March 2015: The Return to Miyako Island, Okinawa, Japan

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Monday March 23rd – Wednesday March 25th 2015

The long winter months can leave the keenest of divers, including myself, seriously dried out, and early this year I planned to refresh my skills and get back into diving at a place that required some planning and at least a couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.  One place that ticks those boxes is Okinawa’s Miyakojima. Located about 300km southwest of the main island of Okinawa, this warm and tropical place is most well known for its underwater limestone formations and promises divers an adventurous experience, with swim-throughs, arches, overhangs and labyrinths of tunnels.  Most of the popular dive sites are about 35mins from the mainland, and although the journey can seem long and the sea sometimes choppy, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement as huge rocky structures appear in the distance and the boat makes its final approach.  With a decent selection of dive sites to choose from, we settled on the following spots:

Nakanoshima Channel:  This site allows divers to explore walls and swim-throughs created when the ocean worked its magic on the volcanic rocks a long long time ago.  The rocks here slope to a 14m-deep seabed over a jumble of medium-sized boulders that make an ideal habitat for all manner of darkness-loving marine life. Swimming through a narrow arch and then down to around 18m, it’s clear that the rocks are covered with sponges and other critters thriving in the nutrient-rich waters.  Juvenile parrot fish gently hover close by, while tiny jawfish also peer out from holes in the sand, gripping tightly as they sit and wait patiently for divers to move on or darting quickly out of sight if so inclined.  Close to this sandy spot is the entrance to a small tunnel, which seems to promise encounters with little creatures.  As we swam in, we hunted their nooks and crannies and spotted a shoal of red soldier fish sheltering deep within.  As the dive comes to a close, the tunnel spits you out with a tiny bit of surge, topping off a fun dive as you begin your ascent while closely examining a range of colourful nudibranchs.

Hon Drop: As its name suggests, this site is a drop-off that rises from around 35m to a shallow plateau at 8m.  One advantage of diving here is that during the journey back to the surface it’s possible to maintain a visual reference by following the wall and ascending to the shallows.  Swimming over the shallow plateau, the descent begins down the wall to about 12m, where soon you spot something.  It’s the star of the show – and what divers come here to see – a giant trevally that takes refuge at the rocky gullies and overhangs.  On good days it’s possible to spot around 3 or 4, disappearing into the deep blue with a flick of their tails. The shallow depths here are bathed in the sun as prism-like ripples of light skip across the rocks.  Leaf scorpion fish lurk in the crags of a rock, while curly anemones provide homes for a range of clownfish and  the odd blackspotted puffer fish can be seen finning away. The fish life here may be less abundant but the big rocky structures will keep divers entertained thanks to the diverse range of marine life.

Mini Grotto: Mini Grotto is the perfect example of Miyakojima’s colossal rocky structures and tunnels.  A boulder-strewn seabed slopes gently into the deeper depths, and a turtle sways back and forth, trying to munch on food it had found on the surface of a rock.  This site also offers a small tunnel ideally suited for open water level exploration.  Divers can easily enter at around 15m, penetrating the semi-darkness with their flashlights and swimming up and up towards the surface of the water as the sun streams into the opening, creating a spectacular scene.  Popping up above the water, it’s clear that the surrounding structures were carved out by waves centuries ago, and divers can float on the water, lie back and marvel at the immense beauty before them.  The only way out is back through the same tunnel but although it mainly consists of sediment, small rocks and gravel, it’s worth taking time out to study the nudibranchs that have found their way inside. Back in the shallows, shoals of chromis move into open water to feed on drifting plankton.

Mao no Kyuden: A large boulder area and labyrinth of tunnels offers an air of mystery and anticipation. With a maximum depth of around 25-27m, divers can’t spend too long here before reaching no-decompression limits, but even a short time spent at this point will reveal some form of life such as red soldier fish making a hasty retreat with their fins fluttering.  The structure here seems to consist of several large chambers and tunnels linked together and although divers are never far from an opening, it can sometimes be hard to tell where you are going.  Swimming towards the exit past shoals of fish, the immense beauty of the tunnel reveals itself and taking photos, divers are framed against an iridescent blue ocean, enveloped in a velvety blackness. At the surface, nutrient-rich water swirls around, giving life to vast schools of fish such as filefish and sweepers competing with one another for space.  Don’t forget to visit the candy crab at 21m, a cute little critter that’s well camouflaged against a piece of soft coral.

Practical information 

  • I booked the Miyakojima trip with Paradise Island Tours based in Tokyo (http://www.pit-diving.com/travel/)
  • JTA flights direct to Miyakojima leave from Haneda airport at 06:55AM, getting to the island around 10:00.  Direct return flights to Tokyo leave around 20:00, arriving at 22:35.  It’s also possible to leave a little early, around 17:15 with a transfer at Naha (18:00 – 18:40), arriving in Tokyo around 21:00
  • Our school Dive Kids (http://www.divekids.jp/a/frame1.htm) was there to meet us on arrival and drive us to the school.
  • Diving equipment can be sent from Tokyo in advance for about 2,500 yen, using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
  • Dive Kids is about 5 mins’ drive from the main port.  On the left side of the school is a huge area to wash, hang/dry equipment and take showers (no shampoo, conditioner and soap provided) while next door on the right is an area to fill in log books, complete with an outside terrace, plenty of books and magazines on marine life, and free coffee.
  • All dives are boat dives.  The boat is very spacious with an outdoor deck and an upstairs for catching more sun.  Bring your own towels, sun cream and any other necessary items but sweets, tea and coffee are available on the boat all day.
  • Lunch is Japanese style and homemade.  On day 1 we had a thick creamy pork stew with vegetables, and rice accompanied by pickles and hot tea.  On day 2 we had a clear fish broth with vegetables along with rice balls and hot tea.
  • 2L bottles of warm water are available on deck for divers to pour over themselves when exiting from cold water.
  • All entries are down a ladder from a small platform.  Ascent is via the same ladder.
  • On the school’s white board, the staff draw a detailed map of every dive site you visit, along with fridge magnets of different fish.  This helps immensely when completing dive logs and gives an excellent idea of what was seen and where.
  • We stayed at the Hotel Peace Island Miyakojima Shiyakusho (http://www.peace-k.jp/miyako2/) about 10mins drive away from Dive Kids.  The hotel is clean and spacious with WIFI and other usual amenities available such as towels, shampoo, soap and toothbrushes.  There is a huge bath on the 10th floor.  Breakfast is a buffet of rice, miso soup, bread, various vegetables and fish, eggs, tea and coffee.  Western style food (cereal, bread, fruit) is available too, and the breakfast area serves as an izakaya (Japanese style pub) at night serving a range of dishes such as sashimi raw fish, grilled meat and fish, salads, pizzas and chips. Check out from the hotel is 11AM.
  • Close to the hotel are a few good izakayas, a 24-hour convenience store, ice cream parlour and shops.
  • The total cost of the trip was 80,000yen, including return flight, 4 boat dives including tanks and weights, two nights in the hotel with breakfast, and all transport.
  • Dive Kids will also drive you to the airport after your stay.

March’s dives

Dive 1: Nakanoshima Channel: dive number:166, depth: 17.9m, dive time: 51mins, entry time: 11:38AM, exit time: 12:28, water temp: 24C, water visibility: 20-25m, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weight belt.  Start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 60bar.  Saw juvenile bicolour parrot fish, jaw fish, red soldier fish and seaslugs (halgerda diaphana)

Dive 2: Hon Drop: dive number 167, depth: 14.5m, dive time: 41mins, entry time: 14:17, exit time: 14:57, water visibility: 20-25m, water temperature: 22C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weight belt.  Start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 50 bar.  Saw giant trevally, turtles, blackspotted puffer fish and a couple of leaf scorpion fish

Dive 3: Mini Grotto: dive number 168, depth: 15m, dive time: 48mins, entry time: 09:46, exit time: 10:24, water visibility: 20m, water temperature: 22C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weight belt.  Start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 60 bar.  Saw turtles, lion fish, stout chromic, red snappers, sea slug (halgerda diaphana and chromodoris kuniei)

Dive 4: Mao no Kyuden: dive number 169, depth: 24.4m, dive time: 38mins, entry time: 11:31, exit time: 12:09, water visibility: 20m, water temperature: 21C, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 4kg weight belt.  Start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 30 bar.  Saw filefish, candy crab, sweepers and bigscale soldier fish.

About Rising Bubbles

Bonnie Waycott is a dive master and writer focusing on Japan's scuba diving and aquaculture. She is currently taking an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture at the University of St Andrews via distance learning and is due to graduate in December 2017. Her written work has been featured in Asian Diver, Scuba Diver AustralAsia, DIVE, Marine Biologist, The Fish Site, Fish Farmer, Hatchery International and Outdoor Japan Traveler, while for Japanese divers she writes about marine-related issues abroad for Japanese diving website Ocean+α. You can follow Bonnie on Twitter (@risingbubbles), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/RisingBubblesNotesOfANewDiver/) and Instagram (@bonniewaycott).
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