Saturday May 24th and Sunday May 25th 2014
Located on the southern curve of Wakayama prefecture, Kushimoto is a tiny place in between the mountains and wind-swept sea. You might be gazing out at the ocean or passing a scene of fishing nets and boats at a nearby port but whatever you are doing, you’ll find that the ocean is everywhere. The town has much to do with fishing, while its history consists of boats and shipwrecks, including the famous Ertugrul, dispatched to Japan from Turkey for a diplomatic mission in 1891. As it set sail for home, it was engulfed by a massive typhoon that crashed it into pieces and took it straight to the bottom of the sea.
But the very reefs which make this part of Japan so treacherous also make it an ideal home for technicolor fish, macrolife and other sea creatures. The area probably has some of the best diving and snorkelling in Honshu and today divers can choose from a range of local dive shops and fascinating sites. The fact that these sites accommodate both novices and seasoned pros makes it easy to see that Kushimoto is an area where divers of varying abilities can find a lot to enjoy together. It offers a bit of everything, with a whole spectrum of marine life just waiting to be seen.
The Black Tunnel: This is one of Kushimoto’s most popular points but is only open to those with at least Advanced Open Water because of its deep depth. The dive begins with an arch that starts at 32m, between two huge rocks that are densely covered in a variety of colourful sea fans, soft coral and vivid sponges. Descending down an anchor rope to around 24m, sea goldies, knifefish and butterfly fish congregate close by before the arch takes you into deeper depths and colder waters. Here an incredible sight materialises – schools of half-lined cardinal fish and pempheris japonica, aligned and perfected ordered, hover at the entrance to the arch, squashed together and milling about. Looking above and to your right as you swim through, you notice that despite the depth the rock formations offer a home to a myriad of life – tiny little crabs, bits of seaweed and shellfish. As you leave the arch, don’t forget to look back and watch it light up as the sun shines through. Keep your eyes peeled and you might even spot a common octopus or some longtooth groupers as well.
Kaminoshima: With a maximum depth of around 20m, this site is an easy-going and relaxing underwater experience for everyone, with a fantastic array of life forms. Spending a good few minutes scanning the water, you soon discover that the most interesting areas lie between 14-19m and it’s a surprisingly exotic place, a rocky site revealing a different world of critters such as emperor shrimp, crabs, pike blennies and black-bar chromis that are found literally every day, darting in and out of the nearest hiding places. Tiny wire coral shrimps twist and coil around the coral and although beautiful, can be extremely difficult to photograph due to the water which moves the individual whips around, constantly obscuring the little shrimps. Soon it wasn’t long until we came across the stars of the site: a group of nudibranchs that displayed a broad palette of different colour forms. This site is one of the richest in terms of diversity and abundance of these beautiful critters.
Nukumi (a section of river under Myokenbashi Bridge): Dipping your head underwater at Nukumi feels like a shock as you discover this fresh and clear dive spot. Bad visibility is a photographer’s worst enemy but thanks to the water, here you’re spoiled with a good few photo opportunities and the chance to see a few critters. After swimming to the other side of the river over stones and rocks that lie helter-skelter, you come to some huge rocks and boulders. The bottom is covered in tiny pebbles, a few green plants and a thin layer of sediment and organic materials. It’s a bit of a barren landscape, a brownish colour that appears to offer no life but soon a Japanese giant salamander appears, playfully darting over the pebbles and poking his head around curiously, taking in everything around him. Don’t forget to cast your eyes over the very bottom of the huge rocks as you never know what might be hiding down there. Huge healthy-looking shrimp scuttle around while tiny fish hover over the little pebbles. It’s a nice and easy dive, maximum depth 5m, where you can spend ages taking photos. Despite the cold, it’s extremely refreshing and there’s no need to rinse equipment and underwater cameras afterwards. In fact, they are probably cleaner than they were at the start of the dive!
Nagizaki: This site is just off Oshima island, the largest island in Wakayama prefecture and 1.8km off Kushimoto. It’s a huge rock formation that’s covered with a riot of life, a smattering of soft coral, nudibranchs and dense rich colours. We dived soon after some bad weather so visibility was not perfect but in the murky water our torches still revealed a wonderland of activity such as soft corals jostling and swaying for nutrients. Descending from the boat to around 7m, we swam down to a maximum depth of around 25m before turning around and heading back to the boat extremely slowly, stopping on the way to marvel and photograph everything around us. There were many great sightings during the dive, things as obvious as schools of fish, or others that were more hidden away, such as delicate anemone shrimps waiting and watching amongst the tentacles. Decorating the rocky walls were some white chromodoris sea slugs and festival sea slugs with bright blue bodies and yellow markings, while strong and angry-looking sea urchins were found in every crack and space, sometimes accompanied by tiny red urchin clingfish hovering delicately in front of our cameras.
- I took an evening bullet train around 6PM on Friday 23rd May from Tokyo’s Shinagawa station to Shin Osaka station where I was picked up and driven to Kushimoto. The car journey takes around 3 hours and the train journey around 2.5 hours.
- A return bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Shin Osaka station costs roughly 14,000yen one way.
- Other alternatives to get to Kushimoto are to fly from Haneda to Kansai International Airport or Shirahama airport.
- On Friday night we stayed at the dive school Dive Kooza (http://dive-kooza.com/koza.html) which has bunk beds, showers, toilets, towels, hairdryers, shampoo and body soap available. It’s extremely comfortable, with a big indoor space to write up log books, have a coffee or relax and go over photos or books on marine life. You can also connect a computer to their bigger screen when looking at your photos. There are areas to sit outside if the weather is nice, and a convenience store a short walk away for food, drink, snacks and other daily items. Right next to it are places to wash, dry and hang equipment, and a parking area for vehicles. Cameras/lens can also be hired.
- All dives are off a boat that leaves from the port outside the school. It can carry a bit more than 10 people and has an area in the middle if you want to be in the shade and a small section on deck to set up equipment. Tea and sweets are also available.
- All entries into the water are backward rolls. Ascent is up a ladder.
- Two boat dives cost 14,000yen, including tanks and weights.
- On the Sunday we drove to Sue Diving Centre (http://www.zb.ztv.ne.jp/sue.d.c/index.htm) about 30mins away from Dive Kooza to dive off Oshima Island. Sue Diving Centre is full of character, converted from an old school, with huge classrooms serving as relaxation areas for divers, and a big outdoor deck to wash/dry equipment, have lunch and relax in the sun. Showers and toilets are at the back of the building, as well as a huge parking area for vehicles. Two boat dives also cost 14,000yen including tanks, weights and a guide, and a packed box lunch is extra at around 600yen for a set of rice, vegetables, fish and meat.
- Boat dives are available. Nagizaki is about 5-10mins from the nearby port and the port is about 5mins from the dive shop. All entries into the water are backward rolls. Ascent is up a ladder and hot water is available for divers to pour over themselves after the dive. Divers set up their equipment and dismantle everything on land as the boat is slightly small and crowded.
- A weekend of diving in Kushimoto can be arranged through David Graham at Kansai Divers (http://www.fourthelement.jp/KansaiDiving/). Check out their Facebook page as well. Tours can be arranged at the above schools and non-Japanese speakers are also welcome!
Dive 1: Black Tunnel: dive number: 149, depth: 36.6m, average depth: 16.6m, dive time: 30mins, entry time: 10:14AM, exit time: 10:44AM, water temp: 20C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 6kg weights (3kg back plate, 1kg weight in each pocket and 1kg weight on a weight belt as my wetsuit was brand new). Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 50 bar. Saw half-lined cardinal fish and pempheris japonica.
Dive 2: Kaminoshima: dive number: 150, depth: 18.6m, average depth: 12.6m, dive time: 45 mins, entry time: 13:41, exit time: 14:25, water temp: 20C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 5kg weights (3kg back plate, 1kg weight in each pocket). Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 80 bar. Saw emperor shrimp, crabs, pike blennies and black-bar chromis, wire coral shrimps and nudibranchs.
Dive 3: Nukumi (river): dive number: 151, depth: 5.2m, average depth: 3.4m, dive time: 34mins, entry time: 16:51, exit time 17:21, water temp; 19C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg weights (3kg back plate as you are more buoyant in fresh water). Saw Japanese giant salamander and shrimps
Dive 4: Nagizaki, Sue: dive number: 152, depth: 24.9m, average depth: 11.4m, dive time: 52mins, entry time: 9:28AM, exit time: 10:20AM, water temp: 17.9C, used a 12L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 5kg weights (3kg back plate and 1kg weight in both pockets). Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 80 bar. Saw rockfish, lizard fish, soft coral, white chromodoris sea slugs and festival sea slugs.
Dive 5: Nagizaki, Sue: dive number: 153, depth: 20.2m, average depth: 13.3m, dive time: 60mins, entry time: 12:27, exit time: 13:27, water temp: 19C, used a 12L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest (3kg back plate and 1kg weight in both pockets). Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 80 bar. Saw nudibranchs, sea urchins, urchin clingfish and anemone shrimps.