Monthly Archives: October 2011

October 2011: Hachijojima, Japan

Sunday October 9th, 2011

This morning at 5:30AM we left our accommodation hoping to spot some hammerhead sharks in Nazumado. Although pretty tired, I was keen to get into the water, and felt quite relaxed having been at the site yesterday afternoon. When we reached our entry point the sea was pretty calm, and although possible currents were mentioned during the briefing, they were the last thing on my mind as I entered the water more gracefully than yesterday.  Unfortunately however, I wish I had been more prepared.

Currents are great in that they carry in food (plankton) to an area which attracts more fish, and that makes the area an interesting one to explore but for divers they can be intimidating and a huge challenge due to their unpredictability and divers’ natural urge to fight them. My descent and ear clearing both went smoothly and I felt comfortable going deeper but it soon became apparent that something was not quite right. Already at 5 or 6m we were clinging onto rocks trying not to get swept away. When the water flow is strong it’s vital to stay close to the sea floor as the current is always lesser down there, so I swam near the rocks, slowly attempting to swim straight out to yesterday’s arch and rock formation, but visibility, fish, buoyancy and ear clearing were all forgotten as the current became my main focus. In the end we were unable to swim through the arch as the water pushed us back, and just as I reached half a tank of air our guide called off trying to find the hammerheads and told us to remain close to the entry point for the remainder of our dive to assure a safe ascent. Although we were restricted in where we could go, we still managed to spot some beautiful creatures including some turtles struggling against the current a bit more gracefully than we were, and one Golden Spadefish swimming close to us by himself. He’d also joined us yesterday in Nazumado.

After such an eventful dive, breakfast was so welcoming and soon we were ready to visit a new site called Yaene on the west coast of the island. The sun was pretty strong and the bay quite sheltered. It seemed really inviting, perhaps offering a possible easy dive after this morning’s currents.

According to my dive group, Yaene is a simple site with an easier entry and exit. The bay is more protected with less waves and surge. There are some beautiful schools of fish even in shallow areas around some cement structures. The site consists of macrolife such as nudibranchs and offers a few large arches, and a relaxing dive for beginners when the water is calm.

On this dive I learned more than anything how important it is to stay buoyant.  As divers we are always told to get up close to the reef and examine all the details, and yet we aren’t allowed to touch anything. Skilled underwater photographers are amazing at getting their masks within inches of a delicate soft coral, and retreat without doing any harm. So what’s the secret?

Things in Yaene began really well. I descended smoothly and visibility was crystal clear. We spent the first few minutes in a straight line swimming out towards deeper waters. Soon we were down to 18-19m. There were no arches this time but plenty of huge rocks, concrete boulders and a sandy surface with 2 rays that almost seemed to be playing with each other, staying close together and swimming amidst the sand. We also came across more juvenile angel fish, a yellow trumpet fish, wraught iron butterfly fish and a school of barracuda types early on in our descent. Unfortunately during this dive I completely lost control of my buoyancy and ended up rapidly ascending to the surface from around 10m.  This can be extremely dangerous depending on how deep you’re ascending from and how fast, as nitrogen gas bubbles form in the body tissue rather than being exhaled.

So what is the secret to achieving the perfect buoyancy? Here are some tips I found online:

  • Make sure you are carrying the correct weights. To get an idea of your proper weight, when you are on the surface you should be at eye level with the water with no air in your BC, carrying a full tank.
  • Remember that in a wetsuit, you will become less buoyant as you descend.
  • Patience! After adding and releasing air from your BCD, it takes time to take effect.
  • Stay horizontal and make sure your kicks propel you forwards and not upwards.
  • Keep your console etc clipped close to your body to prevent drag.
  • Breathing – exhale and hold it until you start sinking, then take shallow inhales.

After an eventful start to the day I really wanted a smooth underwater journey, so when our group leader offered a boat dive for the afternoon, I opted to follow him and let him guide us in shallower waters. After lunch we took a fishing boat out to Idesari in the open ocean. Like Hachijojima’s other dive sites, Idesari too is full of complex arches with plenty of tunnels and small areas to swim through. As we looked over the boat, the visibility was so clear that we could already make out the rocks below. Having put on our equipment on the boat, we descended by forward stride and used the anchor rope to meet at the bottom. The water temperature was a slightly colder 22C, but it made everything more clear and crisp, and soon we were drifting past Moorish Idols, lined cheek wrasses, surge wrasses, small soldier fish, porcupine fish and sea anemones. There was so much to keep us occupied that I could have stayed down there forever. The dive clearly showed me just how tropical and unspoilt Hachijojima really is.

This month was pretty eventful – a strong current and lack of buoyancy control provided for two very unexpected and different dives. But as our group leader pointed out, experiencing those was actually a good thing, that not all dives are smooth and that to improve it’s vital to experience tricky situations as well. I’ve started to feel much more relaxed underwater, and love the feeling of blocking everything else out and fully focusing on the dive itself and what’s around me. My group’s trips will soon end as winter approaches, but mine will go on as I prepare to head to Okinawa’s Kerama islands next month for my November dives.

Practical information

  • Like last August, I joined Discovery Divers on their regular Hachijojima trip usually held in September.
  • We met at Takeshiba pier near Hamamatsucho-station on the Yamanote line around 9:20PM, to take an overnight ferry departing at 10:20PM. Because the trip was arranged last minute we were unable to reserve an area below deck so we slept on deck and rented blankets at 100yen each. You can borrow as many blankets as you like!
  • The boat is basic, but offers vending machines, a restaurant and a spacious deck. Journey time from Tokyo is around 11 hours.
  • Our dive school was Hachijojima Regulus Diving (http://www.edit.ne.jp/~regulus/).
  • The school is about a minute from the port by car.  It has a separate room upstairs to leave bags, a reception area, spacious wooden deck for guests to write up their log books or have lunch, terrace to hang rented equipment after use, separate concrete area to prepare and wash equipment, shower rooms, and toilets.  Shampoo and shower gel are provided.  The reception area has books and magazines on the underwater world, including an excellent one in English all about fish.
  • Hot and cold tea and sweets are available in the reception area where guests help themselves.  No coffee.
  • The staff weren’t involved in our dives but it is possible to arrange private dives directly with them.
  • We moved around by van, loading and unloading equipment ourselves.
  • All entries are beach entries – walking into the water carrying equipment.
  • Lunch is provided – a boxed lunch containing either meat or fish.  All lunches come with rice, meat/fish, vegetables and some pickles.
  • You are responsible for all hired equipment.  The area to wash equipment in is extremely spacious – two big tubs of water for wetsuits, books, masks, fins and snorkels, and two medium-sized tubs to soak cameras in.
  • We stayed in a big modern Japanese-style hotel/inn about 5 mins away from the dive school.  3 to a room, sleeping on the floor, with breakfast and dinner provided.  Dinner: rice, miso soup, sashimi, deep-friend fish, salad, extremely balanced, filling and healthy. Breakfast: rice, miso soup, fried eggs, natto (fermented soy beans), nori seaweed and tea.
  • I paid a 20,000yen deposit to the group for the trip, followed by another 45,000yen on the night of departure (this covers you for 4-5 dives, accommodation, equipment rental, boat tickets, dinner and breakfast).
  • We took the slow ferry back to Tokyo on public holiday Monday.  The journey is about 12hours, and a return ticket is around 10,000 to 15,000yen.  It’s a long journey, a full day on the boat, so best to bring books and plenty to do.  We had a great journey home, taking photos, chatting and chilling out over plenty of beer!
  • It’s also possible to fly, on a 45min flight direct from Haneda airport.  A return trip costs just over 21,000yen if booked early.

October’s dives

Dive 1: Nazumado: depth: 11.7m, dive time: 46mins, water temp: 21C, entry time: 6:39AM, exit time: 7:20AM, used a 12L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Mainly focused on surviving the strong current!

Dive 2: Yaene: depth: 18.9m, dive time: 47mins, water temp: 26C, average depth: 8.2m, entry time: 11:22AM, exit time: 12:05PM, used a 12L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw one turtle resting on a ledge, some parrot fish, and two cowtail stingrays.

Dive 3: Idesari: depth 16.3m, dive time: 37mins, water temp: 22C, average depth: 10.3m, entry time: 15:05, exit time: 15:42, used a 12L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw nudibranchs, Moorish Idols, lined cheek wrasses, surge wrasses, soldier fish, porcupine fish and anemones.

October 2011: Hachijojima, Japan

Saturday October 8th, 2011

This year October’s second weekend was a 3-day one, and full of diving as my group and I successfully made another attempt to head to Hachijojima after last month’s typhoon forced us to call off our trip.

Hachijojima is located in the Philippine Sea, about 287km (178 miles) south of Tokyo. Part of Tokyo prefecture with a population of around 8,500, it is consistently warmer than mainland Japan thanks to the warm Kuroshio current. As the island is volcanic, its beaches are black and sandy, but it boasts a variety of scuba diving points and is famous for sea turtles and underwater lava bridges. Visitors can also surf, visit some botanical gardens or hike to the top of Hachijo-fuji, a Mount Fuji-style mountain and the highest point on the island.

Hachijojima is way out there. The journey is a long 12 hours, but with no typhoons or gale force winds we had a very smooth crossing. Following our arrival we were soon heading to our dive school, a 1-min drive up the road. Very accommodating, with free hot and cold tea and sweets, I was impressed with the wooden stairs, tables and outdoor areas we could sit in, and the little terrace we could use to dry equipment and towels. Being extremely keen to get into the water, preparations were immediately underway to head over to Sokodo, one of Hachijojima’s main dive spots located next to the port where we arrived.

Like in Oshima two months ago, my group sent us some information on the possible dive sites we would visit during our trip. Here’s what they said about Sokodo:

  • Hard and soft corals like those in the Philippines or Thailand.
  • A triple arch that runs almost up the surface and is surrounded with plenty of marine life (blue ring octopus and turtles).
  • Care should be taken on the navigation back, not to get stuck on the wrong side of the sea wall.
  • Intermediate to experienced level, 12m to 24m.

Entry into Sokodo was down some slippery steps into slightly choppy seas, and then out of a sheltered bay area towards the triple arch. Visibility in the beginning wasn’t so good, but down below it was still a feast for the eyes as we came across seaweed, anemones and small sea urchins. The arch we eventually arrived at is formed in quite a complex way, with other tunnels and crevices close by, offering divers some interesting routes to swim through. Hachijojima was formed by the eruptions of two now-extinct volcanoes. Tubes, caves, bridges and other structures were created as lava poured into the sea. There were also some huge concrete boulders close by, covered in plants, shellfish and a plethora of fish. We spotted some black and yellow ones called Banded Boarheads resting quietly at the bottom of the arch and peering suspiciously up with huge eyes. We also came across a juvenile semicircle angelfish and juvenile emperor angelfish, both said to be rare to spot. Parrotfish, Moorish Idols and a variety of tropical fish gave the sea plenty of colour.

After a short break back at the dive school for lunch and filling up the tanks, we were soon off to Nazumado, our second and last dive of the day. This site is about 30 mins from the school, and according to my group the entry is challenging, particularly if there are waves or surge, but the site’s main attraction is its nice arch close by with a rich marine life including the famous Yuzen, or Wrought Iron Butterfly Fish, that only lives in Hachijojima and slightly further south. Currents are common and significant, so new divers are advised to stay close to their guide, in moderate depths.

Venturing into the water at Nazumado was definitely difficult. Fully geared up, we walked down from the car park along a concrete slippery area and held onto a rope to enter the water, but the waves washed up against us making it hard to put on our fins and masks. The easiest way to overcome this (but it does take practice!) is to put on your mask, inflate your BCD and hold your fins so that once in the water you can float at the surface, put on your fins and prepare your mask before descending. It doesn’t make for a graceful entry, but you have to laugh at yourself, and in the end all the struggling is worth it, as Nazumado is one of the top five diving spots in Japan with plenty on offer. Black stone tide pools frame the ocean. Green sea turtles swim over the rocks and arches, and hammerheads and thresher sharks also make an appearance, mainly between May and July. The underwater rocks and arches were our destination this time too. Close to the entry point the water is shallow enough for beginner and intermediate divers, but for the more advanced, it suddenly becomes deep beyond the rocks, and offers even more terrain to explore.

I stayed with some others near the main arch closest to the shore, where the sea turtles congregated and four or five slowly glided by. Fishes of all shapes and sizes swam slowly past us as I stopped to examine the many creatures surrounding the arches. Swimming through we discovered some small red soldier fish with huge eyes perfectly suited to their dark environment. Nazumado is well known for its colourful array of life, including a lion fish that seemed to be camouflaged against a rock. Despite the difficult entry and exit, this dive was certainly as spectacular as I’d heard and well worth diving into.

It felt so good to be with the group again and I definitely satisfied my craving to get into the water. We ended the day with a much-deserved soak in the island’s free outdoor onsen and a filling evening meal back at our accommodation. The sea and winds were so calm, that I knew our diving adventures the next day would continue under more great conditions.

October’s dives

Dive1: Sokodo: depth: 14.1m, dive time: 53mins, water temp:23C, average depth: 9.4m, entry time: 11:44AM, exit time: 12:30PM, used a 12L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw Banded Boarheads, juvenile angelfish, juvenile butterfly fish, huge clam and Moorish Idols.

Dive 2: Nazumado: depth: 11m, dive time: 45mins, water temp: 23C, entry time: 15:12, exit time: 16:00, used a 12L tank, 3kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw green sea turtles, lion fish, soldier fish, sea urchins and sea anemones.