt my head upwards and breathe out through my nose to remove the water, leaving a crystal clear mask.  The rest of the dive went well, we descended to 21.4m over a large area of rocks, while our guide pointed out various soft coral and showed me how to get some good shots by setting my flash and moving close.  These are apparently the two most important things when taking photos underwater – making sure the flash is on, and staying close to the animal or plant you want to photograph.  Our highlight was spotting a school of catfish hovering above a rock.  They weren’t swimming, they were just resting in the same position forming a medium-sized ball, watching us and staying alert.  Another fish I saw that’s often seen in Akinohama and throughout the rest of Oshima, is the sea goldie, a small orange/gold fish, up to 7cm long with a violet streak below the eye.  Males can be up to 15cm, and tend to be a more fuchsia colour.

We were back in Akinohama for our second dive, and I was fully calm and knew what to expect as we entered the water, gathered at the buoy for our descent and quickly headed downwards.  The sea was still pretty rough even a few metres down at the bottom of the rope so we swam further on, perhaps a little fast.  When my buddy developed minor ear-clearing problems at the start of the dive, I was able to stay close by as our guide helped out, and stay within sight of the 3rd diver in our group.  Today I really learned about the importance of having a buddy and being able to look out for him/her.  This can be applied to our everyday lives too – communicating clearly, developing trust and understanding others are all necessary each day.  On this dive we discovered some beautiful pink soft coral which we were able to get really close to, and we also came across a brownish orange and white scary-looking creature, a member of the starfish family.  Other highlights were more moorish idol (black, yellow and white with a long extension protruding from the dorsal fin, and long snouts), trumpet fish, box fish, and more nudibranchs.

This year’s dives have made me much more appreciative of the marine environment, and I’ve become more keen to explore other subjects on land, like exhibitions, oceanography centres and aquariums.  There’s something very thrilling and inspiring about experiencing the other part of our planet, seeing such a huge range of species up close, and comparing fragile coral reefs with rocky sandy areas.  Scuba diving offers a lot of adventure and risk, but it really makes you appreciate what is going on underwater.  Next month I’ll be joining the group for possibly their last trip this year before the weather cools down.  We’ll be even further south than Oshima, on Hachijojima, where the weather should be warmer and the waters more tropical.  The Kuroshio current should also bring with it even more interesting fish, which I’m looking forward to seeing.

Practical information:

  • Like last month, I joined Discovery Divers on their regular Oshima trip.
  • We met at Takeshiba pier near Hamamatsucho station on the Yamanote line, around 10pm, to take an overnight ferry departing at 11pm.  The group had reserved an area below deck where everyone sleeps on the floor next to each other.  The floor is extremely hard but blankets can be rented for 100yen each.  No limit to the amount of blankets you can borrow, unless they are running short!  A single ticket on the overnight is roughly 5,000yen to 7,000yen.
  • The boat is basic, but offers vending machines, a restaurant and a spacious deck where most people stay to enjoy the cool breeze and views.  It’s also possible to sleep there too, with the rented blankets.
  • Our dive school was Global Sports Club (http://www.global-ds.com/english/no-1-informatuon.html)
  • The school is about 15mins from the port by car.  It consists of a log cabin for guests to leave their bags or sit and write up their log books, a reception area, and large deck for eating, and setting up equipment.  The log cabin is filled with books and magazines on the underwater world.
  • Tea and coffee are available in the cabin and reception area.  Guests help themselves.
  • The school staff weren’t involved in our dives, but it is possible to book private dives directly with them.
  • We moved around by van, loading and unloading equipment ourselves.
  • All entries are giant stride entries or simply walking into the water carrying equipment.
  • Lunch is provided – a boxed lunch containing either meat or fish.  All lunches came with soup, rice, meat/fish (salmon) and vegetables, some pickled.
  • You are responsible for all your equipment during your stay.  The area to wash equipment in is extremely spacious – one big tub of water to wash wetsuits, boots, masks, fins and snorkels, and 2 medium-sized tubs to soak cameras in.
  • Around 6 toilets are provided, and 3 very warm and comfortable showers.
  • We stayed in a basic Japanese-style hotel/inn a few mins’ drive away from the dive school.  3 to a room, sleeping on the floor, with breakfast and dinner provided.  Dinner: rice, miso soup, cold soba noodles, some sashimi, melon, vegetables, eggs, extremely balanced and healthy.  Dinner begins at 8pm, and last orders must be in by 9pm (beers were ordered and paid for separately).  Breakfast: western-style, basic salad and ham, fried eggs, toast with jam, tea and coffee.
  • I paid a 20,000yen deposit to the group for the trip, followed by another 20,000yen on the night of departure (this covers you for 3-4 dives, accommodation, equipment rental, boat tickets, dinner and breakfast).  Extra dives cost 1,500yen.
  • We took a fast ferry back to Tokyo on Sunday.  The journey is about an hour and a half, and costs around 5,oooyen to 7,000yen for a single ticket.  This gets you a seat.  The inside is a bit like an airplane, and the boat is extremely fast.  No deck – everyone stays indoors.

August’s dives:

Dive 1: Akinohama: depth: 21.4m, dive time: 33mins, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw striped eel catfish and sea goldies

Dive 2: Akinohama: depth: 14.2m, dive time: 48mins, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw moorish idols, trumpet fish, box fish, soft coral, more catfish and nudibranchs

 

 

August 2011: Oshima, Japan

 

Saturday August 20th 2011

August saw me join up with last month’s dive group for a weekend of intense diving.  As we all headed to our destination, I was delighted at the possibility of diving at least 6 or 7 times – an excellent chance to practise my skills, get more used to being underwater, and perhaps venture into something new.

This month’s destination was the island of Izu Oshima, about 100km south of Tokyo and 22km east of the Izu Peninsula.  The island is part of the Izu island chain (which includes Miyakejima where I dived in May) and is well-known for its volcano Mt Mihara.  The island’s close proximity to the mainland means it draws plenty of tourists from Tokyo.  Although not as tropical as places like Okinawa, it still serves as a top dive spot.  It also has rugged coastlines, plunging cliff faces, black-sand beaches, forests and clear seas.

My dive group organised everything and provided good information.  A few days before departure, they sent us a document on the dive sites we were due to visit.  Here are some of the details I received:

Nodahama – a shallow site, 15m or less, with a large arch called “Fish TV” because the arch often looks like it’s filled with fish.  Possible to see rays, crabs, lobster, clownfish, sea anemones.  Generally protected from currents.

Akinohama – divided into a number of zones from 4m to 40m.  Soft coral, crustaceans and hard coral.  Excellent for night dives.

Ohnohama – angelfish, turtles, tuna, and sometimes hammerheads.  Most parts of the sites are 18m or less.  Ring of rocks and hard coral can be found.

We spent the weekend with a dive school called Global Sports Club, which by coincidence was the same school my friends and I visited briefly last month, although we weren’t able to dive then due to bad weather.  The school is a 15min drive away from the port, a very homely place with a cozy log cabin to rest in and leave bags, free tea and coffee, and a large deck next to the reception area where divers can comfortably set up their equipment.  We got to the school around 5:30AM after a long overnight boat ride from Tokyo, but despite this some of the group were planning to head into the water first thing.  Although I’d only slept for around 4hours, I felt wide awake and decided to join them.

By around 7:30AM I was literally jumping into the water for my first dive of the day in Akinohama.  This site, on the northwest coast, is said to be the most popular on Oshima.  A group of rocks stretches out into the sea like a pier, and serves as a convenient entry point.  We entered the water taking one giant stride and gathered at a buoy to begin our descent.  We followed the rope downwards and after gathering at the bottom, began swimming onwards.  Unfortunately visibility was poor, the water was a little rough and there was a slight current which made buoyancy control quite difficult but having said that, there was an array of marine life on offer.  Swimming amongst the walls of rocks and sandy seabeds, I was able to spot moorish idols, plenty of soft swaying coral and a huge orange nudibranch nestled beneath a rock, possibly the biggest I have ever seen and apparently quite rare.

Immediately following the first dive I began asking where our next destination was, and after a brief trip back to the dive school to unload the empty tanks and pick up new ones, we were on our way to Ohnohama for dive 2.  This site is relatively far away south from the dive school, but still reachable.  It’s popular for its varied hard coral and a ring of rocks that divers can swim around, all located at roughly 24m.  Such a depth is ideal for a diver like myself who is still finding her feet but happy to try going deeper.  Ohnohama is reached by a long flight of steps leading down from the car park to the beach, so we put on our equipment at the car park and walked down the steps.  The steps literally stop in the water, which makes entering a little challenging.  Some divers sat down to rinse their masks and put on their fins, while others did the same by standing and leaning on their buddies.  Ohnohama has a rope attached to some rocks, so we were able to walk into the water following the rope and swim further out where it was still shallow, to meet our guide.  Compared to Akinohama, the current was a lot stronger, and we had to descend further relatively quickly, in order to escape the waves crashing against the rocks.  Despite the current, my buoyancy control was much smoother.  I spotted the ring of rocks and hard coral, and enjoyed swimming around them looking at angel fish, schools of silver fish and one medium-sized dark grey fish biting away at the coral as well as various kinds of colourful wrasse.

After lunch we headed out to Nodahama in search of Fish TV.   Nodahama is another good site for beginners, reasonably shallow, easy to enter, and known for its rocky beach, interesting rock formations and plenty of fish.  Because of its shallow depth, the site is ideal for those who are doing their underwater tasks as part of the PADI Open Water course.  The beach is quite interesting, and has a steep cliff on the right and lava rock formations on the left.  With a clear image of Fish TV in my mind, I was particularly looking forward to diving in this area.   Like Ohnohama we had to set up and put on our equipment at the car park before walking about 200 metres down the steps to the beach.  By this point I’d become pretty confident in doing things myself, and going over everything one last time with my buddy, in particular where our extra mouthpieces were located in case one of us ran out of air.   Entry at Nodahama was very simple.  We literally walked into the water following a guide rope, and then gradually swam downwards.  This type of descent is pretty comfortable as you can take your time slowly swimming, and before you know it you’re down at a reasonable depth and face to face with the rich marine life.  Unfortunately visibility was pretty bad, to the point where we had to use torches and our guide decided to abort our swim to Fish TV as he wasn’t confident he could see everyone in the group despite the torches.  Although extremely disappointed, I still managed to see some of the creatures up close.  The rock formations were huge, teeming with soft coral, kelp and plenty of areas to get close to and shine some light over.  I came face to face with moray eels, sea anemones, sea urchins and even some poisonous cat fish.

By the end of dive 3 I was beginning to feel pretty tired, but the group had organised a night dive and I was keen to join them and head underwater in the dark for the first time.  This dive turned out to be the highlight of my first day on Oshima and I really enjoyed myself.  What’s so attractive about night diving is the chance to experience a different underwater environment, as many marine animals are nocturnal.   Seeing an explosion of different colours in underwater light, and concentrating on details under a narrow range of light are also reasons why night diving is so popular.  Akinohama where I dived this morning was our destination, and there the first-timers were thoroughly briefed on what to expect.  Upon entry I could see everyone’s torches so I wasn’t too worried, but buoyancy control was unbelievably difficult.  I had no idea how close or far I was from the rocks below, and the light from a torch is not enough to figure this out.  Often I kept ascending rather than descending, and it took a long time to get into a more stable position.  Keeping track of my buddy was also challenging.  I constantly looked around to make sure he was there, and often shined my torch in the same spot as him which is a good trick to learn in order to keep track of one another.  Shining the torches over our hands, we were also able to signal to each other, checking that all was ok, and that we had enough air.

The marine life at night is definitely different to the daytime.  I saw lots more schools of fish, some big, some small, the area seemed to be more crowded with fish compared to during the day.  I also saw more moray eels than usual and even some lobster, but the best part was shining our torches over a small cuttlefish eating a shrimp.  He promptly spat the shrimp out after we’d approached, and then proceeded to change colour, to look like the rock beneath him.  Night diving is undoubtedly an excellent chance to see marine life displaying all kinds of behaviour.

Although the rest of the evening was pretty rushed (after the dive we had to quickly head back to the dive school, unload everything, wash our wetsuits and other equipment, and head over to our accommodation for dinner) and I was quite tired, I was extremely satisfied with today’s achievements.  All the dives had been smooth, I’d been relaxed and very much looked after.  As one of our members will soon be leaving Japan, we ended the evening with farewell drinks which included some champagne.   That was the perfect ending to a really good day.

August’s dives

Dive 1:  Akinohama: depth: 15.4m, dive time: 41mins, water temp: 23C, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw moorish idols, soft coral and a huge orange nudibranch.

Dive 2: Ohnohama: depth: 13.4m, dive time: 34mins, water temp: 23C, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw angel fish and wrasse.

Dive 3: Nodahama: depth: 10.1m, dive time: 56mins, water temp: 23C, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw moray eels, poisonous cat fish and sea urchins.

Dive 4: Akinohama: depth 16.4m, dive time: 39mins, used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  My first night dive, we dived in between 6pm and 6:30pm.  Highlight was spotting a cuttlefish eating a shrimp.  Also saw moray eels, some lobster and generally much more fish, particularly in schools.

July 2011: Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan

Saturday July 30th 2011

A month since my last dives in Kumejima and I was itching to get back into the water, but July turned out to be pretty hectic and unpredictable, to the point where I wasn’t sure whether I would complete my mission to dive once a month. Last weekend some friends and I headed south of Tokyo to an island called Oshima but our day of diving was called off due to high waves from a typhoon that had passed the area a few days earlier. July has also been quite cloudy and wet, so I was placing my hopes on a trip to Atami that I’d booked with a dive group in Tokyo.

Ever since I started diving properly this year, I’ve been by myself, looking up dive schools online, making the necessary arrangements alone and diving with a guide. As fun as those trips have been, it’s not the same as diving with others, staying in touch and swapping stories. So I was really eager to head out with this new group.

I dived in Atami back in March, so I knew roughly what the dives might be like and what we might see, but still felt slightly nervous at the prospect of heading underwater with new people of different levels, and in particular being more responsible for my own gear and well-being. On my previous trips, a lot of the dive schools looked out for me, reaching out to adjust my buoyancy and in some cases taking my hand to guide me to the right areas, but deep down I knew that the time had come to start doing those things myself.

I travelled down to Atami with my friend’s husband, and we were soon picked up at the station and taken to the school, Atami Scuba. As we unloaded our stuff, got our bearings and introduced ourselves to everyone, I was struck by how friendly the others were, how excited they were about getting into the water, and how good it felt to be around others who enjoy diving as much as I do. All our equipment had been prepared, and it was easy talking to everyone and finding a buddy for our first dive of the day. The group leaders gave some excellent detailed briefings, and made sure that we’d paired up with the right people.

Bitagane, my first destination, is a short 5 minute boat ride near the port. We were separated into different groups, some diving in Bitagane, others around another site called Soudaine, and the more advanced divers heading out for a wreck dive. Dive sites in Atami contain plenty of spectacular soft corals, nudibranchs and moray eels as well as the Chinsen, one of the only divable wrecks in Japan. Unfortunately, visibility today wasn’t that good, but the water temperature was perfect, around 24C which made for a very smooth and comfortable dive. We stayed close to plenty of rocks and occasionally I spotted a few colourful fish including a great black and yellow one, about medium size, swimming on its own around the rocks. There were plenty of moray eels around the weed beds too. Our dive leader was fantastic, looking around to see if we were ok and even splitting us into groups according to how much air we had so those with less air could ascend first. I probably felt more relaxed on this dive than any other, thanks to the comfortable warm water and the feeling that I was definitely in good hands.

After Bitagane, we headed back to the dive school for a 2hr break and spent time chatting and taking it easy before our next dive to Soudaine. This time I was with another group, and happy to be able to dive in 2 different locations. Soudaine is also teeming with various creatures, and rocks with steep sides that drop deep deep down to the bottom. My buddy this time was my friend’s husband and three other divers were with us. On this descent I had some mild ear-clearing problems but managed to take it slow and was able to calmly head down without holding on to the rope as I approached the bottom. The others stayed close by and we spent the next 45mins literally drifting past walls and walls of rocks, sometimes swimming in between them, and heading out over huge gardens of kelp stretching for miles around. As we swam between the rocks we were surrounded by huge schools of tiny fish. If the visibility had been slightly better we would have seen much more, but once down below I could make out a lot of the marine life. We dived to around 15m, and ascended slowly, sticking close to the rocks for a better look at the plants and other creatures. I was delighted to spot my first octopus during this dive! A slight current made buoyancy and swimming a bit hard, but taking a slow ascent and seeing things up close was pretty special and really brought home to me just how varied the marine life of Atami is.

Both my dives were smooth, I was so relaxed and really got back into being underwater. After our dives we had an excellent barbecue, and then headed to our accommodation to watch Atami’s famous fireworks display. The fireworks were amazing, much better than I expected, and the perfect end to a great day of diving and socialising. Most importantly it was so nice to have finally met other divers to share stories with, and it was great getting advice, tips, seeing everyone else’s photos, and just talking diving! Am really looking forward to heading to Oshima with the group next month, where hopefully I can fit in at least 5 or 6 dives….

Practical information

  • In June I came across a divers’ group called Discovery Divers Tokyo (www.discoverydiverstokyo.com) and signed up for this month’s Atami trip through them.  They’re an excellent mix of foreigners and Japanese people, very friendly and sociable!
  • I took the morning bullet train direct to Atami from Shinagawa station, leaving at 07:34 and arriving at 08:12.  Cost of single ticket: around 4,200yen with reserved seat, about 3,500yen without.  Arriving around 8AM is good if you want a full day of diving.
  • Discovery Divers picked us up and took us to Atami Scuba (www.atamiscuba.jp), a 5-7min drive from Atami station.  The school is right on the port, with modern hot showers and toilets, a vending machine by the reception and a fairly large area with tables and chairs for a barbecue.  No tea, coffee or snacks are provided.  Good to bring your own snacks, but Discovery Divers organised an excellent barbecue.
  • The boat leaves for the first dive at 10AM.  Everyone puts on their equipment at the school and walks on to the boat to sit on the floor.  Entry into the water is by backflip.  Once off the boat, equipment is removed back at the school.
  • We had a 2hr break before our next dive around 13:30.
  • 2 boat dives cost 15,000yen, the barbecue 1,200yen and full equipment rental for one day 7,000yen, making a total of 23,200yen, not including train tickets and overnight stay.
  • All divers are responsible for setting up their equipment and tidying up after each dive.
July’s dives
Dive 1:  Bitagane:  depth: 19.9m, dive time: 35mins, dive in: 10:17AM, water temp: 24C, surface temp: 27C.  Used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belts and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw plenty of moray eels, soft coral and a black and yellow fish I’m trying to find out more about!
Dive 2:  Soudaine:  depth: 16.9m, dive time: 46mins, dive in: 13:40, water temp: 25C, surface temp: 27C.  Used a 10L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw my first octopus, moray eels, huge schools of small fish and gardens of kelp.  Slight current but nothing too serious.