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.

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