Monthly Archives: February 2017

February 2017: Odawara, JAPAN

Monday February 6th, 2017 and Monday February 20th, 2017 

Prospering in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Odawara city in southwestern Kanagawa Prefecture is a huge hub where major railways from Tokyo meet, and where tourists go to visit Odawara castle or see the cherry blossoms of Odawara Joshi-koen Park (Castle Ruins Park) during the spring.  When it comes to the ocean, fresh seafood arrives at the harbour every day and kamaboko, or steamed processed fish meat, is one of the city’s most well-known marine products.  Diving here, however, is almost unheard of, so I felt fortunate and excited at discovering a new place with Mr. Tanaka of Hayakawa Diving Service, who was introduced to me by a friend as I prepare to continue my dry suit diving this month.  At the dive centre, we set up our gear and walked over a stony pebbled beach into the water.

Descending slowly above a rope, we made our way over the rocks and pebbles to around 5m, swaying against the waves as we swam straight ahead.  Visibility dropped a little to around 5 – 8m, and the water was slightly cloudy from the sand and sediment being stirred up by the waves.  Beds of kelp and other seaweed growth were attached to the rocky boulders.  Black scraper fish mixed with puffer and box fish, punctuated with the odd starfish, sea urchin and some lion fish; just some of the many species found here.  On and around the rocky structures were frogfish and an array of life including moss fringe heads, crabs and tiny blennies.  There were also wrasses and other seemingly tropical species in the cold water, but they were subtly different from the other forms I have come to know in warmer waters.  I photographed a tiny fringehead blenny peeking out at me from its hole, while Mr. Tanaka pointed out a much larger hole-dweller nearby, a moray eel poking its head out from its lair and eyeing us cautiously. I also spotted what I thought was a pinecone fish deep within a crevice.

After exploring the 5m area for a while, we decided to head a little deeper and began swimming over a huge carpet of sand that at first glance appeared to be devoid of life.  But only a few metres in, the first sign of life came into sight and that’s when the action started – large stingrays resting on the sandy bottom emerged gently and swam off immediately as we approached, flicking their tails as they buried themselves further away.  A plaice watched us swim over him and I could only make out his shape by straining my eyes as I passed by. Below us was another long rope stretching into the distance, and we hovered above it for a while, exploring the seaweed growth and searching in vain for baby squid and other tiny signs of life.  Soon, the rope we were swimming over came to an end, and before us was a cluster of rocks caked in kelp and seaweed.  Another large moray eel sat perfectly still out in the open with mouth agape, allowing me to try and photograph it from a few inches away.  A Valentin’s sharpnose puffer swam slowly past, pausing just long enough in front of a cluster of kelp so I could get a better look at him.  The highlight of this site, however, is the tiny exotic coral crab, pink and white with tiny projections protruding from its head, sitting at the bottom of a thick branch of vibrant pink soft coral and extremely well-camouflaged.  On our way back to the shallower depths, we swam back over the rocky structure and I was shown a seemingly endless aggregation of bulb-tentacled sea anemones, resplendent in yellow and pink, that hosted two types of anemone shrimp.

Once we were back at the concrete tetrapods, Mr. Tanaka, who had introduced me to a range of marine life during the dives, quickly proved his mettle again when he showed me a baby lumpfish on a piece of rock, nestled among several stones and well-protected from the ocean swell. Mr. Tanaka has been monitoring the lumpfish and watching it grow, with regular updates and photos on his blog.  After observing it for a while, I reluctantly turned back towards the shore and the end of the dive.

Odawara is a great destination for divers in Tokyo who want to go somewhere quickly and easily for just one day.  The site is excellent for training and skills practice but not so good for those who want deeper depths, more adventurous diving and a bigger range of fish to observe.  At first glance there is not much to the site, but if you can discover, enjoy and appreciate the life and beauty within it, then some fascinating diving awaits at Odawara.

Practical Information 

  • To get to Odawara, take a direct train from Shinjuku on the Odakyu Line.  This costs just over 800yen each way (from Yoyogi Uehara station, which is slightly closer to home) and takes around an hour and a half.  There is also a Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo and Shinagawa stations, and the JR Tokaido Line which runs from Shinagawa station.
  • Divers gather at 9:20AM at Odawara station.  Mr. Tanaka from Hayakawa Diving Service (http://www.h-ds.com) will come to meet people and drive them back to the shop.  The drive is around 10 – 15 mins.
  • Hayakawa Diving Service is right next to a small bay that’s surrounded by concrete tetrapods.  There is a huge outdoor area and wooden deck with chairs and tables to wash and dry gear or relax and enjoy the sun. There are also some sheltered tables and chairs, a small office and indoor area for customers to sit in after diving (this area has dive magazines, books and underwater photos), four showers (two for men and two for women), four toilets (two for men and two for women), a changing area (around four indoor cubicles) and area to hang dry suits.  Shampoo, conditioner and hair dryers are provided but no towels are available.
  • All dives are beach entries.  Kit up on land and walk over the pebbled beach while wearing all gear.  Masks and fins are put on in the water, and divers descend by swimming over a rope which goes on to 5m past the tetrapods.  Maximum depth is around 11m.  Once past the tetrapods, there is a huge carpet of white sand and far ahead a small cluster of rocks with kelp, seaweed and other growth.  It’s an ideal site for skill practice but not so good for fish watching.
  • No lunch is provided and there are no shops nearby so divers must bring their own food and drink.  Hot tea and coffee is available.
  • Divers are responsible for washing and hanging all their gear after dives.
  • A day of two beach dives usually finishes around 15:30.  Mr. Tanaka also drives people back to Odawara station.
  • Two beach dives cost 11,500yen including tank, weights and guide.
  • English-speaking divers in Tokyo can arrange dive trips to Odawara and Hayakawa Diving Service with Ben Wouters of Dive Zone Tokyo (https://www.divezonetokyo.com) depending on schedule and season.

February’s dives

Dive No: 241, Entry time: 11:27, Dive time: 41 mins, depth: 11.5m, exit time: 12:08, water temperature: 16C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, used a 12L aluminium tank, scuba pro size 27 boots, ankle weights (500g on each ankle), 6kg weight belt, 3kg in pocket, dry suit.  Saw: lumpfish, moss fringehead, type of blenny, plaice, flounder, Valentin’s sharpnose puffer, black scraper fish, soft coral, starfish, sea urchins, coral crabs.

Dive No: 242: Entry time: 13:18, dive time: 40 mins, depth: 11.6m, exit time: 13:58, water temperature: 15C, water visibility: 5m, used a 12L aluminium tank, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, scuba pro size 27 boots, ankle weights (500g on each ankle), 5kg weight belt, 3kg in pocket.  Saw: same as above

Dive No: 243: Entry time: 10:40, dive time: 40 mins, depth: 7.3m, exit time: 11:20, water temperature: 15C, water visibility: 5m, used a 12L aluminium tank, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, scuba pro size 27 boots, ankle weights (500g on each ankle), 6kg weight belt, 3kg in pocket.

Dive No: 244: Entry time: 13:18, dive time: 38 mins, depth: 7.0m, exit time: 13:56, water temperature: 14C, water visibility: 5-7m, used a 12L aluminium tank, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, scuba pro size 27 boots, ankle weights (500g on each ankle), 6kg weight belt, 3kg in pocket.

Interview with Japan’s DIVER magazine

 

Late last year, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by one of Japan’s major scuba diving magazines DIVER, which introduced my work and efforts to promote Japan’s diving to other countries. Here is my English translation of the interview that appeared in the February 2017 issue.

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Watch NHK’s News 7 and Newswatch 9 programmes in English, and you’ll hear a distinctive British accent. Bonnie Waycott, the face behind that accent, first became interested in the sea on Sado Island, where she often visited with her family as a child.

My mother is from Niigata prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, and every summer my family and I would go camping on Sado,” Bonnie said. “My father taught me how to snorkel there, and I’ve been fascinated by the ocean ever since.”

But when Bonnie and her family returned to England, the ocean became a distant memory. Back then, Bonnie had the impression that diving in England was more popular among older people who had time and money and that young people didn’t dive much. In 2010, after she’d returned to Tokyo to live, she encountered the sea once again when she went to New Caledonia with a friend and booked a try dive.

Being in the water, breathing normally, with fish swimming all around me, was really impressive,” she said. “I knew then that I wanted to take up scuba diving properly so I became certified and set myself a goal to dive once a month.”

Bonnie started diving in Japan at Kabira Bay on Ishigaki Island in January 2011. Since then, she has been travelling across the country. She’s dived off Kumejima, Miyakojima and the Kerama Islands of Okinawa, Osezaki and Atami on the Izu Peninsula, the Izu Islands including Oshima, Hachijojima and Mikurajima, Kushimoto on the Kii Peninsula, and has even been ice diving in Hokkaido. She became a Dive Master on the Oki Islands, and six months after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, began working with a group of volunteer divers pulling debris from the sea.

I love the sea around Japan, but Hachijojima has had a lasting impression because of the Yuzen (Wrought Iron Butterfly Fish), a species endemic to Japan. What I like about Japan is that its underwater environment differs completely depending on the region. You can see everything from ice floes to warm temperate seas with colourful tropical fish and vast beds of coral reefs.”

Bonnie’s blog Rising Bubbles introduces diving in Japan to readers outside the country. She updates it at least once a month, and also writes articles for diving magazines in the UK and Singapore. She says that divers outside Japan don’t know much about Japan’s waters and also have a bad impression.

Some people have a negative view, and see Japan for its overfishing and the killing of whales and dolphins,” she says. “I’ve also felt that way, but I’d like to think that diving has changed that somewhat. The guides here do take care not to disturb marine life, and the hospitality at dive centres, as well as their determination to make sure the customer has a good time, is quite impressive. Diving has allowed me to see that Japanese people do live as one with the natural environment.”

Bonnie says that diving has also changed her impression of Japanese people. Those she works with are more formal and serious, but the people she’s met through diving are friendly and relaxed. However, she’s a little disappointed with the way Japanese people dive.

I think they should dive just with a buddy, not with a guide or in large groups. A non-Japanese guide would probably say you’re certified so find a buddy and go diving,” she said. “But the Japanese have a huge hang up about safety and it’s normal for a guide to be with divers all the time. I’ve dived with a lot of really good Japanese divers who have great skills, and it’s a shame that they’re still being shown around by a guide. Diving without a guide allows you and your buddy to focus more on communicating with one another, and you have a much better sense of safety. You become a lot more confident.”

In August 2016, Bonnie married a British guy she met through diving. Her and her husband met five years ago during a diving trip to Atami with Tokyo-based group Discover Divers Tokyo.

After the dive, when everyone was back on the boat, I grabbed a bottle of water and took a few sips when a voice behind me told me I’d taken his water bottle by mistake!” she said. “After that, our instructor said we should be dive buddies because we’re both British, and as we dived together more, we became friends. Maybe we wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for diving in Japan.

Asked what kind of diving she’d like to do and where, Bonnie is full of ideas.

I’d like to go back to Sado Island and meet the kobudai (bulgyhead wrasse),” she said. “I’ve also never dived in England so that’s on the list, but most of all I want to continues introducing Japan’s diving to the rest of the world and share with Japan news and information on diving in other countries. I’d like to be a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world.”

ABOUT BONNIE
Born in the UK, Bonnie’s father is British and her mother Japanese. She grew up in Yokohama from the age of 8 to 13 and went to a local primary and secondary school. After graduating from university in the UK, she returned to Japan in 2006 and began working as a narrator, translator and writer for NHK TV, radio and websites for foreigners living in Japan. She started diving 6 years ago and has logged over 250 dives. She’s also a NAUI Dive Master (www.bonniewaycott.com)

January 2017: Tago, Izu, JAPAN

Tuesday January 17th, 2017

When most people think of diving, they think of a summer activity in warm, tropical waters but some areas offer other kinds of diving even when the warm weather is over. In Tokyo, for example, many dive sites nearby are open during the winter, offering a range of fun diving and training opportunities despite the cold. Although I prefer diving in warm water during the summer, one of my goals this year is to get used to cold seas, in order to prepare for future diving back in the UK.

For many divers, donning a bulky wet suit in winter, plunging into cold water and sinking to deeper depths where it’s even more cold would be a nightmarish experience. But scuba diving in winter can bring various advantages — much less crowds, better visibility and sea life you won’t see in other seasons. Most importantly, if you’re prepared, with a suitable dry suit and inner wear, winter diving can be comfortable and a lot of fun.

I began this year’s dry suit diving off Tago along the west coast of the Izu peninsula, where north- and south-flowing currents meet, bringing tropical and cold-water fish to the seas around its rocky shores. Also on offer are cave diving and shipwreck exploration, which provide a range of opportunities for divers of all levels. Depending on where you go, it’s also possible to dive at Izu for a day from Tokyo and even Nagoya.

Tago is a small fishing village about 3 hours south of Tokyo by train, located along an intricate coastline with uniquely shaped rocks and small islands. A small selection of dive sites are on offer at Suruga Bay, which is off Tago, and areas closer to shore. Tago’s waters are characterised by huge rocky boulders, soft coral gardens and sandy patches. At our first dive site, Shirosaki, many rocky structures appeared to have given way to erosion, resulting in various cuts and shapes below. These forms are covered in thick soft coral and sponge growth including a massive area of fan-shaped coral facing down towards the sand. Large undulations of coral are accompanied by hundreds of chromis and hunting lion fish, while the mild nutrient-rich currents help fuel a parade of marine life. Descending deeper along the rocky wall, the soft coral covering the tops of the rocks disappears. The wall drops to around 20m before ending in a bright sandy seafloor, punctuated by large boulders. With a maximum depth of around 25m, marine life was plentiful, with large sunstars, frogfish nestled close to soft coral growth and a small harem of sprat-like fish. Frequent encounters with nudibranchs and even a baby sepia toioensis (a species of cuttlefish native to Japanese waters) make this dive one not to be missed.

Our second dive site, Bentenjima, was a small islet about 10mins away from the port. As the descent begins down a large rocky structure, thousands of silver-stripe white herring can be seen feeding in the water column, cruising past, sometimes within arms reach, ambling through as they search for some unknown signal that causes them to pick out a bit of plankton for a quick snack. Bentenjima displays various walls with attractive folds, and is an ideal environment for a range of sponges and macro life. Three-spot damselfish appeared where the walls were covered in a variety of soft coral and sponge growth, small and trailing one after the other, moving in tiny shoals. There is also a section of rock at around 12m which is covered from edge to edge with amazing pink anemones, all of which were inhabited, of course, by their own family of clownfish. A Japanese angel shark slept in the sandy bottom, and small groups of network filefish moved above the rocks, when the comical-looking lactoria fornasini or thornback cowfish with a pair of spines projecting forward in front of its eyes and a distinctive mouth with thick lips, began wandering in and out of our sightlines, grouping together over the vase sponges and large gorgonians. The best surprises at Bentenjima, however, are kept for the safety stop in the 5m zone and the shallower depths, where soft corals sparkle with life in the shade of the round, impressive rock formations.

Winter in Tago offers a range of fascinating underwater experiences. Although the water temperature drops, there is plenty to see as long as you can relax and put up with the cold. Tago is one of those rare places where you won’t always be overrun by other dive tourists and can enjoy a relaxing day of diving, especially if you are able to head there on a weekday!

Practical information

  • The nearest station to Tago Diving Center (http://tagodc.com/category/1475893.html) is Rendaiji on the east coast of the Izu peninsula. Take the bullet train to Atami from Shinagawa in Tokyo and change to the Ito line which takes you directly to Rendaiji. A one-way trip comes to around 3,500 – 4,000yen and the journey is around 3 hours.
    When you arrive at Rendaiji, the school will pick you up by car. The journey is about 30mins from Rendaiji station.
  • Tago Diving Center is family-run by Mr and Mrs Yoshida and their daughter Sayuri who was my guide for the day.
  • Facilities include 2 toilets, 3 showers, basic and spacious changing rooms with private cubicles and a bathtub overlooking the bay. You can use the bathtub anytime to get warm as it’s always full of hot water. There is also an indoor area with a stove if divers feel cold.
  • No lunch, snacks, tea or coffee are provided and there are also no shops nearby so remember to bring your own food and drink.
  • Two boat dives with all equipment hire and drysuit rental comes to just under 20,000yen.
  • Customers set up their equipment and put it on before walking down some steps to get onto the boat. Perch on the side and put on your fins, mask and gloves before arriving at the site.
  • Entry into the water is a backward roll. Ropes are provided for the descent and a small step ladder is available for divers to get back on the boat.
  • There is no shampoo, conditioner or body soap available at the shop so remember to bring your own, in addition to a couple of towels.
  • Equipment is removed after arriving back at the dive school. Divers are responsible for washing and putting away all their gear.
  • Tago Diving Center will drive you back to Rendaiji after you dives and look up train times for you.

January’s dives

Dive No: 239, Shirosaki, Entry time: 11:18, depth: 22.1m, dive time: 43mins, exit time: 12:03, water temperature: 15C, water visibility: 5m, Start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, rented neoprene dry suit, used 8kg weight belt, jacket BCD, used a 12L aluminium tank. Saw: frogfish, Goniobranchus tinctorius nudibranch、Cadlinella ornatissima nudibranch, branch coral, silver-stripe white herrings, lion fish and baby squid Sepia tokenises.

Dive No: 240, Bentenjima, Entry time: 13:09, depth: 23.3m, dive time: 40mins, exit time: 13:50, water temperature: 15C, water visibility: 5m, Start pressure: 200 bar, End pressure: 50 bar, rented neoprene dry suit, used 8kg weight belt, jacket BCD, used a 12L aluminium tank. Saw: Japanese angel shark, network filefish, lactoria fornasini, clown fish and anemone fish, three-spot damselfish and Japanese blacktail triple fin.