July 2013: Amami Oshima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan

Friday July 12th to Sunday July 14th 2013

380km south of Kyushu is Amami Oshima, where the reefs are packed with life and coral growth is abundant.  Blessed with cobalt blue sea, colorful coral and ringed in white sandy beaches and cliffs, it’s a mecca for sports like wind surfing and scuba diving with the sea a bright shiny turquoise.  What awaits the diver are beautiful coral reefs and tropical fish of all descriptions.

2 hours after the flight from Tokyo, we found ourselves slowly taking in the underwater surroundings of Kurasaki Beach.  Below us was a carpet of white sand strewn with various coral and rocks.  The site is excellent for refresher dives, try dives and training due to the shallow depths and plenty of sand in which to sit and practice skills.  Spending some time at 5-6m, it wasn’t long before we came across one of the stars of the reef, the clown fish, darting in and out of its home and watching us intently.  But there were also plenty of surprises as we found a couple of tiny whip coral shrimps, perfectly matching the colour of their surroundings.  As the individual whips move around a lot, not only are these critters hard to spot but they are also extremely difficult to photograph.  We also spotted nudibranchs, cleaner shrimps and plenty of angelfish. The area is packed with abundant kaleidoscopic coral growth and the rocks are almost like stepping stones, providing a plethora of sheltered nurseries and safe habitats for the fish while the stable and warm sea temperatures are also a huge advantage, not just for divers but for the marine life as well.

One of the most popular fish in Amami Oshima is the endearing Gilbert’s cardinal fish.  4-5cm and often bright, it lives in large aggregations among the coral in sheltered lagoons and bays and appears to have been researched in more detail across the Ryukyu Islands and Kyushu, according to a 2007 study.  Meanwhile back on Amami Oshima, a trip to In Oasis and Yamamoto Special provide many an opportunity to view these little fish.  The dives at both of these sites begin off a boat and start with huge coral formations that are quite barren, plain with very little signs of life.  But then the rocks end and the white sand spreads out between 13m and 21m, revealing a riot of activity which is why our guide brought us here – to spend some time literally getting up close to the thousands of cardinal fish as well as parrotfish, shrimps, starfish and other creatures hidden under ledges and gathering over the small to medium sized rocks.  Both these dives sites are a paradise for the underwater photographer, with dark crevices, openings, branch, brain and plate coral as well as a range of fish including butterfly fish, clown fish and parrot fish.  The rocks stand alone surrounded by white sand stretching for miles and are an ideal habitat for marine life in terms of dark areas to hide in, rich coral to huddle or shelter against, warm clear water and plenty of nutrients.  Divers can lie across the carpet of white sand and get close up shots of a nudibranch or hover over the branch coral and get a decent look at what goes on within.  The cardinal fish, meanwhile, are steady and focused, numbering in their thousands in tornado formation.  Some of the other fish often swim right up to divers although not necessary out of curiosity – it’s not a good idea to get too close while taking a photo!  The warm water and lack of current means divers can spend a little over one hour here depending on depth and rate of air consumption and as you ascend, chances are you’re likely to encounter a turtle or two at around 13m swimming off into the distance.

Daibutsu Sango, or Buddha Coral, is a bit further out to sea.  The current here is quite strong so we descended down an anchor line to about 13m and arrived at a bed of white sand with lots of tiny rocks and coral formations strewn around us.  Close by at 14-15m was a huge brain coral structure towering high.  Daibutsu Sango is home to a few stonefish so wearing gloves is highly recommended.  Wrasses, groupers and butterfly fish hover around making great subjects for fish portraits while it’s not unusual for the site to be visited by turtles and other pelagic species.  The name Daibutsu Sango refers to the towering structure of brain coral that looks just like a Buddha’s head and which is heavily colonized by majestic angelfish, cleaner fish and sea goldies.

The current at Dessho, another site accessed by boat, is also strong, requiring a very careful descent down an anchor line to 9m where the dive begins with two huge rock formations.  Taking a right turn and staying close to these rocks we soon swam over a bed of even more rocks down to about 21m where the current weakens.  Here the rocks and boulders are at a drop off and seem to form a huge structure, prolific with numerous species such as gobies, Moorish Idols, redfin fusiliers, redtoothed triggerfish, trumpet fish and bluespine unicorn fish.  The area is also encrusted with a few sponges and sea squirts, forming a haven for friendly fishes and a dream studio for the adventurous photographer as huge coral formations create a spectacular backdrop for underwater photography.   Despite the current the beauty of diving at Dessho comes in the opportunities for photography and reef viewing as well as the fact that the water is extremely clear.

Practical information

  • I booked the Amami Oshima trip with Paradise Island Tours based in Tokyo (http;//www.pitdiving.com/travel/)
  • JAL flights from Haneda fly direct to Amami Oshima between 8AM and 9AM and land mid-morning.  It is possible to do at least one dive on the day of arrival.
  • Our school Blue Gate (http://www4.synapse.ne.jp/bluegate/index.html) was there to meet us at the airport and drive us to the school via the supermarket where we picked up a light lunch.
  • Diving equipment can be sent from Tokyo in advance for about 2,500yen, using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
  • Blue Gate is about 30-40mins away from the airport by car.  Immediately upon entering, you are in a big grassy field with one small wooden hut which is the dive school.  Inside the hut is a long table for divers to fill in and sign forms or write up their logbooks.  Next to the table are a few shelves to store dry clothes and other personal items.  There is also plenty of space outside to wash, hang and dry equipment along with a couple of showers and toilets. Books, magazines and cold tea are all available.
  • After loading the van with our equipment, we drove to the nearest port and left the van there during the day.  Most of the dives are boat dives.  The boat is very spacious and flat with the steering wheel and controls in the middle.  Divers set up their equipment on the boat and sit with it during the journey.  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 and other equipment.  Some of the dive sites are about 30mins from the port.
  • Divers are responsible for looking after their own equipment each day, including preparing, washing, hanging and drying.  All the equipment can be stored at the dive school.
  • We stayed at the Amami Sun Plaza hotel (http://www.amami-sunplaza.co.jp/) about 20mins away from Blue Gate.  The hotel room is really clean and spacious with a private shower/bath/toilet, WIFI and other usual amenities such as towels, shower gel, shampoo, soap and toothbrushes.  There is also a beer garden on the roof (3000yen for all you can eat buffet dinner and a couple of beers).  Breakfast is a buffet style and both Japanese and western (rice, miso soup, fish, eggs, cereal, fruit, yogurt, coffee, tea, orange juice etc) but no dinner is provided so we ate out in town.  It’s very easy to find good restaurants with local fish/meat and other dishes and the locals are very friendly.
  • The total cost came to around 130,000yen including return flights, 3 nights in the hotel with breakfast and dinner, 4 dives (guide, tanks, weights) and all transport.
  • There is a bus or taxi available to the airport after your stay.

July’s dives

Dive 1: Kurasaki Beach: depth: 7.4m, dive time: 54mins, water temp: 27C, entry time: 16:12, exit time: 17:06, average depth: 4.6m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 4kg weights (back plate of 3kg and 1kg in pocket).  Start pressure: 185 bar, End pressure: 60 bar.  Saw cleaner shrimps, clown fish, pearl-spot chromis, one band anemone fish, duskyfin bulleyes, two coral wip shrimps, nudibranchs and orange clownfish.

Dive 2: In Oasis: depth: 20.9m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 27C, entry time: 11:03AM, exit time: 11:43AM, average depth: 11.6m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and a 3kg back plate (no weights in pocket).  Start pressure: 185 bar, End pressure: 50 bar.  Saw one turtle, plenty of parrot fish, shrimps and butterfly fish.  Heavily populated with vertical striped cardinal fish too.

Dive 3: Daibutsu Sango, Buddha Coral: depth: 17.7m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 27C, entry time: 14:49, exit time: 15:33, average depth: 11.9m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate (no extra weights in pocket).  Start pressure: 180 bar, End pressure: 20 bar.  Saw stonefish, nudibranchs, cleaner fish, star fish, purple queens, semicircle angel fish, threadfin red bass, striped blennies, slender sauries.

Dive 4: Dessho: depth: 21.0m, dive time: 38mins, water temp: 27C, entry time: 10:43, exit time: 11:17, average depth: 12.6m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate (no extra weights in pocket).  Start pressure: 180 bar, End pressure: 20 bar.  Saw triggerfish, trumpet fish, bluespine unicorn fish, redtoothed trigger fish (juveniles), blacksaddle file fish, moray eel, redfin fusiliers, moon fusiliers, pyramid butterfly fish, purple queens, moorish idols

Dive 5: Yamamoto Special: depth: 14.5m, dive time: 68mins, water temp; 29C, entry tie: 12:34, exit time: 13:44, average depth: 10.0m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 3kg back plate (no extra weight in pocket).  Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 30 bar.  Saw orange clownfish, whitetail chromis, spotted garden eels, ornate ghost pipefish, seaweed pipefish, blue spot rock cod, banded coral shrimp, Japanese shrimp goby, emperor angel fish and slender sweepers.

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