Monthly Archives: April 2016

February 2016: The Return to Shiretoko, Hokkaido, JAPAN

Monday February 8th – Friday February 12th, 2016

Winter in Japan, and the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido is covered in snow and ice. Blizzards and bitterly cold winds sweep the area, but divers can still be seen heading towards the wintry waters, putting on their equipment and plunging in.

Ice diving is nothing new in this part of Japan. It begins when drift ice from the Sea of Okhotsk starts to move south around the end of January, reaching the Shiretoko coast and gradually filling the surrounding seas. Heading underwater here in mid-winter demands huge strength of character and full concentration, but a surprising world awaits including the striking beauty of the ice above and decent visibility. The flora and fauna off Shiretoko can only be described as different, with rocks and pebbles littering the seabed and forests of seaweed and odd-looking nudibranchs vying for attention.

I returned to Hokkaido in early February for my second ice diving experience and as I left, people wondered why I was going to dive, again, in such an environment. The water is cold and the risk of hypothermia is high. Even the dive operators, or those who only dive in warmer waters, must step up and adjust to the freezing cold ocean. But the looming quiet delicacy of the floating ice adds a dramatic and other worldly quality to the whole experience. There is nothing more exciting than marvelling at the ice formations above before looking at the wildlife below. Ice diving may be extreme, but it offers an incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

With water temperatures between 0 and -2C degrees or even colder and a sheet of thick ice skimming the surface, safety procedures are strict. Once underwater, not only are you unable to surface wherever you like thanks to a frozen layer, each minute in this extreme environment increases the possibility of problems like hypothermia. The usual procedure is for the dive shop to dig a hole over the chosen dive spot using a chainsaw or ice cutting machine, and through the hole goes a rope which divers use to get in and out of the water. But unfortunately when we arrived there was almost no ice, so our dives became normal beach dives as we gathered in buddy pairs and sat on the ice close to shore, putting on our gear and swimming out to sea.

Looking around, the extremely large rocks at around 3.5m are by no means exciting. The area is a series of rocks and tiny pebbles, covered in swathes of green and red seaweed, among which are starfish, shells, anemones and occasional tiny crabs. But there is also a wealth of macro subjects such as nudibranchs, shellfish and copepods, while the countless bits of seaweed dance above the rocks like leaves caught in the wind. Despite the somewhat plain and barren seascape, the whole area is still a bustle of activity.

The clione, however, is the real star of the show.  Also known as a sea angel, it’s a type of sea slug, a cross between a jellyfish and an underwater firefly, that hovers under the ice and drives divers crazy with its cuteness.  It’s a tiny dot in the vast ocean but many divers brave the icy waters just to photograph it.  This mystical being is an extremely photogenic, translucent little creature that spends its time slowly making its way through the water flapping its wings and cute ears as it passes by.

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Photo credit: Iruka Hotel, Shiretoko, Hokkaido, March 2013

Sadly, this may well be my last ice diving trip to Hokkaido. In recent years global warming has reduced the size and amount of the ice floes and until a solution is found, we are likely to see much less ice in future. Nevertheless I am still hopeful that next year we will return. For divers who want to take on a serious challenge and try something different, it’s an experience I highly recommend.

Practical Information

  • I flew with JAL from Haneda airport leaving at 11:55AM on Monday 8th and arriving at Memanbetsu at 13:40. I flew with JAL again on Friday 12th February, leaving Memanbetsu at 14:35 and arriving in Haneda at 16:30. Returning flights, including taxes etc. come to around 80,000yen.
  • At Memanbetsu a coach arranged by Kansai Divers (main contact person David Graham), a divers’ group in Kansai that had organised the trip, came to meet us. We used the same coach to get from place to place all week.
  • We stayed at the beautiful Shiretoko Daiichi Hotel, a huge 4-star complex with public baths, spacious Japanese-style and Western rooms, shops, wifi, delivery service and an excellent buffet breakfast and dinner with every kind of food and drink imaginable (alcohol is ordered and paid for separately). http://shiretoko-1.com/spa/index.html
  • The ice diving was offered through the shop Robinson (http://www.robinson.co.jp). Two dives a day were available, as well as a simple, warm and delicious lunch (soup, sandwiches, rice balls etc.) in their heated lodge, which contains a few benches and a stove. We changed into our dry suits at the hotel and loaded our gear into Robinson’s van (they picked us up at the hotel), before being driven for 10mins or so to the dive site. Equipment is set up outside the heated lodge on arrival. After the dives, all equipment can be stored in a heated dry room at the hotel.
  • Divers are responsible for their own equipment, including washing, drying and packing it before departure. When all diving is over, it can be taken to divers’ rooms to be washed and dried there. The bathroom area was spacious enough for small bits like masks or regulators. BCs and dry suits can be dried in the dry room. Equipment can be sent back to Tokyo directly from the hotel for around 2,000yen with Kuroneko Yamato delivery service.
  • Our final day in Hokkaido was spent at Abashiri. We went to Abashiri prison, which has been preserved from the Meiji period and is now a museum.
  • The total cost of the trip came to around 140,000yen (in my case this included dry suit and undergarment rental for 2 days). For more information contact David Graham of Kansai Divers at: dgraham.kobe@gmail.com or get in touch through the Kansai Divers Facebook page.

February’s Dives

Dive No: 226, Entry time: 10:37, depth: 4.9m, dive time: 15mins, exit time: 10:52, water temperature: -3C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 150 bar, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Saw: starfish, sea anemones, nudibranchs and small crabs.

Dive No: 227, Entry time: 12:45, depth: 5.7m, dive time: 21mins, exit time: 13:06, water temperature: -3C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 150 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Saw: clione, starfish, nudibranchs, seaweed/kelp, and sea anemones.

Dive No: 228, Entry time: 09:05, depth: 4m, dive time: 5 mins, exit time: 09:10, water temperature: -4C, water visibility: 5m, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Didn’t stay down there long enough to see much!

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 2016: Thailand Diving

Friday January 29th – Monday February 1st, 2016

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this could not be more so for the underwater habitats and inhabitants of Thailand’s seas. Vast, eerie, beautiful, breathtaking and even magical, Thailand is home to thousands of marine species. A closer look reveals delicate structures, textures and vibrant, perfectly placed colours.

Phuket is often referred to as the Pearl of the South and for good reason. The crown jewel of the Andaman Sea is the gateway to dive sites such as the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock whose year-round tropical climate and crystal clear waters draw divers from far and wide. For me, spending a few days here on my first ever liveaboard couldn’t have been a better way to start 2016.

The Similan Islands are some of Thailand’s most popular dive sites, and we spent a couple of days exploring everything they had to offer. With a giant stride entry into the water at our first site Anita’s Reef, we came across brain, honeycomb and stag coral erupting out of the rocks like perfect marine sculptures, while in amongst these works of art were nudibranchs, crabs and starfish. Schools of butterfly fish seemed involved in a feeding frenzy, along with gigantic numbers of yellow snapper. Soon I found a mantis shrimp protecting its lair with typical ferocity. The mantis’s bright colouring is the perfect fit for islands like the Similans, and if there’s a more photogenic creature in the oceans, I’m yet to snap it. Coral groupers surrounded large coral-encrusted boulders and bluefin trevally decorated the reef. The iridescent blue water washed over large stands of soft coral, and the simple colour contrast was breathtaking.

Further west of the islands, the underwater scenery is just as good with great visibility in the aquamarine waters. Oriental sweetlips, clown triggerfish and dogtooth tunas can be found swimming past the reef crevices, while batfish compete with sweetlips for the attention of cleaner wrasses. As turtles flapped by, the site made me appreciate how prolific sea turtles are in the region, and for macro lovers this area is a joy, as a wealth of subjects provide an eclectic image-making experience.

Soon we were heading north to Koh Bon, about 20km north of the Similan Islands and featuring one of the only vertical walls in Thailand. The main dive site is on the southwestern point with a step-down ridge that reaches just over 40m. The eastern side is where most divers enter the water to encounter dense and vibrant coral reefs full of movement, beauty and light. Swimming by with our torches at hand, there almost seemed to be a change in soft corals and the density of certain fish species. We found a small rise of coral heads with various fish flitting about, and sea whip branches and gorgonian sea fans providing a small vertical accent to the site. I followed the wall south and came across longnosed emperor fish, rainbow runners, bluefin trevally, anemone crabs and even an octopus trying to hide itself in a hole not quite big enough for the purpose.

Twenty-five kilometres north of Koh Bon is Koh Tachai, famous not just for common species of corals and fish, but also for larger animals such as rays, leopard sharks, nurse sharks and turtles. Whale sharks and manta rays are also known to make an appearance. Unfortunately we were out of luck with those, but nevertheless had a great time thanks to the healthy corals and plentiful reef life like colourful crinoids and masses of butterfly and angelfish. Giant trevally contrasted with sun and whip corals flailing in the slight current, and there were macro subjects to delight any diver: shrimp, sea slugs and small gobies, white-banded cleaner shrimps and anemone crabs. We also encountered big eye jacks patrolling the area, while small groups of longfin batfish shimmered in the blue and laconic sea turtles appeared to graze nearby. The scenery below the water took our breath away – giant morays and lots of yellow back fusiliers left an impression.

Our final site before heading back to Phuket and the mainland was Richelieu Rock, an open sea pinnacle 45km off the Andaman coastline. The pinnacle rises from 50m to the water surface, with limestone boulders here and there providing a haven for marine life. It’s a bit of a lone outpost, with tidal currents causing upwellings of plankton and attracting life from far and wide. Beginning our descent, blackfin and yellowfin barracuda glinted in the sunlight and we soon came across impressive growths of sponges, sun corals and all manners of life. Groupers and the odd cuttlefish congregated and passed by while the area was highlighted by batfish and hawksbill turtles of various sizes.  We also spotted ornate ghost pipefish, cleaner pipefish and even a tigertail seahorse or two. The shallow parts of the pinnacle are wondrous dives in their own right, and this trip made it clear why Richelieu Rock is among the world’s best dives. In fact, such a great diversity of dive sites and the special creatures found on them makes the Andaman Sea a fantastic long weekend getaway with very rewarding diving.

Practical Information

  • We booked our flights with Singapore Airlines, flying via Singapore to Phuket, arriving in Phuket around 17:00 in time for an evening pick up.
  • We booked our trip in Japan with an English-speaking dive guide who works at Kozushima’s dive shop Nangoku.
  • Further information on the liveaboard trip is available in English from West Coast Divers who run the trip on the boat MV Pawara. West Coast Divers are a dive centre in Phuket. http://www.westcoastdivers.com
  • A delux cruise aboard the MV Pawara for 4 nights and 4 days costs upwards from THB 25,700.
  • The staff from West Coast Divers pick customers up at Phuket airport or hotels depending on customer itineraries. The drive from the airport to the harbour (Tablamu Pier) is about an hour and a half.
  • Upon boarding the boat, customers are offered a welcome drink and there is a short explanation of the boat and its safety features, captain and crew introductions and a welcome dinner (buffet with a range of seafood, meats, vegetables, rice etc). The dinner is also slightly Western-style, with less spices etc. The boat then sets sail for the Similan Islands, arriving the next morning, after a ceremony on board to pray for good luck.
  • Day 1 at the Similan Islands includes 3 day dives and 1 sunset or night dive.
  • Day 2 is at the Similan Islands and Koh Bon, 3 day dives and 1 night dive.
  • Day 3 is at Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock, 3 day dives and 1 night dive.
  • Day 4 is at Koh Bon or Boon Soong Wreck, 2 day dives. After this, the boat heads back to Tablamu Pier, and customers are driven by mini bus back to Phuket.
  • The boat contains a large saloon, dive deck, spacious sundeck and upstairs area for sunbathing and sleeping.
  • Extra charges include the Similan Island National Park entry fee (1,800BHT), equipment rental full set (2,000 BHT for 4 days), torch for the night dives (100 BHT per dive) and dive computers (300 BHT per day).
  • All cabins include drinking water, 2 beach towels and 2 small towels, soap and shampoo, hair dryer, blanket, safe box, life jackets and international electric sockets. Wifi is very limited!
  • Tea, coffee, drinking water, cookies and fresh fruit are available at any time.
  • We arrived in Phuket after the trip in the early evening, and stayed for one night at the Phuket Airport Hotel (http://www.phuketairporthotel.com) which had a free bus to the airport, Western-style breakfast for a small extra charge, swimming pool, spacious comfortable rooms and restaurants nearby.

 January’s dives

Friday January 29th, 2016

Dive No: 213, Anita’s Reef, Entry time: 07:57, depth: 23.8m, dive time: 51 mins, exit time: 08:48, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used a 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw sandy partner gobies, pinkbar partner gobies, parrotfish, common cleaner wrasse, clown fish, spotted hawkfish, yellowback fusiliers, coral groupers, trumpet fish, garden eels and freckled garden eels

 

Dive No: 214, West of Similan Island #7, Entry time: 11:32, depth: 28.0m, dive time: 46 mins, exit time: 12:08, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw: banded coral shrimp, Valentin’s toby, triggerfish, trevallies, sandy partner gobies, parrotfish, sea turtles, yellowback fusiliers, coral groupers, trumpet fish, undulate moray

 

 

Dive No: 215, Elephant Head Rock, North of Island #7 and South of Island #8, Entry time: 14:56, depth: 29.9m, dive time: 46 mins, exit time: 15:44, water temperature: 31C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 20 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw: mantis shrimp, ribbon eel, barracudas, turtle, sea cucumbers, starfish, blue sea star, giant clams, red spotted coral crab, masked porcupine fish, triggerfish, sea bream, parrotfish, yellowback fusiliers and oriental sweetlips

 

 

Dive No: 216 (night dive) Donald Duck Bay: Entry time: 18:53, depth: 11.7m, dive time: 44 mins, exit time: 19:40, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 5mm wetsuit. Saw: baby squid, porcupine fish, porcelain crabs, spotfin lionfish, cardinal fish, goat fish, coral crabs.

 

 

Saturday January 30th, 2016

Dive No: 217, North Point, North of Island #9, Entry time: 07:23, depth: 30.1m, dive time: 47mins, exit time: 08:14, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 210 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank and a 5mm wetsuit. Saw: pygmy seahorses, rays, fairy basslets, barracudas, wrasses, blennies, spotted hawkfish, ember parrotfish, bluebarred parrotfish, Indian mimic surgeonfish, scribbled filefish, masked porcupine fish

 

 

Dive No: 218, Koh Bon, Entry time: 10:45, depth: 22.2m, dive time: 53 mins, exit time: 11:38, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminimum tank, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: trumpet fish, leopard shark, undulate moray, cornetfish, cardinal fish, blue-and-gold fusiliers, longfin banner fish, yellow sweepers, ember parrotfish, bluebarred parrotfish, surgeonfish

Dive No: 219, Koh Bon, Entry time: 14:08, depth: 24.7m, dive time: 50mins, exit time: 15:00, water temperature: 31C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 210 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%) and a 5mm wetsuit. Saw: giant morays

 

 

Dive No: 220, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 17:38, depth: 22.3m, dive time: 42mins, exit time: 18:22, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: giant trevally, barracudas, yellowback fusiliers

 

 

Sunday January 31st, 2016

Dive No: 221, Richelieu Rock, Entry time: 07:23, depth: 28.8m, dive time: 57 mins, exit time: 08:20, water temperature: 28C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: cuttlefish x 3, harlequin shrimp, napoleon wrasse, eels, crown of thorns starfish, coral banded cleaner shrimp, clown fish, yellowback fusiliers, humbug damsels

Dive No: 222, Richelieu Rock, Entry time: 10:18, depth: 28.6m, dive time: 48mins, exit time: 11:10, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: yellow tigertail seahorse (hippocampos comes)

 

 

 

Dive No: 223, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 14:31, depth: 22.8m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 15:07, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw:

Dive No: 224, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 17:23, depth: 21.6m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 18:09, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15m, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: redcoat squirrel fish

 

 

Monday February 1st, 2016

Dive No: 225, Boonsoong Wreck, Entry time: 07:25, depth: 18.1m, dive time: 55mins, exit time: 08:20, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 5-10m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 90 bar, used a 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, nitrox (29%), jacket BC. Saw: cuttlefish schools, stingrays, emperor angelfish (juvenile), scorpion fish, honeycomb morays, bigeye snapper, lattice spine cheek, stonefish, yellowback fusiliers, longfin batfish, chromodoris annulata (nudibranch), chromodoris obsoleta (nudibranch), chromodoris fidelis (nudibranch)

Dive No: 226, Boonsoong Wreck, Entry time: 10:28, depth: 18.2m, dive time: 53mins, exit time: 11:23, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 5-10m, start pressure: 160 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used a 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, nitrox (29%), jacket BC. Saw: