The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011 is well remembered in Japan. Some areas have recovered, while others are struggling to return to their former lives. The same is true for the ocean and this month I’ve been enjoying the May 2017 edition of science magazine Newton, in particular a photo journal of Tohoku’s marine life. Japanese underwater photographer Yasuaki Kagii shares his experiences diving in areas that were hit hard by the disaster. He presents his story through photographs and shares his thoughts on the species and underwater conditions.
Kagii begins by saying that marine life in Tohoku is flourishing and has adapted to a new and changing underwater environment. His first photograph is a tiny fringed blenny living in a pipe. Kagii explains how struck he was to see this small fish creating a new home for itself out of debris. He also presents an example of camouflage, as seen by a sunrise sculpin living on an electric fan that’s coated with pink coralline algae.
The contrast between life/happiness and death/sadness is also covered. One of Kagii’s photos is an upside down car and a cluster of kelp growing on one of the tyres. Kagii touches upon the difference between death and sadness, as illustrated by the upside down car, and life and happiness that the flourishing kelp is said to represent. In an attempt to highlight new life, Kagii shares the story of a spotbelly greenling laying its eggs on the sea floor. Nearby, gobies are doing the same, and in June, when the water temperature begins to rise, baby gobies burst forth from long white eggs and swim away, tiny white dots sprinkling like sand over the seabed.
Kati explains that when he first started diving off Tohoku in April 2011, he saw abalone, sea urchins and starfish but no sign of fish. He had been photographing traces of human life that had been washed away but when he came across a tiny lumpfish, a species that had survived the tsunami-ravaged seas, he decided to show people that Tohoku’s marine life was alive and well despite what had happened. Six years on, Kagii says he has now discovered the true beauty of Tohoku’s underwater environment.
I really enjoyed Kagii’s story. Having also dived in Tohoku, I agreed with his impressions of beauty and diversity. The March 2011 disaster was a unique opportunity for divers like Kagii to observe in real time an ecosystem recover from an extremely large natural disaster, and for divers like myself who don’t live so near to Tohoku, it’s been a good insight into a marine environment that didn’t get so much attention before. By talking to fellow divers and local fishermen over the past 6 years, I have learned many things, for example that small fish with short lifespans thrived immediately after the disaster because of their short reproductive cycle and the absence of predators, as well as a possible abundance of food like nutrients and sediments that were brought in by the tsunami and settled on the seabed. Like Kagii, I believe it is important to continue highlighting the beauty of Tohoku’s seas and survival of its marine life, but there could be other purposes to such information. For example, Japan experiences a lot of natural disasters, and understanding how marine life recovers could help the country better prepare for future earthquakes or tsunamis.