Friday October 31st to Saturday November 2nd 2014
A circular island floating on the East China Sea, Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is most famous for its mountains, trees and extreme annual rainfall. The island boasts ancient cedars, spectacular waterfalls, challenging and beautiful hiking trails, indigenous deer and monkeys. People come to go hiking and to soak up the ancient forest atmosphere, a stunning shade of green thanks to all the rain. The giant Yaku cedar “Jomon-sugi,” believed to be 7,200 years old, is also one of Yakushima’s most famous features.
The seas surrounding Yakushima most definitely deserve a mention thanks to the warm Kuroshio current, which brings a huge variety of marine life. Even in November, visibility is good and the water temperature mild. Isso and Nagata, two areas on the north of the island, are the main dive spots with shallow reefs, coral, rocks and marine life of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Zero-sen, Isso: This site is no more than 5mins by boat from the mainland. It’s the resting place of a Mitsubishi a6m zero, a long-range fighter aircraft operated by the Japanese Imperial Navy from 1940 – 1945. The dive begins down an anchor rope to 10 metres, where nothing can be seen except a carpet of white sand. After swimming for a good while, a dark cluster of what appears to be rocks begins to emerge. This is the front part of the Mitsubishi a6m zero, with one propeller wing sticking out of the sand and the others buried deep within. The legacy of war very much remains and there is nothing else nearby except the wreck just waiting to be explored. The tapestry of colour, even more magnificent under a light, is overwhelming and the multitudes of marine life extremely impressive. It’s a riot of colour, encrusted with sponges and engulfed by a range of fish, shrimps and some moray eels that will attack if you move about too much or get too close. Place your hands on the wreck and red shrimps will nibble at them until you can no longer stand the ticklish sensation. Lie on the sand and you’re lost in a world of enchanting marine life and photos.
Isso Tank-shita Number 1: This point is only about 4 minutes by boat from the mainland and can be reached by either boat or shore. Entering from the shore is definitely worth it because even at 3 metres there is much life to behold, including an area festooned with corals and sponges. Almost instantly we encountered a tame and relaxed turtle before swimming over beds of hard coral and rocky structures, meeting a range of fish including a clown fish and some baby harlequin sweetlips. Heading into deeper areas packed with more coral and fish, we came across a stunning purple cinderella nudibranch, smooth and almost shiny against our flashlights. We also encountered a range of anemone shrimps, cleaner shrimps tucked in among a bed of soft coral, and an anemone crab looking comfortable among the tentacles. One highlight was spotting an octopus dart into a hole in a nearby rock. This dive reaches a maximum depth of around 20m and is most captivating because of the pure diversity of species found there.
Nagata, Otsuse: About 7 mins by boat from the mainland, this site a bit more current and bigger rocks than the points at Isso. Descending to about 5m, the dive began over a patch of rocks that we clung to in the current. Our destination was a huge rocky boulder at about 26m with branch coral sticking out of it. The critter to look out for here is the pygmy seahorse clinging by its tail to the coral and swaying to and fro. Because the bottom of the rock is sandy, it’s a great place to crouch and get close to this photogenic animal. But this doesn’t mean pygmy seahorses are easy to photograph as they can shy away from the camera, turning around and leaving the photographer with just their backs. It takes a sharp eye to spot them, but finding them is both rewarding and satisfying. The rest of the dive consists of the ascent over huge sloping fields of rocks swarming with equally large shoals of gold striped goatfish and then continuing further upwards to a shallow patch that provides sanctuary for a magnificent collection of creatures such as little nudibranchs, anemone pink squat lobsters, gorgonian pandalid shrimps, longnose hawkfish and pink squat lobsters.
Omiyamae, Isso: Heading back to the area Isso, we entered the water about 5mins from the mainland at the dive site Omiyamae. Dropping into the water with a backward roll, on our first 10m down we observed a large carpet of rocks covered with what looked like leafy algae and no doubt home to many. We then made a sharper descent to around 26m where the fish life was again a feature, with schools of blue-striped snappers and gold striped goatfish swarming past. Omiyamae is known for the range of fish that call it home, and those from the tropical seas further south and colder seas up north tend to congregate here, making it an interesting point. Now and then some blunt-head parrotfish would appear and we observed a few turtles enjoying the area’s lush food supply. There are many macro photographic opportunities in the shallower depths and every single spot seemed to be overgrown with a forest of life such as sea squirts, anemone shrimps, nudibranchs, squat shrimps, porcelain anemone crabs and emperor shrimps. The star of the show however, is the jaw fish with his huge eyes and gaping mouth, poking out of his lair in the rocks, watching us intently and darting out of sight if so inclined.
- I flew to Yakushima via Kagoshima with JAL, leaving Tokyo’s Haneda airport at 08:15AM and arriving in Kagoshima around 10:10AM. My flight from Haneda to Yakushima departed at 11:00AM, arriving at 11:35AM. The total cost of a return flight, including taxes, is about 80,000yen.
- Upon arrival, Mr Harasaki from the dive school Umi to Mori (Sea and Forest) was there to meet me at Yakushima airport. He then drove me to his shop to get changed and prepare for the first dive.
- The shop is up a hill in front of a forest. It’s very secluded and well kept, with 3 showers (shampoo and conditioner provided), a spacious concrete area to wash and hang dive gear and a beautiful wooden hut that’s the dive shop. There’s an array of books and magazines on marine life, a coffee machine that can make lattes and cappuccinos, and two big wooden tables to sit and write up log books. Mr Harasaki also connects his computer to a big screen so guests can look at their own photos, and explains in detail the different creatures seen during the dives. Beer is also available at 300yen a can.
- All the dive sites are no more than 5mins away by boat from the mainland. The main area for diving is called Isso and there are 4 points. A local fisherman is in charge of the boat. It’s big with plenty of space for dive gear but no shady areas. Entry into the water is by backward roll and ascent is up a ladder. There is a boat charge, usually about 2,000yen.
- Hot tea is available after the dives, and there is hot water to pour over yourself if you are cold.
- The dive shop will order a boxed lunch (600yen) for divers. This includes rice, pickles, chicken, deep-fried fish and a vegetable item.
- I stayed at a traditional Japanese inn (minshuku) called Kaisei, a new family-run place about 15mins drive away from the dive shop. Japanese style rooms with tatami floors and futon, or Western style rooms with beds are both available. Rooms are en-suite, with a TV, towels, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel all provided. There is also a communal area with sink, fridge, kettle, mugs, table and chairs and a bookshelf of manga comic books as well as maps and books on Yakushima. The minshuku has a bit of a youth hostel feel, with plenty of hiking guides and other leaflets available. A night’s stay costs 4,500yen, with breakfast included.
- Breakfast consists of rice (or bread), miso soup, natto (fermented soy beans), pickles, salad, fish and eggs. Free tea (green) and coffee is available.
- For dinner, there is a traditional Japanese style pub (izakaya) serving set meals of rice, miso soup, fish, vegetables and pickles, or smaller dishes for sharing. These dishes include raw fish (Yakushima is well known for mackerel), deer, vegetable salad, deep-fried flying fish and squid fried in butter. The cost comes to just over 3,000yen per person.
- The people on Yakushima are used to foreigners as many visitors come for hiking. Basic English is spoken
- The cost of diving is as follows: 2 beach dives are 11,000yen, BC and regulator rental is 3,000yen a day for the two, fin rental is 500yen, and optional dives (including tank) are 4,000yen.
- Divers are driven to the port or airport on the day of departure. I flew back to Tokyo with JAL, leaving Yakushima at 09:55 and arriving in Kagoshima at 10:30. I then had a bit of time at the airport (not much to do but there are a couple of shops, basic cafe and PC area) before heading to Tokyo’s Haneda at 14:05 and arriving at 15:45.
Dive 1: Zero-sen: dive number: 161, depth: 21.9m, dive time: 44 minutes, entry time: 13:07, exit time: 13:50, water temp: 28C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, and 4kg weight belt. Start pressure: 230 bar, end pressure: 80 bar. Saw slender sweepers, tomato hinds, blackspot cardinal fish, white socks shrimp, violet boxer shrimp, cleaner shrimps.
Dive 2: Isso Tank-shita Number 1: dive number: 162, depth: 19.9m, dive time: 70 minutes, entry time: 15:15, exit time: 16:25, water temp 26C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, and 4kg weight belt. Start pressure: 230 bar, end pressure: 40 bar. Saw green sea turtles, clownfish, harlequin sweetlips, blue-striped snappers, purple sea slug, white spot anemone fish, octopus, porcelain crab, hypselodoris apolegma, commensal shrimp and pustulose wart slug.
Dive 3: Nagata, Otsuse: dive number: 163, depth: 26.7m, dive time: 53 minutes, entry time: 09:09, exit time: 10:05, water temp: 23C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 4kg weight belt. Start pressure: 230 bar, end pressure: 30 bar. Saw pygmy seahorse, file fish, longnose hawkfish and pink squat lobsters.
Dive 4: Nagata, Otsuse: dive number: 164, depth: 22.6m, dive time: 55 minutes, entry time: 11.39, exit time: 12:35, water temp: 25C, water temp: 25C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit and 4kg weight belt. Start pressure: 230 bar, end pressure: 50 bar. Saw gold striped goat fish, purple sea slugs, whip coral gobies, gorgonian pandalid shrimps, red coral crabs, blackside hawkfish, yellowspotted scorpion fish, sea goldies and square-spot fairy basslets.
Dive 5: Omiyamae, Isso: dive number: 165, depth 26m, dive time: 61 minutes, entry time: 14:15, exit time: 15:16, water visibility: 25-30m, water temp: 27C, used a 10L steel tank, 4kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit. Start pressure: 230 bar, end pressure: 50 bar. Saw blue-striped snappers, gold striped goat fish, hawkfish anthias, red lionfish, green sea turtles, celestial phylidia nudibranches, pustulose wart slugs, sea squirts, anemone shrimps, porcelain anemone crabs, emperor shrimps, pineapple sea cucumbers, halgerda diaphana nudibranch, blunt-head parrotfish and zebra lionfish