Monthly Archives: December 2011

November 2011: Naha and the Kerama Islands, Okinawa, Japan

Sunday November 27th 2011

Although conditions were good on land as we woke up this morning, we’d decided to avoid another trip to the Kerama Islands due to yesterday’s rough crossings and increased winds.  We were disappointed at not being able to go to the islands once more, but I was delighted to know that we would still be relatively far out at sea with a better chance of good visibility and marine life.

We were picked up early in the morning and driven to the boat in order to set up our equipment and go over some final checks before beginning our journey.  Reef Encounters’ boat is large and spacious, with an area below deck to store tanks, a spare room below for storage or changing out of wetsuits and plenty of seating areas indoors and outdoors.  Our dive guide had brought along some soup which she heated up inside, a perfect addition to our journey as we spent most of it outside on deck feeling the cold wind.

Our destinations today were Ginowan Garden and Araha Beach.  Ginowan Garden is a simple dive, a cruise over some flat coral gardens.  It’s also not far from the Ginowan Pinnacles, the largest structure on the Ginowan coastline where pinnacles of reef come upwards to the surface.  The coral we saw on our first dive was distinctive and varied – mushroom, soft and hard corals.  We began by striding off the back of the boat and using the anchor line to guide our descent and allow for better control.  A slight current slowed us down somewhat but after arriving at 24m we were able to spend half an hour or so indulging in some adventurous sightseeing and forgetting the more challenging dives we’d planned for later on.  We discovered plenty of clownfish tucked away in mountains of coral formations and even near to the sandy bottom, safely concealed in sea anemones.  The corals had plenty of small little holes, cracks and crevices full of surprises.  Again we came across more trumpet fish (according to information online the Triton Trumpetfish were brought over from the Philippines to battle the Crown of Thorns starfish that destroys coral), a big puffer fish, sunset wrasse, surge wrasse, orange dashed gobies, striped wetlips, and checked under the mushroom coral for more lion fish.

Ginowan Garden is ideal for divers who wish to stay close to Naha or do not have time for a long boat trip to the Kerama Islands.  We returned here for dive 2 and this time I began to get a lot more familiar with the area, and comfortable hovering over the massive amount of coral below.  We stayed at 18m which offered some excellent visibility and a longer dive time.  Taking a flashlight to poke around underneath the coral is highly recommended too.  The site gives a good balance between coral and sandy patches, is ideal for practising navigation and photography, and a great place to appreciate just how beautiful and complex life underwater can be.  We found nudibranchs, yellow striped goatfish, red spotted blennies and even got to chase a small cuttlefish during our ascent.  We spotted him quite unexpectedly, and as we were relatively shallow there was plenty of sunlight shining straight over him, making him very easy to spot as he quickly swam away from us and over the coral out of sight.

Araha Beach was the location of our third and final dive.  We spent time a fair distance away from this popular family spot with soft sand and a giant wooden play structure that looks like an old ship.  Araha is one of the area’s busiest beaches with promenades and picnic tables, located close to shopping areas.  Far away from this, I got to experience my first deep dive over 30m, as a taste of things to come when I take my Advanced course next year.

There are many discussions as to why people dive deep.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem appealing – cold water, more water pressure and not much marine life, but some divers trade a long dive for a deep one to explore a well sunk wreck, search for different marine life or enjoy some ocean currents that are very strong on the bottom.  Others describe a feeling of excitement, relaxation as the sound of bubbles dies away (water pressure makes the sound echo much less), and a chance to explore sites that are difficult to access.  But deep diving is a skill in itself, requiring plenty of practice and tutoring.

I was delighted at getting through the dive.  What I’d read about the dark depths of the ocean were indeed true.  After swimming down for a while, I noticed that my eyes had begun to pick up different colours.  My green fins had turned yellow, and my dive guide’s mask had become blue.  We all know that less sunlight underwater makes everything dark but the most important reason for low visibility underwater is the weakening of the refraction capability of human eyes.  When light travels through water it is refracted, absorbed and scattered differently to when it travels through air.  As it passes through the water it is absorbed, with red disappearing first, followed by orange, yellow, green and then blue.  Using my flashlight here turned out to be a good exercise in revealing some startling colours that would have gone unnoticed.  As expected I also became extremely cold.  Water is a much better conductor of heat than air.  The water that comes into contact with your body during a dive warms up, expands and quickly carries the heat away from you.  I also consumed a lot of air quickly, due to the cold, perhaps anxiety and the heavier exertion of breathing at depth, so we could only stay at 34m for about 8 minutes.  Most of the dive was taken up by the ascent and descent.  It was thrilling to enter the realms of 30m or so, but I realised that when deep diving it’s important to have an objective, and not just dive in for the sake of it.  As we ascended my breathing became more slow and deep, and we cruised past semi circle angel fish, banner fish, giant clam shells, wrasses and puffer fish.  The best dives however, are always at much shallower depths.

Next month my attempt to dive once a month comes to a close in the waters off Wellington New Zealand.  I am looking forward to putting to use once again the skills I’ve picked up this year, and comparing New Zealand’s waters with Japan’s rich variety.

Practical information

  • My friend and I booked to spend the weekend with Reef Encounters (www.reefencounters.org) located about 30mins north of Naha city.
  • We took an evening flight (20:00) on a Thursday direct from Haneda to Naha with ANA, and returned on Monday leaving Naha at 19:00.  Total cost was around 30,000yen – very cheap for Okinawa!
  • When we arrived in Naha we paid around 4,000yen for a taxi ride (around 30mins) to the Hambi Resort (http://www.hambyresort.com/), located in the area of Chatan near the dive school.
  • The school has a big area at the entrance selling dive gear and text books.  Further behind is an office/classroom type area where you can sit and fill in log books, and an outdoor space to wash and hang gear.  One shower and one toilet.  No tea/coffee facilities.
  • We set up our equipment at the school and loaded it on to the van before driving off to our destinations.  No lunch is provided so we made frequent stops to the supermarket and convenience stores to stock up on water, lunch and snacks.  As there were no other customers except us, we relaxed a lot over the three days and took our time.
  • The dive school’s boat to the Kerama Islands is basic and spacious, located at the marina about 20mins drive away from the school.  We had an area below to change into our wetsuits, hot water, areas to sit indoors and on deck, and seating areas up top.
  • You are responsible for all hired equipment.  Back at the school, the area to wash equipment in is extremely spacious – two big tubs of water for wetsuits, books, masks fins and snorkels, and a smaller tub to soak cameras in.
  • We stayed in a small room at the Hambi Resort with a bunk bed, paying around 3,000yen a night.  No breakfast or dinner provided so we had to look around at nearby restaurants.  There weren’t many!  Most close early and open late but we did find a Mexican and Brazilian restaurant, and went to a nice night market and cheese cake cafe, where we got cheese cake for breakfast.  Kitchen and cutlery are available for your own cooking, and showers were excellent – towels, shampoo, shower gel, hairdryers all provided.
  • On our last night (Sunday) we booked into a hotel in Naha city and spent all of Monday in Naha, mainly walking around Kokusai dori, one of the main streets filled with souvenir shops, before boarding our flight back to Tokyo.

November’s dives

Dive 1: Ginowan Garden: depth: 24.2m, dive time: 34mins, water temp: 25.5C, average depth: 13.2m, entry time: 10:32AM, exit time: 11:06AM, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw big puffer fish, nudibranchs, finger and plate coral, yellow boxfish (young adult), sunset wrasse, surge wrasse, anemone shrimp, striped wetlips, orange dashed goby

Dive 2: Ginowan Garden: depth: 18.6m, dive time: 45mins, water temp: 25.4C, average depth: 10.2m, entry time: 12:08, exit time: 12:53, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw colourful soft coral, nudibranchs, chased a cuttlefish, yellowstriped goatfish and red spotted blennies

Dive 3: Araha Beach: depth 34.6m, dive time: 33mins, water temp: 25.3C, average depth: 18.3m, entry time: 14:31, exit time: 15:04, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw semi circle angel fish, banner fish, giant clam shell, slingjaw wrasse, star puffer

November 2011: Naha and the Kerama Islands, Okinawa, Japan

Saturday November 26th 2011

The Kerama Islands are a popular getaway about an hour from the Okinawa mainland, full of unspoiled beaches and coral gardens that are rated highly among scuba divers.  Three main islands are in the group: Tokashiki, Zamami and Aka-jima, in addition to many more small and uninhabited islets.  Water visibility ranges from 40 to 50m.  Over a thousand kinds of fish and 330 different types of coral are said to inhabit the crystal clear blue waters.

Today’s destination was these magnificent islands, and after an early pick up by our dive school, we were soon on the school’s boat and beginning our journey to Toma off Zamami island.  Conditions were extremely rough, but after an hour’s journey the water soon became calm as we entered a small bay with other diving boats close by.  I looked over, able to make out the coral structures below.  The water was clear and blue.  We hadn’t even begun our dives and already the islands were living up to their reputation.

As we were attempting some more challenging dives this weekend, my friend and I were told to plan our dive and navigate together, remembering what it means to dive with a buddy, to look out for each other and stay close.  One of the golden rules of diving is to never dive alone.  It’s important to stay within a reasonable distance from a buddy so you can reach each other quickly if a problem occurs.  Unfortunately we still have a lot to learn in this area, and it particularly hit home to me just how vital it is to check your buddy’s equipment, see whether it’s properly set up, make sure you know where it all is in case you need it in an emergency, and agree on hand signals, a maximum depth and bottom time limit so you are both comfortable during the dive.  Upon descent we got so excited at everything around us that we tended to swim away from each other to look at different things, and decide to go in a particular direction at the last minute.  Not sticking to any concrete plan wasn’t the right thing to do but the dive itself was smooth, and the waters offered plenty – butterfly fish, yellow box fish, striptailed damsel fish and various types of crustaceans.

We stayed at Toma for our second dive in which we got to relax a little and follow our guide while taking photos.  This time we were able to appreciate the water and the various creatures.  We took it easy on our descent by using a rope, which saved us from focusing on skills like buoyancy control and ensured a smooth route to the bottom where we all gathered before beginning the dive.  The corals around Toma are huge and vast, providing an excellent environment in which to spot some interesting marine creatures, even using a flashlight to light up the darker areas underneath the coral where plenty of life may be hiding.  Much of the dead coral provides a good area to hold onto during a safety stop, or just to hover while taking a photo.  We began at 8m and swam slowly past walls of coral before we hit a sandy bottom at around 19m.  From here we were able to adjust and practice buoyancy, get accustomed to the warm water and slowly make our ascent while thoroughly observing what was around us. We came across plenty of damselfish, a clownfish and her baby peering out at us from beneath their sea anemone home, a longfin spadefish, the same yellow, black and silver kind seen last month in Hachijojima, and a rare archilles tang, a black fish with a striking orange and white lining along the fins and tail.  By far our best discovery was an adult octopus, hiding deep inside a small crevice.  As we poked it, it became agitated, pulsating and giving off the most extraordinary light show while concealing itself through camouflage.  At one point it seemed to have lines of electricity swiftly running through it, blue, then yellow, and soon it was the same colour as the coral and we began searching for it again.  Later I discovered that what we saw was probably a form of counter-illumination, in which creatures such as squid are able to use their light-producing organs to create a sparkling glow.  This is sometimes done to attract prey and for signalling.

Having monitored the sea conditions between Naha and the Kerama Islands, things didn’t look too good with possible bad weather approaching from the evening into Sunday morning, so we decided to complete our last dive of the day closer to Naha so we could safely return to port.   As we headed to the site of Ginowan Shallow Lake, I was so seasick that I doubted being able to complete my dive but I was told to get into the water as quickly as possible to escape the swaying of the boat.  Having donned my gear, I was soon heading out for what would be an easy wreck dive.   As Ginowan Shallow Lake is just off the mainland, visibility was nowhere near as good as the Kerama Islands, and it was a lot more rocky.  We used a rope for our descent and swam to about 16m to explore a simple medium-sized ship.  Shipwrecks are attractive because they are artificial reefs covered in marine life and many discoveries await.  Divers also like to take a close look at the different parts of the ship, and enjoy the thrill of observing things that normally cannot be seen up close on floating vessels.  Our dive was non-penetration diving, in which we stayed outside the boat, taking in the propellers, the hull and getting a feel for the structure.  We started at the very bottom, ascended over the vessel and down again.  I was struck by the different algae, shellfish and other creatures sticking to the boat.  It really was an artificial reef.  We came across small little windows and peered into complete darkness, except for a slight movement here and there as a fish darted by.  We saw greensnout parrotfish, decorated gobies and some anemone fish close by.

This weekend is leaving me with a lot to take in, and experiencing wreck dives, night dives and navigation just shows the obvious – that diving isn’t only about fun, it’s a skill in itself that takes lots of time to develop.  Being able to dive at the Kerama Islands (and Okinawa in general) has been a treat.  I have never tired of the endless dive sites and rich marine life of Japan’s south, and practicing my skills in top conditions has been a huge advantage.  The Kerama Islands and rest of Okinawa, with its variety of dive sites for both the novice and the experienced diver, will always be highly recommended.

November’s dives

Dive 1: Toma, Kerama Islands: depth: 14.5m, dive time: 51mins, water temp: 26C, average depth: 10.2m, entry time: 11:21AM, exit time: 12:12PM, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw yellow box fish, top shell, butterfly fish and damsel fish.

Dive 2: Toma, Kerama Islands: depth: 25.8m, dive time: 58mins, water temp: 25C, average depth: 8.9m, entry time: 13:41, exit time: 14:39, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw 1 giant octopus, skunk anemones, damselfish, archilles tang and longfin spadefish.

Dive 3: Ginowan Shallow Lake: depth: 16.8m, dive time: 35mins, water temp: 25.2C, average depth: 10.7m, entry time: 16:47, exit time: 17:25, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw anemone fish, clark’s anemone fish, greensnout parrotfish and decorated gobies.

November 2011: Naha and the Kerama Islands, Okinawa, Japan

 

Friday November 25th 2011

This year Okinawa has been a key destination for me, offering some ideal dive sites in which to practice my skills.  As my attempt to dive once a month draws to a close, I found myself back in the clear blue waters of Japan’s south, completing my November dives close to Okinawa’s main city of Naha and enjoying a day trip to the Kerama Islands.

This month I was able to share the joy of diving with a friend, who joined me for a weekend with Reef Encounters, a school 30 minutes from Naha on the Okinawa mainland.  There we teamed up with a top diving instructor who had been with us on Hachijojima in October.  The famous Kerama Islands had been saved for Saturday, so today consisted of 3 beach dives near Naha, to slowly ease back into things.

Conditions at our first spot, Sunabe Water Plant, were rough.  A flight of stairs led directly to some concrete boulders but the tide was already quite high and we could clearly see the challenges ahead.  Watching the strong waves, I realised that we needed to get to the bottom of the water fairly quickly but not having dived for the past 6 weeks, I felt a little apprehensive.  Fortunately we were able to set up higher on land and carry our equipment straight down the steps to the concrete boulders which were big enough to lean against to put on our masks and fins.  Crawling across some slippery rocks into the water, we struggled to descend.  Divers use up much more air and energy in this kind of situation, which shortens dive time as a result, but we remained at around 10m and were soon rewarded with a vast coral garden spreading out for miles and crawling with fish.  We drifted past the common blue starfish, sea urchins and the usual angel and butterfly fish, before coming across a poisonous sea snake.  Staying a little distance away, we observed him from afar as he eventually slithered off into the deep blue.  Sunabe Water Plant had plenty of sand with no tunnels or crevices to swim through, making it an ideal site for brushing up on dive skills, provided the water is calm.

After lunch we drove to the other side of the Okinawa mainland for our second destination, Kin Red Beach.  Conditions here were calmer, and entry couldn’t have been more simple: straight down about 5 steps into the warm shallow water, sitting on the sand to don masks and fins.  This time we swam downwards, reaching the deeper areas slowly, which allowed for some smooth ear clearing.  As the sea was calm, we were given a chance to use our compasses and practice navigation.

Navigating your way underwater is no easy task.  But knowing where you’re going and where you are at any given moment makes a dive much more enjoyable.  After looking around at the rocks and sea walls above the surface, we began with a good look at our entry point underwater.  Knowing whether it’s sandy, rocky or full of coral can act as a landmark and help on the way back.  Our entry point wasn’t much to speak of.  Lots of sand, bad visibility and nothing which could serve as a landmark.  The cloudy water did make me a little nervous but we successfully navigated our way to the first rocky patch teeming with sea urchins and a baby lion fish swimming above.  Our next task was to take a right turn towards the sea wall, spend some time exploring and then swim back near to the wall until the water became shallower.  The sea wall was covered in sea urchins and algae and surrounded by fish including the trumpet fish chilling out close by.  Getting out a flashlight and shining it over the algae was most exciting, to get a feel of the different crabs and discover a baby crab, shrimp or fish hiding away.  The site was full of sand, and any fin kick created huge sand clouds, making visibility even worse.  As we swam back closer to the sea wall, I had to keep reminding myself that a compass is used underwater in exactly the same way as it is on land.  Being in the water does throw you off course, when really things are much simpler than they seem.

We stayed at Kin Red Beach for our third and last dive of the day which ended up being a night dive.  As I want to take my Advanced diving course next year, our guide suggested that during the weekend we tackle some more challenging dives.  My last night dive in Oshima taught me that it is definitely not something to be taken lightly, but seeing the sea come alive with nocturnal creatures and smaller organisms reflecting against the moonlight provides a very unique experience.  I look back on my dive in Oshima as a challenge overcome, and having dived in today’s spot earlier on, I felt much more prepared.  Crabs came out of their holes to hunt and scavenge, the same baby lion fish from the previous dive made an appearance again and a sleeping trumpet fish stayed completely still even though we shone our flashlights over him.  The sea urchins and anemones seemed a lot bigger, perhaps extending their spine and tentacles but the biggest highlight of all was phosphorescence.  Turning off your flashlight, then waving your hands around or rubbing them together creates an impressive light show as plankton reacts to being agitated by emitting light.

Having touched upon some of the more difficult elements of diving, it’s really hit home that I have a lot more to learn.  However, the beach dives today served as good preparation and a taster of things to come, and fortunately have only motivated me even more.

November’s dives

Dive 1: Sunabe Water Plant: depth: 10.9m, dive time: 37mins, water temp: 25.6C, average depth: 7m, entry time: 13:06, exit time: 13:43, used a 12L aluminium tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw blue star fish, a sea snake, sea urchins, bug soft coral garden.

Dive 2: Kin Red Beach: depth: 10.6m, dive time: 1hr 6mins, water temp: 25.1C, average depth: 5.5m, entry time: 16:17, exit time: 17:23, used a 12L tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw trumpet fish, crabs, sea urchins, baby lion fish

Dive 3: Kin Red Beach: depth: 7m, dive time: 29mins, water temp: 25C, average depth: 4.8m, entry time: 18:47, exit time: 19:16, used a 12L tank, 7kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw trumpet fish, crabs, sea urchins, baby lion fish and far too much sand!