Friday November 6th – Tuesday November 10th, 2015
Earlier this year, I was asked by NHK if I would be interested in going to Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island for their travel programme Journeys in Japan, seeing for myself the underwater environment and hearing about efforts to cultivate and protect the coral reefs.
I have dived in Japan for many years, but the warm turquoise ocean off Ishigaki is particularly breathtaking. Indeed, it’s only fitting that the waters off Shiraho, a village we spent much time in during the filming, are known by two different names; the Sea of Treasure, due to its vast range of marine life, and the Sea of Survival, highlighting its struggles against threats such as climate change and human activity.
Shiraho village looks out over a 12km stretch of coral reef. The local community’s culture and livelihood have been intimately connected to the sea through festivals, fishery resources and religious rituals, and coral has long been used for food and building materials. However, increased runoff from red soil from construction sites and the influx of household elements into the sea have increased the burden on the marine environment. Of particular concern has been the effects of the newly-constructed Ishigaki airport which opened in 2013. Despite government information that marine life is not affected, many at Shiraho are doubtful. Farming along the nearby Todoroki river has also had a negative impact, as well as the increasing number of typhoons.
“The coral deterioration here has definitely been severe,” said Masahito Kamimura of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Japan who spent a great deal of time with us during filming. He also explained that the spectacular Shiraho waters are home to the third-largest reef system in the world in terms of coral, with the world’s oldest blue coral and over 300 species of fish — all the more reason to offer protection.
In the mid 1980s, the WWF established the Shiraho Coral Reef Conservation and Research Center, or Shiraho Sangomura (Shiraho Coral Village), which Mr Kamimura is in charge of today. Recently he has been working to champion a model of ecotourism and has established a separate community-based preservation organisation involved in the restoration of traditional fishing tools to prevent coral damage and the establishment of tourism guidelines. Another program has been launched to plant shell flower, or getto, a species of ginger (Alpinia speciosa) to stop red soil from flowing into the sea. People in the area have since developed a floral water spray for room fragrance using this plant, and part of the proceeds are put towards coral conservation. Steps are also being taken to restore a traditional fishing technique in which rocks are piled up in walls on the shore or shallow areas of the reef to use the tides to catch fish. The rocks’ crevices provide an ideal habitat for many organisms, so the technique is being studied once again for possible revival.
During my journey I also visited Shiraho Sangomura‘s Sunday morning market, a weekly event that fosters local industries that use traditional handiwork to produce products such as ornaments made from coral and shellfish, and handkerchiefs dyed with natural materials. I also saw the getto plant, sampled some rice balls wrapped in its huge leaves and came across some essential oils made from it. Nearby is a small coral farming centre that grows coral fragments in tanks and plants them back in their natural environment. Most impressive was the farmers’ efforts to regularly tend to each fragment. After months of care and maturation the fragments are taken back to the sea and carefully installed. Soon they are taking hold in the reef, forming a new foundation to support the rich bounty of marine life.
Then there’s the diving! During my time in Ishigaki I was filmed underwater with some spectacular coral and marine life. There are few sights more awe-inspiring for divers than watching manta rays perform their graceful somersaults and glide majestically through the water, or feel as though you are flying over carpets of healthy-looking coral. Learning about the island’s conservation efforts gave me much food for thought. Although I’ve dived off Ishigaki a few times, I’m sure that I and my dive gear will be seeing this island again.
*You can watch my journey to Ishigaki Island on NHK World’s Journeys in Japan, which will be shown on Tuesday December 15th. More details to follow soon! http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/tv/journeys/index.html