January 2014: The Return to Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan

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Monday January 20th and Tuesday January 21st 2014

Behind a series of rocks and coral formations, divers wait patiently for the show to begin.  Within moments, a dark figure is spotted in the distance.  It drifts closer and closer, followed by another and then another.  They glide past and hover overhead as the divers look up in awe.  This is the scene at Manta Scramble, one of Ishigaki Island’s most famous dive spots where manta rays come to feed on plankton and be cleaned.

Ishigaki is perhaps most famous for these harmless giants that congregate in the surrounding waters.  The best time of year to view them is between June and November and although they are frequently spotted year-round in various other locations, I sadly didn’t encounter a single one on my return this time.  Still, there were other surprises in store – varied conditions and spectacular diving opportunities in the many bays and points.  3.5 hours from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, Ishigaki is part of the Yaeyama island chain, surrounded by shallow calm sea and a rich marine life.  It’s not heavily populated and the peace and quiet is a welcome change after a frenetic Tokyo.  I spent two days diving at the sites below and found that manta rays are not just what Ishigaki is all about.

Osaki Hanagoi Reef:  The hanagoi (anthias fish) gives its name to this dive site which reaches a maximum depth of about 20m.  Divers travel by boat for about 5-10mins and enter the water by backward roll where the journey begins at about 4m down.  It’s soon clear that the deeper you go, the more rocky and less coral-like the site becomes.  The best way to explore is to reach 20m and then slowly ascend, swimming back towards the reef and exploring the many rocks, walls and other formations along the way.  Near the surface, color seems to explode against the sunlight streaming through the water, while dark labyrinths of coral rise from the seabed providing an interesting contrast.  The ascent is quite good for finding tiny  critters such as nudibranchs, small crabs and shellfish while beautiful leopard morays, other types of eel and a few juvenile lionfish stare intently, peering out from the many cracks.  Anthias fish of course, but also mantis shrimps, blennies, gobies and pipefish come together to form clouds of colour shining against the sunlight while groups of bat fish keep a watchful eye on things.   On the final ascent, we encountered a group of 11 or so cuttlefish.  January is when they begin to spawn and divers do not deter them as they deposit their eggs on the coral just a few meters from the surface.  All this makes for an excellent photo opportunity.

Mash I and Mash II:  The word “mash” in both these sites comes from a couple of huge mushroom-like coral formations that lie a little below 10m.  The sites are ideal for beginners as they are shallow and most dives average between 6-8m so plenty of time can be spent underwater although controlled buoyancy is an absolute must.  Divers must take care not to disturb anything because below is an aquarium-like world.  What’s striking here is the range of coral – table corals, star and brain corals mix together forming a dense carpet stretching for miles.  Photographers will be delighted by the crystal clear water and good visibility.  Sea snakes, spotted at most dive sites, slithered in, out, and over the coral formations in search of food while a ray emerged from a sandy patch, shaking off its sand camouflage and disappearing into the distance.  The coral are also covered in an array of sea anemones that shield varying kinds of clown fish while the other tropical species such as spider crabs, trumpet fish and squart shrimps are bright, plentiful and very chilled out.

Practical information

  • I booked the Ishigaki trip with the dive school Umicoza (http://www.umicoza.com/english/)
  • JAL flights direct to Ishigaki leave from Haneda airport at 6:25AM, getting to the island around 10:00AM.  Return flights to Tokyo via Naha leave at 14:00, arriving at Naha at 15:00, before taking off for Tokyo at 16:00, arriving at 18:05.
  • Umicoza was there to meet me on arrival and drive me to the school.
  • Diving equipment can be sent from Tokyo in advance for about 2,500yen using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
  • Umicoza is about 30mins’ drive away from the city center and main port.  Walk through the main gate and on your left is an area to wash, hang/dry equipment, a private office and table to sit at and write up dive logs when the weather is nice.  Straight ahead are 3 shower cubicles (no shampoo, conditioner and soap provided) and a toilet, and on the right an area to fill tanks and hang BCs.
  • Behind the school is the owner’s home.  There is a large garden and another indoor area at the back full of marine-related photos, books, magazines, free tea and coffee and a kitchen where the owner’s wife cooks lunch (Japanese style and home made.  We had soba buckwheat noodles in pork and vegetable soup, with rice balls and pickled radish).
  • We drove from the school to the beach, parked the van and loaded the boat.  All dives in Ishigaki are boat dives.  The boat is very spacious with an outdoor area to set up equipment but it’s not sheltered – bring a warm coat if you can, along with some towels and sun cream.  Tea is available on board.
  • A tub of hot water is available for divers to pour over themselves when exiting from cold water.
  • All entries are backward rolls.  Ascent is via a ladder.
  • The school has a small white board which it uses to list information on the dive and the marine life seen.
  • I stayed at the Kabira Koen Chaya (inn) on Kabira Bay.  The place is old and run down, no WIFI (although there is free wifi a bit further up the road in an area with souvenir shops and cafes) but towels, shampoo and soap are available and the elderly couple running the place are really nice.  Breakfast and dinner are Japanese style – a good balance of rice, soup, fish and vegetables with green tea and water.
  • There is nothing to do in the Kabira area at night.  Being 30mins drive away from the city, it is best to rent a car if you are staying here.
  • The total cost was about 78,000yen including return flight, 3 boat dives including tanks, weights, all dive gear, two nights in the hotel with breakfast and all transport.
  • Umicoza will pick you up and drive you to the airport after your stay

January’s dives

Dive 1:  Osaki Hanagoi Reef: depth: 20m, dive time: 44mins, water temp: 23C, entry time: 12:05, exit time: 12:49, used a 10L tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weights (no back plate).  Start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 40 bar.  Saw cuttlefish, anthias fish, banded sea snake, lionfish, nudibranchs and honeycomb morays.

Dive 2: Mash One: depth: 11m, dive time: 49mins, water temp: 23C, entry time: 13:34, exit time: 14:23, used a 10L tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weights (no back plate).  Start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 80 bar.  Saw cuttlefish, yellow edged moray, giant moray, batfish, crown anemone fish, pink anemone fish and banded sea snake.

Dive 3:  Mash Two: depth: 8.5m, dive time: 45mins, water temp: 21C, entry time: 09:18, exit time: 10:03, used a 10L tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weights (no back plate).  Start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 80 bar.  Saw brown banded pipefish, banded sea snake, stone fish, spider crab, anemone partner shrimp, squart shrimp, porcupine fish, nudibranchs and anemone fish.

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