Monthly Archives: August 2013

June 2013: Yoronto, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan

Sunday June 16th and Monday June 17th 2013

The last island in the Amami Island chain south of Japan is filled with traditional villages, sugar cane farms and a sandy beach known as the stardust beach due to deposits of dead plankton that look just like stars.  Flying over the brightest coral reef I have ever seen, I soon spot the island as it emerges in the distance, a hidden gem that’s shaped a bit like an angel fish.

Yoronto (or Yoron-jima or Yoron Island) is situated on the southernmost end of Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu, southern Japan.  With a circumference of around 24km and a population of about 5000, it’s famous for its surrounding barrier and fringe reefs and a climate with an average temperature of about 20C.  Drop offs, arches, tunnels and crevasses feature widely at many of the diving spots as well as some narrow passageways where divers can swim over the star-shaped sand.  We spent two days on Yoronto and visited the following dive sites:

Shinaha is a beach along the northwest coast with a typical water temperature of around 29C.  The dives here are conducted close by, off a boat.  Divers descend along a rope to about 8m and turn right, heading down to about 10m.  This brings them to a vast open area covered in coral.   Between the coral are wide pathways of sand.  Cuttlefish are known to lay eggs and mate here while the area is very common for turtles (2 greeted us upon descent) and sea snakes also slither around so it’s a good idea to keep an eye out during the dive.

Denpoguchi is known for its range of crevasses.  The dive begins down a rope to about 8m and continues into a narrow tunnel down to a little over 15m.  Below is a bed of star-shaped sand and on either side the walls of rock stretch directly upwards, almost like monoliths.  To get the most out of this area, crawl along the sand with a light which you can shine into the dark spaces and openings along the bottom.  This is the home of lobster, prawns (if you look closely), lion fish, butterfly fish, red soldier fish, starfish and nudibranchs including an impressive yellow one with red spots called the Glossodoris cruenta, its frilly mantle moving from side to side.  The sun will shine through as you ascend, providing some great photo opportunities.

The coral reefs and coral mounds at B&G are smaller and the site is a vast area of sand, making it extremely good for trial dives and newly-certified divers.  As there was a first-time diver in our group, we stayed at around 5m exploring the many clusters of coral after descending from the boat (no rope required).  Our first encounter was with a medium-sized anemone, home to a couple of aggressive clownfish and their babies as well as a small crab nestled closely among the tentacles. The fish here are bright and plentiful.  A medium-sized sea slug lay relaxing on the sand, while green damselfish, threadfin butterfly fish, yellow brown wrasses and domino damselfish live quietly in the dark corners of each coral mound. Not the most exciting dive for advanced divers but a great site to practice skills and take close up shots.

Chinsen Amami is a shipwreck at 34-35m.  It lies on its side and is thought to have sunk around May 1993.  With the right planning it’s possible to get up close but due to some new divers in our group, we looked down at the wreck from around 20m.  Visibility is excellent and the ship is crystal clear from above so this is not a good spot if you are scared of heights!  When the current is relatively strong, schools of white tuna and bluefin trevally are known to drift past.  The dive begins with a descent along a rope to 13m and a swim over huge colossal rocks and coral formations until the wreck emerges. The water is bright blue but the area around the wreck isn’t home to much and a more interesting environment awaits on the ascent.  The rocks are large enough to house a purple nudibranch at 18m, clownfish and anemones that all enjoy the little nooks and crannies, while schools of longfin batfish look extremely relaxed as they swim by along with pink square fairy basslets, blue banded snappers and triggerfish.

Any diver who enjoys rocks, crevasses and narrow passageways will appreciate the Double Crevasse, so-called after its range of small and large crevasses and arches.  It’s a good area to see small coral reef fishes darting in and out of branch coral and is one of the main breeding grounds during the spring for turtles and squid.  We descended along a rope once more to 13m and immediately entered our first passageway where a shrimp stared back at us with huge eyes.  Swimming over the star-shaped sand we saw lion fish and some starfish.  The passageways are particularly narrow so buoyancy is key and all equipment should be kept as close to you as possible to avoid tangling. It’s also teeming with macro life and a great site for close up shots.

Practical information

  • I booked the Yoronto trip with Paradise Island Tours based in Tokyo (http://www.pitdiving.com/travel/)
  • JAL flights via Kagoshima leave Tokyo between 8AM and 9AM and land around lunchtime or early afternoon.  It is possible to do at least one dive on the day of arrival.
  • Our school Buku Buku Divers (http:// http://www.buku2.com/main-index.html) was there to meet us at the airport and drive us to the school.
  • Diving equipment can be sent from Tokyo in advance for about 2,500yen, using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
  • Buku Buku Divers is about 10mins’ drive from the airport.  Immediately upon entering, there is a long table for divers to fill in and sign forms.  On the right hand side is an area for equipment storage and on the left an outside area to wash, hang and dry gear, and a couple of toilets and changing rooms. Not much in the way of books or magazines.  Free tea is provided.
  • After loading the van with equipment, we drove to the nearest port and left the van there during the day.  All dives are boat dives.  The boat is very spacious and flat with almost no indoor area.  Divers sit on the floor with their equipment.  Bring your own towel, sunscreen and snacks.  Sweets and tea are provided.
  • Lunch is not provided so don’t forget to bring something light!
  • All entries into the water are backward rolls.  Ascent is up a ladder.
  • After each dive, everyone heads back to the port for a quick break which means the van is stored with a LOT of tanks.  All dive sites are about 10-15mins from the port.
  • Divers are responsible for looking after their own equipment.  The hotel we stayed at has a special area to hang and wash gear so after diving we were driven back to the hotel and sorted out our equipment accordingly.  The next day the school collected us with our equipment.
  • We stayed at the Yoronto Village Pension about 15mins away from Buku Buku Divers.  The hotel room is not so clean (a bit dusty and furniture was old) but it is spacious with WIFI and other usual amenities such as towels, shampoo, shower gel, soap and toothbrushes.  Outside our room was a nice grassy area to sit and have a coffee or read.  Breakfast was Japanese style (rice, soup, pickles, vegetables and grilled fish) and Western (toast, eggs, salad, coffee) the next.  Dinner is excellent – in addition to the usual rice, miso soup, pickles and veg, there are all kinds of Yoronto specialties in terms of fish, meat and alcohol.  Dinner is in a separate tatami straw mat room, very Japanese!
  • There are no bars, pubs and shops close to the hotel.  Having access to a car is highly recommended.  Car hire can be arranged through the hotel, even for a 2hr period and there is a lot to see including the star-shaped sand, camp sites and sugar cane fields.  Very flat and easy to drive around.
  • The total cost was around 85,000yen including return flights, two nights in the hotel with breakfast and dinner, 4 dives (guide, tanks and weights) and all transport.
  • The hotel will drive you to the airport after your stay.

 June’s dives

Dive 1: Shinaha: depth: 10.8m, dive time: 47mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 14:47, exit time: 15:25, average depth: 7.4m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg weights (back plate, no extra weights), Start pressure: 190 bar, End pressure: 80 bar.  Saw turtles and sea snakes.

Dive 2: Denpoguchi: depth: 15.2m, dive time: 46mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 16:38, exit time: 17:25, average depth: 9.5m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg weights (back plate, no extra weights).  Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 70 bar.  Saw lobster, prawns, lion fish, butterfly fish, red soldier fish, starfish and nudibranchs

Dive 3: B&G: depth: 4.8m, dive time: 35mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 09:15AM, exit time: 09:50AM, average depth: 3.5m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg weights (back plate, no extra weights).  Start pressure: 190 bar, End pressure: 135 bar.  Saw green damselfish, threadfin butterfly fish, yellow brown wrasses, domino damselfish, clown fish, anemones and sea slugs.

Dive 4: Chinsen Amami: depth: 22.4m, dive time: 33mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 10:56AM, exit time: 11:37AM, average depth: 13.3m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg weights (back plate, no extra weights).  Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 70 bar.  Saw schools of longfin batfish. pink square fairy basslets, blue banded snappers and triggerfish

Dive 5: Double Crevasse: depth: 14.8m, dive time: 41mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 12:38, exit time: 13;21, average depth: 10.2m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg weights (back plate, no extra weights).  Start pressure: 190 bar, End pressure: 70 bar.  Saw lion fish and star fish.

June 2013: Freshwater and Altitude Diving, Lake Motosuko, Yamanashi, Japan

Saturday June 1st 2013

 

Lake Motosuko at the foot of Mt Fuji is a great introduction to freshwater and altitude diving.  Freshwater, or rather lakes, rivers and streams, offer some huge advantages such as excellent visibility and a range of things to see such as rock formations, stalagmites, mangroves and algae.  Freshwater is also less dense than salt water so less weight is needed, but add on altitude diving and there are various points to keep in mind.  The reduced atmospheric pressure at the surface affects depth gauges and when the diver ascends, the rate of change as the ambient pressure drops is far greater than when ascending from a dive in the sea.  Adjusting your dive computer to the equivalent setting is a must.

Every June, hoards of divers and non-divers descend on Lake Motosuko to participate in an annual cleanup project aimed at removing debris and litter from the lake bottom and surrounding areas.  The lake is around 900 meters in altitude and goes down to a depth of around 138m. In the 9th century, Mt Fuji erupted and a large prehistoric lake separated into three smaller ones.  Lake Motosuko is one of the three.  

Before the clean up begins, divers can pick up a map from the organizers, which marks out areas with the most litter.  Once separated into pairs, they are then free to choose where they want to go and head right in so my buddy and I swam westwards, descending slowly.  The lake is caked in thick sediment (ash and silt) so stable buoyancy is crucial.  Kicking hard will stir up the sediment and worsen visibility, making things difficult not just for yourself but also for your buddy and in the worst case you can lose each other altogether.  Each buddy pair also has a mesh bag to put the litter into so the diver with the bag must remain suitably buoyant as his load becomes heavier.  

We swam past a slope of sediment and volcanic rocks at around 5m, strewn with items like fish hooks, fishing lines, beer cans, plastic containers, hair ties and small boxes that once contained takeaway meals.  Here we collected as much as we could before taking a slight right turn and swimming down to around 9-10m.  Near the lake are camp sites, excursion boats and windsurfing facilities so a lot of debris is simply dumped and pollution from various water activities has made the water quite cloudy so despite swimming carefully, visibility was not altogether great.  In terms of fish and plant life, we spotted a lot of weed-like plants and a couple of large grey fish, probably a type of trout as rainbow and brown trout are known to inhabit the lake in addition to shrimp and other smaller fish.  At 16 degrees the water is extremely cold.  Wearing a dry suit is the best option by far but it’s possible to cope in a 5-7mm wetsuit and a 3mm hood and vest underneath.  A hood and gloves are also essential.  Due to the altitude and low temperature, 30 minutes is the recommended time to stay underwater.

Not only does the cleanup help the community of Motosuko and the environment, but it also provides an opportunity for divers to experience something new and practice their skills, buoyancy in particular or even areas such as searching and retrieving.  In other words it’s a great opportunity to help out and gain some expertise.  The amount of litter our group collected, once all the mesh bags were put together, has no doubt had some impact on Motosuko’s environment.

  • My dive group heads to Lake Motosuko on a Friday night and stays at one of the nearby camp sites for the weekend, ready to start our dive first thing on Saturday morning
  • Participation is arranged by our group and tanks are provided by the cleanup organizers.  Divers pay for their own transport to the area and camping facilities such as tent space, food and drink.  Those not keen to camp can also stay at one of the many cottages that are also part of the camp site.
  • For divers keen to arrange their own dives at the lake, the Motosuko Dive Resort, which charges around 12,600yen for 2 shore dives, might be a good option.  Their website is here: http://motosukodiving.com/

June’s dives

Dive 1: Lake Motosuko: depth: 9.4m, dive time: 29mins, water temp: 16C, entry time: 10:00AM, exit time: 10:29AM, average depth: 5.5m,used a 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg weight (back plate as part of BC).  Saw plenty of weed-like plants and a couple of trout-like fish

 

 

 

May 2013: Sydney, Australia

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Saturday May 4th and Sunday May 5th 2013

Sydney is often overlooked as a dive destination because of the popular Great Barrier Reef but it’s a hidden treasure trove of sites and marine life ranging from the spectacular to the scary. In May I spent around a week in Sydney and got to explore its underwater world for myself.

Sharks often spring to mind when we hear the word Australia. Not a nice thought at all but they of all things were waiting for me on the first dive of my trip. Sydney has a fairly big grey nurse shark population and to see the sharks at first hand, divers take a boat from a marina in Manly and travel for roughly 30 minutes past the Opera House, Harbor Bridge and Bondi Beach to a tiny spot in the open sea with a few cliffs in the distance. Not much to behold, but this is the dive site Magic Point.

Peering over the boat into the water, I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one thinking I’d gone mad as a dozen or so backpackers and Dive Masters were on board with me. I began my descent somewhat relieved at being accompanied by all these people. At Magic Point, divers can generally reach 20m and a bit beyond but to guarantee a better chance of spotting sharks and to have more time underwater, 14-16m is the recommended depth. Magic Point consists of two caves that sit opposite each other, with a sandy area at 14m where divers can kneel and observe all the action. We came to rest here, in front of the larger of the two caves that stretched for about 15m in an east/west direction.

A couple of grey nurse sharks soon made their way out of the cave and swam around us. Although daunting with protruding teeth, there is no record of them ever having attacked a human. Rather, they are shy. At certain times of the year they aggregate together and establish particular swimming patterns that keep them close but with enough personal space as well. A large creature like a diver can disturb this process and stress them out. As a result they disappear, leaving the dive quite unexciting.

The grey nurse sharks were spectacular to behold and once we became more used to what we were seeing, the dive began to feel very relaxing. But there were only so many sharks and photo opportunities we could take, so we headed north to an area of large boulders and a bed of kelp and other seaweed. This is a good place to meet some of Sydney’s other marine life such as cuttlefish, huge sting rays, blue devilfish, yellowtail, sucker fish and pilot fish. The leafy sea dragon in particular is delightful. It’s one of the most elusive creatures a diver will ever get to see, which makes spotting them extremely special (we found a couple of medium-sized ones). Using a pectoral fin on their necks and a dorsal fin close to their tails, they propel themselves slowly, perfectly camouflaged with their habitat and hiding from their predators such as sharks and rays. During the journey back to the boat, the dive ended with a nice touch as a giant ray swam over us as we headed toward 5m for our safety stop.

My next dive site, Shelly Beach near Manly is by far the most popular shore dive in Sydney, thanks to its sheltered location and calm shallow water. In fact, it’s so popular that benches have been provided especially for divers to set up equipment. Facing west, the beach is well protected and conditions are almost always suitable for diving. Fishing and collecting has been entirely prohibited here since 2002 and the marine life thrives.

We arrived on a very hot and sunny afternoon and walked into the water to begin the dive. The sandy bottom makes it easy to put on fins and masks and the descent is slow and simple – a gentle swim down to about 8m over the sand. Our first dive was to the right of the bay (The Right Hand Side) where there is a medium-sized rocky wall. As the dive begins it is not the most exciting due to the lack of coral and macro life. In the shallower depths the rocks are mostly devoid of life.

Things get a lot more interesting between 10m and 12m where the wall of rock on the right begins to spread out further over the sand. This area houses a lot more in the way of seaweed and tiny holes for creatures like crabs to hide in. In terms of height, the rocks are medium to high. Our first encounter was with a giant cuttlefish excellently camouflaged against the rock. Straining our eyes we could see him hovering slowly before he swam off, while a couple of blue gropers, possibly male and female, then glided slowly past us followed by a ray shark.

The Left Hand Side was the location of our second dive. Here there is only a small series of rocks and a lot more weedy terrain which is home to a lot of temperate fish life. White sand and a natural reef of tumbled boulders spread out again to about 12m and there is plenty to see although we soon discovered that we were the ones being watched, by a medium-sized flounder well hidden in the sand, his eye poking out at us. We came across more blue gropers and schools of yellow barracudas and long fin banner fish had made a home for themselves too. Blennies darted here and there and juvenile leatherjackets hid among the seaweed. Looking closely, one was even hanging onto a piece. The highlight, mainly for our dive guide, was spotting a turtle, apparently almost never seen at Shelley Beach. The Left Hand Side can also be described as a very deep snorkel. It’s perfect for novice divers, refresher courses and Open Water training.

Practical information

 I spent a week in Sydney from the end of April to early May, staying at the Wake Up! youth hostel near Central Station. All dives were arranged upon arrival in Sydney.
 I booked my dives with Pro Dive Sydney (http://www.prodivesydney.com/divecenter/store/sydney). Their boat leaves every morning around 8AM from the marina at Manly. All divers are expected to make their own way there and the best route is the 30min boat from Circular Quay costing around 17 dollars return.
 The boat to Magic Point has an area in the middle for divers to place their tanks and set up their equipment. Along the edge you can sit, stand and enjoy the view. Warm soup and sweets are provided during the journey. Basic toilet and sink but no area to rinse off/shower after dives. Inside the boat is a medium-sized table and comfortable sofa with books, magazines, Pro Dive leaflets and stamps for logbooks.
 Entry into the water is by forward stride.
 After two dives at Magic Point everyone heads back to Manly, finishing up around lunchtime. No showers are available so you need to bring your own shampoo, shower gel and use one of the showers on Manly Beach. As the dives finish by lunchtime, customers are free to have their own lunch in Manly.
 To dive at Shelly Beach, you need to be at the dive school at around 9AM.
 The dive school is a short 15-20min walk from the marina where the boat from Circular Quay arrives.
 At the school customers renting gear help the dive guides prepare the equipment and load it onto the van. Shelly Beach is a short 15min drive away from the school.
 Parking is available at a council car park at the end of Bower Street. Showers, toilets, changing facilities and gas BBQs are available in the park and a Kiosk cafe and restaurant are located at the waterfront.
 After using the benches to prepare equipment, divers walk to the shore carrying full gear. Entry is a simple walk into the water.
 Dives at Shelly Beach also finish up around lunchtime. After 2 dives you are driven back to the school where showers are provided and there is time to write in log books or have a coffee. Divers also help wash their rental equipment.
 The Pro Dive shop consists of an equipment area, training pool, changing room, two showers and toilets and a shop selling equipment and books.

May’s dives

Dive 1: Magic Point: depth: 20.7m, dive time: 46mins, water temperature: 17C, entry time: 9:39AM, exit time: 10:26AM, average depth: 12.8m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 8kg weights. Start pressure: 220 bar, End pressure: 50 bar. Saw grey nurse sharks, 2 leafy sea dragons, a sting ray, sea urchins and blue gropers.

Dive 2: Shelly Beach Right Hand Side: depth: 7.9m, dive time: 35mins, water temperature: 20C, entry time: 9:25AM, exit time: 10:00AM, average depth: 4.4m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 12L aluminium tank. Start pressure: 230 bar, End pressure: 170 bar. Saw cuttle fish, mauri wrass, blue gropers and a ray shark.

Dive 3: Shelly Beach Left Hand Side: depth: 4.8m, dive time: 40mins, water temperature: 20C, entry time: 11:06AM, exit time: 11:47AM, average depth: 2.7m, used a 7mm wetsuit and 12L aluminium tank. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 150 bar. Saw more blue gropers, schools of yellowtail barracudas, juvenile leatherjackets and a turtle.