Monday April 25th, 2016
As every scuba diver knows, the urge to get into the water can strike at anytime, even when the weather is nice but the sea is still cold and you have no time or money to head somewhere warm. This is one of the reasons why I love going to Atami in Shizuoka prefecture. Not only is it possible to dive there when it’s still relatively cold, but it can also be done on a day trip from Tokyo. What’s more, April is still low season and if you go on a weekday, you’ll pretty much have the dive shop to yourself.
Located on the east coast of the Izu Peninsula, Atami is a bay enclosed by an outer sea wall, and most of the dive sites are at the bay’s west end, about 5- 10 minutes by boat outside the sea wall. Punctuated by rocky outcrops covered in soft coral and a large shipwreck for advanced divers to explore, Atami’s dive sites are calm and accessible. Soft corals and sponges cover every inch of the rocks protruding up from the deep bottom, offering a habitat for a wide variety of fish and other marine life. Moray eels lurk among the rocks and dark corners, while more observant divers might come across a colourful nudibranch or a poisonous stonefish. When conditions are right, larger pelagic species are also known to pay a visit from the deep.
Atami’s shipwreck, the Chinsen, is one of the most popular dive sites in the area. The ship lies in two sections at around 25-30m. Because of its depth and a mild current, which can sometimes occur at the surface, divers need an advanced certification in order to visit. The journey to the Chinsen is off a boat and down a long rope with nothing to see until the wreck emerges at about 21m. For divers more used to shore entries or being surrounded by rocks and coral during a descent, such an entry can be a bit daunting but once the dive begins it’s worth it, as the Chinsen is covered with colourful soft corals and teeming with life, where schools of anthias, cardinals and chromis surround you. Gliding towards the sides of the wreck, our torch beams lit up a small group of orange anthias, and patches of small anemones spread out over the structure, shoals of fish lingering between them. Descending down the sides to around 28m, we could instantly appreciate the extent of the coral biodiversity — healthy stands of branching corals and soft flowery species mixed with other types of reef building organisms. Damselfish and sea goldies rise and fall amongst the corals, feeding in the water column, while nudibranchs and critters are plentiful. During the middle of our dive, the sun broke through and illuminated the ocean as we passed a shimmering school of fish, a wonderful touch to an exciting and comfortable underwater experience. The dive here begins with the hulk and front area and is very easy to navigate — follow the sides until you reach the back of the wreck and swim past the rest of the structure which eventually leads back to the starting point. Raiding schools of fish rampage over the wreck on feeding sprees, gorging on an almost-endless supply of food, while close to the walls and into the darker recesses of the structure, you can spot stonefish skulking in the gloom.
Another of Atami’s main dive sites is Bitagane next to the Chinsen. This is another highly colourful spot, again due to the abundance of soft corals. In fact, the enchanting coral garden landscape is reminiscent of an underwater art gallery with bright formations that have taken years to create. Bitagane is a gentle rocky slope with nooks full of life that plunges to around 30m with quite a few sponges and coral. The deeper areas are swathed in colourful soft corals, growth is impressive and healthy and everything is massed with crinoids. Fish action is conspicuous as well, with small schools of yellowstripe butterfish and cherry anthias, while fields of sponges with a scattering of anemones are a haven for chromis and other small fish to hide in and feed above. Finning over the coarse rocky structures in the middle of the site it’s also possible to find flatfish, and tucked beside the barrel sponges are photogenic nudibranchs, more specifically the Goniobranchus tinctorius, Black scrapers seem to be ever-present and stonefish are a frequent sight here as well. Large groups of fish shoal over the rocks, and sea urchins and small shellfish are abundant everywhere. Schools of sea goldies and the odd seven band grouper swim lazily around, while all the soft corals and sponges made for a colourful scene. Swimming down the sloping rocky walls to around 24m and slowly back up again, the scene was beautiful and full of life, with the reef looking incredibly healthy.
Whether you’re a photographer, a wreck enthusiast or just want to immerse yourself in the beauty of the marine life, there’s definitely something for everyone at Atami, where exciting and diverse diving opportunities abound.
- To get to Atami, take the Shinkansen bullet train from either Tokyo or Shinagawa stations. The early morning train from Shinagawa leaves at 7:34AM (destination Nagoya) and arrives at Atami around 8:12AM. A single ticket with non-reserved seat costs just over 3,500yen. It’s advisable to arrive around 8AM to have a full day of diving.
- I took a taxi (about 700yen, 5 minutes from JR Atami station) to Atami Scuba (www.atamiscuba.jp). The school is right on the port, with hot showers and toilets, a vending machine by the reception (150yen for a 500ml bottle of water), and a fairly large area with benches and picnic tables for barbecues and for hanging equipment. No tea, coffee and snacks are provided but there is a convenience store across the road.
- The boat leaves for the first dive a bit before 10AM. After arriving, it’s best to start gearing up right away. Everyone puts on their equipment and walks to the boat to sit on the floor. Entry into the water is a backward roll.
- After the first dive there is usually a 1.5 to 2 hour break before the next dive begins. Usually the dives finish in time for a late lunch.
- Two boat dives cost 16,500yen including guide, two tanks and weights (rental gear separate).
- All divers are responsible for setting up their equipment, washing it and tidying up after each dive. The showers have no body soap, towels or shampoo so remember to bring your own or buy from the convenience store.
- After the dives the shop will drive you back to JR Atami station. There are a few restaurants close by selling sashimi, a range of seafood and other delicious dishes. The dive shop will be able to point you in the right direction.
- The Tokyo-based dive club Discovery Divers (http://www.discoverydiverstokyo.com/about-us.html) arranges regular trips to Atami in the summer for training purposes and fun dives. Check out their website or Facebook page (Discovery Divers Tokyo) for more information.
Dive No: 229, Chinsen back part, Entry time: 09:22, depth: 25.5m, dive time: 38mins, exit time: 10:00, water temperature: 19C, water visibility: 8-12m, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 60 bar, used a 3kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 12L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: plaice, surfperch, yellowstripe butterfish, sea goldies, blacktip grouper, sea urchins, sea anemone, southern orange-lined cardinal fish, seven band grouper, coral, nudibranch (Goniobranchus tinctorius), black scraper, half-lined cardinal fish, cherry anthias, stone fish, Moray eels, damselfish, yellow chromis
Dive No: 330, Chinsen front part and Bitagane, Entry time: 11:34, depth: 23.8m, dive time: 40mins, exit time: 12:15, water temperature: 19C, water visibility: 8-12m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, used a 3kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 12L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: same as above