April 2014: Okinoerabu, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan

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Friday April 18th – Monday April 21st

The peaceful coral island of Okinoerabu forms part of the Amami Island group in Kagoshima prefecture.  Although it’s only about 56km and home to about 16,000 people, it’s an almost undiscovered place with a great many points of interest and full of opportunities for snorkeling and diving, during which you can float by and watch fish of all shapes and colours, sea snakes, turtles, sea cucumbers and starfish.  These are some incredible sights in some of the most beautifully coloured blue water.  Okinoerabu is also known as The Island of Flowers and Limestone Caves because as well as vast gardens of coral, it’s home to over 300 limestone caves.  A 1.2km section of the caves are open to the public and inside you can marvel at the breathtaking stalactite and stalagmite formations during a guided tour which is well worth looking into after a couple of days in the water.

The water temperatures off Okinoerabu range from 21C – 30C with visibility around 20 – 40m.  Diving is available year-round, and if you’re lucky you can sometimes spot migrating dolphins and whales early in the year, while numerous reef fish and sea turtles abound in the spring and summer months.  For macro fans, sea slugs are abundant. Since the diving here is not as popular or well known compared to more famous destinations like Okinawa, the coral is in excellent shape.

Kaito: This site begins with a carpet of rocks to descend onto at 8m. Immediately we encountered a huge turtle that seemed relatively tame and was happy to spend time close to us as we took photos. We then descended to 17m by swimming through passageways carved between the rocks. The walls of the passageways offer even more life – they are covered in corals, sponges and gorgonians and it was a slow relaxing dive to 17m as we looked for macrolife such as anemones, soft coral, hiding shrimps and sea slugs, all of which were most plentiful between 10-15m. It’s also nice to simply drift here, let the water carry you and marvel at the coral carpet below that appears around 17m and looks perfectly healthy to boot. Schools of fish also accumulate at this spot, sometimes in considerable numbers but the real draw here is where the turtle was, while other species such as trumpetfish, anthias and hawkfish are close by, all of them great for up-close-and personal interactions.

Futago no Arch: Translated as the Twin Arch, this is one of the highlights of Okinoerabu. After descending to around 8-10m, we immediately came to a huge hole, or tunnel, which we entered and began descending slowly, stopping on the way to inspect the walls around us. Don’t dismiss this area. It may be slightly dark but it’s a natural amphitheatre, filled with nudibranchs, shrimp and plenty of tiny fish, crabs and sea squirts. A torch is an absolute must. The tunnel takes you to around 24.5m and turning left at the bottom you can swim through two archways as the sun shines through, providing good light for photos. With the rocks to your left, the ascent begins and this is where marine life has taken over, living in luxury in the shallower depths. It’s where turtles roam free and the fish flitter in and out through the coral. We saw magenta dottybacks, anthias fish, orange cup coral, hawkfish anthias and banded coral shrimps.

Santa no Okurimono: This quaint little spot begins at 8m after a rope descent. We swam over a series of huge boulders, all teeming with coral. They then merge into one at around 25m and from here you can spend time ascending and inspecting the impressive volcanic geology that surrounds you. Parts of the rocks have been colonised by hundreds of sea sponges and tiny anemones and huge schools of fish can accumulate here if you are lucky. It can be a daunting spot – the current is sometimes strong and unpredictable, while looking over some of the rocks you see nothing but deep drop offs that descend into nowhere. When the current is mild, there is a small tunnel at 15-16m that will take you into another world of macrolife. The area is also famous for tornadoes of bigeye trevally that sometimes appear if luck is on your side.

Yaguna Drop: This site is most suited to beginners and it’s possible to have a relatively slow and easy underwater experience. Swimming down to about 12m we then moved straight ahead over coral formations and huge boulders but remained at 12-15m for most of the dive where we used lights to look for any kind of macrolife we could find. Two types of turtle swam above us while a tuna showed up from the deep blue. Spend some time observing the anemones because as well as clown fish they also house an incredible range of crabs and shrimps, most notably a pregnant coral crab, black and red, protecting a large number of tiny orange eggs in its belly. I managed to get a good few photos before it scarped back into the coral and out of sight. The site is also home to a variety of butterfly fish such as spotband and pyramid butterfly fish to name a few.

Oyabiccha: This site is a series of boulders sticking out for miles and extending out from the mainland. The best way to dive this spot is to choose one boulder, swim out to the tip and come back. The maximum depth at each is around 25m or so but we stayed close to the surface of the boulders at around 19m and swam over carpets of staghorn coral, some of which even contained squid eggs. Over the staghorn coral it feels like you are flying but further up towards the mainland you can spend time exploring the rocks and darker areas with a torch. Look out for red-speckled blennies that poke their heads out curiously towards you, and colonies of polites rus coral, series of branches and columns spanning over 5 metres across.

Incident: After one of our dives on the Sunday, we surfaced to find that our boat had drifted away either due to a sudden current or because it had not been anchored properly. The boat was unmanned, which is apparently common on islands south of Japan. Luckily we could see land and were able to swim for about 15-20mins to a cluster of rocks near the port. We clambered onto these and made our way to an area where we could unload our gear and wait for our guide to return with the van to take us back to the shop. The boat had been spotted and was found soon after. Luckily there was no current, we were close to land and nobody was hurt but in my next blog entry I will be highlighting this problem in more detail so please stay tuned.

Practical information

• I booked the Okinoerabu trip with Paradise Island Tours (http://www.pit-diving.com/travel/).
• JAL flights to Okinoerabu via Kagoshima leave from Haneda airport at 08:25AM, getting to Kagoshima at 10:25AM, leaving Kagoshima at 11:25AM, arriving at Okinoerabu at 12:55. Return flights to Tokyo via Kagoshima leave at 13:20, arriving at Kagoshima 14:40, before taking off for Tokyo at 16:10, arriving at 17:45. Other flight times are available.
• Hotel Azuma (http://www5.synapse.ne.jp/khotel-azuma/) came to pick me up at 13:00. The entrance/exit to the airport serves as a good meeting point.
• The hotel is old and a little run down. It’s an en suite room, basic and comfortable, with air conditioner, fridge, tea, television and good Internet access. There is a vending machine and small lobby with wifi. Guests can choose between a Japanese style breakfast (rice, miso soup, eggs, seaweed, pickled vegetables, green tea) or a Western style breakfast (toast with butter and jam, eggs, sausages, fruit etc) both of which are served between 7:30AM and 9:00AM.
• A short walk from the hotel is a street with a supermarket, traditional Japanese restaurant (izakaya), and a couple of souvenir stores. Not much happens here at night. Parallel to the street is the main road with a bigger convenience store selling daily necessities.
• If possible, arrange to stay at the Floral Hotel, a bigger and more modern resort than the hotel I stayed in. Further details here: http://web.travel.rakuten.co.jp/portal/my/info_page_e.Eng?f_no=27721
• Sea Dream, the dive school (http://www.okierabu.net/) came to pick me up at the hotel around 13:40.
• The school is about 30mins or so away from the airport. The shop is extremely comfortable with wooden tables and chairs, plenty of photos of marine life, reference books on fish, a machine that makes tea, coffee, espresso and cappuccino, and an outdoor deck with superb ocean views. At the back of the shop is a grassy car parking area and huge area to wash and hang equipment. There are 3 female showers (shampoo and shower gel provided) 3 male showers, both with excellent hot water and water pressure, and two toilets.
• All dives are off a boat. The school keeps one boat along the island’s north coast that can carry about 10 people. It’s small, but there is a roof at the front if you want to be in the shade and a small area on deck to set up equipment. Tea and sweets are available anytime, and plenty of hot water is prepared for divers to pour over themselves when they get out of the water.
• All entries into the water are backward rolls. Ascent is up a ladder.
• The total cost of the trip was about 106,000yen, including return flight, two boat dives on the Saturday and Sunday with tanks and weights (1,000yen extra for nitrox), 3 nights’ hotel stay with breakfast and all transport to and from the dive sites, hotel and school.
• When not diving, arrange a tour with Sea Dream to visit Okinoerabu’s limestone caves. The tour is about 2 hours and well worth it as the caves are fascinating to explore and the dive school will bring torches and arrange lighting so you can take some stunning photographs in the dark.

April’s dives

Dive 1: Kaito: depth: 17.5m, dive time: 35mins, water temp: 20.9C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx 32%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weights (3kg back plate and 1kg weight in side pocket of BC). Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 100 bar. Saw a huge green sea turtle, anthias fish, yellow spotted chromis, slout chromis, redfin fusiliers, blackside hawkfish, dwarf hawkfish, guard crabs, sea slug Halgerda Diaphana, striped large-eye bream, oneband anemone fish, clownfish, shrimps, trumpet fish.

Dive 2: Santa no Okurimono: depth: 15.7m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 22C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx 32%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate with no extra weights. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 50 bar. Saw big eye trevally and orange spotted blennies.

Dive 3: Futago no Arch: depth: 24.5m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 21.2C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx 32%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate with no extra weights. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 40 bar. Saw sea squirts, magenta dottybacks, anthias fish, orange cup coral, hawkfish anthias, Diana’s hogfish, blue dragon, banded coral shrimps.

Dive 4: Santa no Okurimono: depth: 19m, dive time: 45mins, water temp: 21C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx 36%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate with no extra weights. Start pressure 220 bar, End pressure 80 bar. Saw green sea turtles, scalpel sawtail, bludger trevally, spotband butterfly fish.

Dive 5: Yagunya Drop: depth: 16.5m, dive time: 49mins, water temp: 22C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx 32%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate with no extra weights. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure: 120 bar. Saw green sea turtle, loggerhead turtle, dogtooth tuna, clown fish, pyramid butterfly fish, spotband butterfly fish, blackspotted puffer, orange clownfish, Coral crab Trapezia rufopunctata.

Dive 6: Oyabiccha: depth: 19.8m, dive time: 42mins, water temp: 21C, used a 10L steel tank with EANx36%, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg back plate with no extra weights. Start pressure: 210 bar, End pressure 90 bar. Saw bartail fusiliers, porites rus stony coral, pyramid butterfly fish, red speckled blenny.


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