Sunday July 24th, 2016
Our eyes scout the slightly murky water, but for the moment there is no sign of any turtles. Then, one arrives, gliding effortlessly in the distance. It pirouettes above the vents spewing bubbles of hot water before settling slowly over the rocks and soft beds of seaweed. More turtles soon follow, propelling forward and glancing at us as they move past, seemingly unconcerned by our presence.
This is a typical underwater scene at Shikinejima, a quaint little island 160km south of Tokyo. With clear water, natural resources and ocean-side hot springs, it’s a far-flung corner of the metropolis, a great holiday destination and home to around 600 residents. Tourists gather in droves during the summer high season, but at other times of the year it feels wonderfully empty and peaceful.
Diving off Shikinejima is not the most exciting, but the sites below offer plenty to see:
Mikawan, or Kaichu Onsen: Located in a small bay and surrounded by huge cliff-like rocks, the water here is extremely calm, making it ideal for beginner divers as well as the more advanced. Descending to around 6m, we were greeted by a carpet of medium-sized rocks. Swimming over them for a while, we soon noticed bubbles all around, rising gently from vents hidden in the many nooks and crannies. Although the water wasn’t very warm, we could stop and put our hands above the vents to feel the warmth. This site offers pleasing, shallow dives in a calm environment where schools of neon damselfish cruise slowly by and the rocks are adorned with frills of multicoloured seaweed utilising the nutrient rich water flowing past at the turn of the tides. Finning across the rocky bottom, we found that it soon gave way to a vast sandy patch and organic material containing even more vents and bubbles. This is a great opportunity to lie on the sand and study the vents in more detail, while for divers with a keen eye there are some interesting surprises, including sepia stingrays foraging in the sand and wafting under us, lighting up under our torches. Looking down we could see them gliding gracefully by, while further on, flatfish lay well camouflaged in the sand, watching cautiously as we continued on our journey.
Ashitsuki: This site also offers pleasant shallow dives in calm water with a range of marine life. In fact, we were inundated by sensory overload. Every part of the rocks seemed to be blanketed in a range of anemones, coral and seaweed, countless hordes that provide food for a number of fish. Gliding weightlessly through the water, we felt as though we were flying over an underwater garden. Extravagant anemones harboured dozens of clown fish darting in and out, while lobsters seemed to be under every overhang, sometimes venturing out with caution. Apart from the sea goldies and sweepers (don’t race in as the groups will move away just fast enough to evade that ideal shot), marine life encounters are typically smaller critters such as nudibranchs, including chromodoris lochi, serpent pteraeolidia and phyllidia ocellata, as well as frogfish. Shimmering and brightly lit up in the clear water, the nudibranchs make for excellent images against the blue of the ocean. We got to explore some wider and bigger rocks stretching down into the depths, and all along them were shoals of gnomefish, knifefish and others darting in and out of the protection of the seaweed and rocky growth. We were transfixed by swarms of yellow striped butterfish, largescale blackfish and damselfish, and spent the last part of our dive at depths of 5-6m, enjoying the sun penetrating the water and lighting up our surroundings. Small fish darted around and the clear water and colourful growth on the rocks made for a stunning dive.
Shikinejima is a great dive destination for Tokyo-ites needing to escape from the concrete jungle. It’s a simple and beautiful example of rural Japan and a perfect opportunity to enjoy a natural and colourful underwater world.
- We took the overnight ferry from Takeshiba Sanbashi in Tokyo with Tokai Kisen ferries (http://www.tokaikisen.co.jp/). The ferry leaves Tokyo at 22:00 and arrives at 09:05 the following morning. Tickets are about 12,000yen return (6,000yen for a single) and include a chair below deck but it is possible to rent warm thick blankets for 100yen each and sleep out on deck. The ferry only has basic vending machines and a restaurant, which is not open at night so it’s advisable to bring your own food and snacks.
- We camped at Oura Camp Site about 15-20mins walk from the port. It’s free to camp after signing in at the main reception. One vending machine is available, as well as areas to wash cooking utensils, cutlery and cook food. Basic pots and pans are available for use, as well as an area at the reception to charge phones. Toilets and showers (cold water only), as well as a car park, are at the bottom of the hill. Campers need to bring their own things (there is no rental service)
- I booked my dives with Shikinejima Diving Service (http://www5.ocn.ne.jp/~sdsdive/menu_page_1.html). Two boat dives and one beach dive comes to just under 20,000yen including tanks, weights and a guide. It then costs around 6,400yen to rent a wetsuit, reg, BCD, mask, fins and boots.
- For people with their own gear, diving equipment can be sent in advance from Tokyo for about 2,500yen using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
- Immediately upon arriving at Shikinejima Diving Service, you see a huge family house on your right, with an area for diving equipment in the distance. There is a round table outside for divers to sit and fill in forms. Next to this table is an area for equipment storage, to wash, hang and dry gear. A toilet and changing room are inside the house. No books or magazines are available but tea is provided.
- After loading the van with equipment and getting changed at the shop, we drove to the dive sites. The boat is very spacious and flat with no indoor area and a couple of benches in the middle next to the engine where divers can sit. Equipment is put on when the boat arrives at the dive sites. Bring your own towel, sunscreen and snacks.
- Lunch is not provided so after each dive there is a chance to go to the nearest store for food and drink.
- All entries into the water are backward rolls. Ascent is up a ladder.
- After each dive, everyone heads back to the port for a quick break. A member of staff from the dive school will then drive back with the empty tanks and return with new ones.
- Divers are responsible for looking after their own equipment. When the dives are over, they are free to use the school’s outdoor area to change and wash up as they like. The school also drives you back to your accommodation or any other place you wish to go at the end of the day.
- Cycling is a great way to get around the island although there are many steep hills! Full day bicycle hire is around 1,000yen.
- We returned to Tokyo on the fast jetfoil, which leaves Shikinejima around 10:00 and gets into Tokyo around 13:00. A single ticket is about 9,000yen.
Dive No: 231, Kaichu Onsen, Entry time: 10:08, depth: 11.3m, dive time: 29mins, exit time: 10:37, water temperature: 25C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, used a 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 10L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: turtles, sepia stingray, neon damselfish and scorpionfish
Dive No: 232, Ashitsuki, Entry time: 11:42, depth: 8.3m, dive time: 36mins, exit time: 12:20, water temperature: 26C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 160 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 5kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 10L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: chromodoris lochi, serpent pteraeolidia, sea goldies, sweepers, frogfish, glaucus atlanticus, gnomefish, Japanese bluefish, knifefish, clownfish, lobsters, phyllidia ocellata.