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

About Rising Bubbles

Bonnie Waycott is a dive master and writer focusing on Japan's scuba diving and aquaculture. She is currently taking an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture at the University of St Andrews via distance learning and is due to graduate in December 2017. Her written work has been featured in Asian Diver, Scuba Diver AustralAsia, DIVE, Marine Biologist, The Fish Site, Fish Farmer, Hatchery International and Outdoor Japan Traveler, while for Japanese divers she writes about marine-related issues abroad for Japanese diving website Ocean+α. You can follow Bonnie on Twitter (@risingbubbles), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/RisingBubblesNotesOfANewDiver/) and Instagram (@bonniewaycott).
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