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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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