January 2018: Japan’s Ice Diving Season

Definitely not for the faint hearted, ice diving is an extreme, adventurous activity that not many divers get to experience.  Those who do, however, find an underwater world like no other — a clear turquoise colour that’s unique to an under-ice environment, sunbeams that penetrate through the ice cracks and a feeling that you’ll never know what you might come across.

When it comes to ice diving, countries such as Russia or Canada may come to mind but the season is about to get underway in Japan, and I was delighted to see this two-page spread in the latest edition of Japan’s Marine Diving magazine, that explains what ice diving is all about and brought back some fun memories.

IMG_20180119_154803385Each winter off the northernmost island of Hokkaido, ice floes from Sibera are blown down across the Sea of Okhotsk, where they settle around the Shiretoko Peninsula, becoming more rounded as their edges soften.  It is here that the ice diving season begins, running in February and March.  While it’s possible to spot a few fish, most divers come to see the tiny, transparent sea angel or clione.  Besides the mesmerising layers of ice on the water surface, ice diving also provides other unique experiences..  Visibility is excellent, while particulate matter settles more easily thanks to the calm sea.  The rocky topography is also home to seagrass, crabs, starfish, shrimp and even tiny nudibranchs if you have a keen eye and are brave enough to withstand the -1C temperatures for long enough to keep looking.

Ice diving in Japan is more of a taster or introduction as opposed to a longer fun dive.  Most dives will usually be no deeper than 10m and for less than half an hour due to the extreme environment.  Non-Japanese divers who wish to try should ideally have some dry suit experience, an Advanced Open Water certification and most importantly, be able to speak some Japanese for safety reasons (briefings on safety measures and dive procedures will be detailed and strict).  If not, please make sure that you are accompanied by another diver who is able to translate on your behalf.

Dive shops on the Shiretoko Peninsula have become increasingly concerned about the lack of ice over the past couple of years, most likely due to climate change and global warming.  But the two-page spread in Marine Diving gave me a lot of hope, that ice diving is still possible after all.  If you’re a keen diver in Japan who speaks Japanese well enough and knows how to dive in a dry suit, I highly recommend this incredible underwater experience!

Click here to read about my ice diving adventure in February 2016: https://bonniewaycott.com/2016/04/06/february-2016-the-return-to-shiretoko-hokkaido-japan/

 

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January 2018: Gearing up for Another Year

Friday January 12th, 2018

Happy New Year, and welcome to my first 2018 post written in the UK! I’ll be talking about the UK later but before that, this is a great moment to start looking back at 2017.

The year got off to a good start with a day of diving in Sydney after the famous New Year fireworks. Although not as glamorous as other parts of Australia like the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney has a good array of marine life and warm, comfortable water temperatures. I was impressed by the large number of dive spots that lie close to such a busy and exciting city. Our favourite find was this adorable baby cuttlefish during a shore dive near Manly.

I then spent a lot of time at a dive site near Tokyo that a friend introduced me to in 2016. Located close to the city of Odawara, Hayakawa Diving Service is about an hour away from Tokyo by direct train. I loved its close-knit community feel, the quaint little bay where all the dives were held and the independence of the instructor and dive masters. Divers were actively encouraged to find a buddy, plan a dive and dive the plan, unlike other shops in Japan where divers are simply shown around with not much opportunity to use their skills for themselves. Despite being so close to Tokyo, the marine life was incredibly varied and every dive brought new discoveries.

 

Women’s roles in society have been a hot topic and 2017 was no exception. In late 2016 I joined an NGO called Women 4 Oceans (http://women4oceans.weebly.com) and in May 2017 teamed up with another diver and ocean lady in Tokyo to organise a networking event (http://women4oceans.weebly.com/tokyo-event.html) for women working in marine-related fields. I was delighted with the opportunity to talk about my work and share my underwater photos. The event had over 40 participants and was a huge success, with plenty of inspiring talks and a solid group of women united by their love for the ocean.

In June 2017 my husband and I said farewell to Japan and returned to the UK to begin the next stage of our lives. This marked the start of an extremely hectic summer as 9 and 11 years’ worth of belongings started to arrive and we found a place to live in Bristol, all while dealing with the sadness of leaving Japan and learning to adjust to UK life. But as sad as it was to say goodbye to Japan, the UK is already bringing a host of marine-related opportunities. In September 2017 I spent two days at the National Dive and Activity Centre in Chepstow on a seahorse survey course run by the Seahorse Trust, a UK charity which studies seahorses and their habitats to educate the public and raise awareness of seahorse protection. We had two days of classroom sessions where we learned about seahorses, how to protect them, the role of divers and underwater surveys, and how to conduct such surveys underwater. Now that I’ve taken the course, I’ll be joining the instructor course in February 2018 to learn how to teach it to others, and take part in some survey dives along the south coast in summer 2018.

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I then delved into the UK dive scene even more when I travelled to Birmingham in October 2017 to attend DIVE, a 2-day annual event organized by UK magazine DIVER. Like the Marine Diving Fair in Tokyo, hundreds of exhibitors come together to offer training courses, dive gear and holiday packages, while divers can network and get diving tips and advice. As well as hearing a talk on freshwater diving, I met the staff of a dive shop in Plymouth, listened to a talk on UK shore and boat diving and saw some impressive underwater photos taken in UK waters.  October 2017 also saw the start of Blue Planet II on BBC 1. I was honoured to attend the premier in Bristol with the BBC Natural History Unit, and amazed by how much is going on in the UK when it comes to all things marine.

Later this month I will submit my MSc thesis on aquaculture and disaster management, specifically the recovery of aquaculture in Japan’s Tohoku region after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 and whether that can serve as an example to other countries with aquaculture industries that are vulnerable to natural disasters. Having set myself up as self-employed, my aquaculture and fisheries writing work is growing fast. This year I’ve been put in charge of a new series on women in aquaculture for 5M Publishing in the UK (https://thefishsite.com/articles/women-in-aquaculture-new-series-launched) and (https://thefishsite.com/articles/women-in-aquaculture-conchita-milburn), and in May 2018 the UK’s Mercator Media (World Fishing and Aquaculture) are sending me to Singapore for a 3-day offshore mariculture conference. My main goal this year, however, is to discover the UK diving scene and I’m excited about this next chapter and discovering a new kind of diving. Rising Bubbles will continue with a mix of UK diving and aquaculture reports, and the latest marine and diving updates from Japan.

Thank you for reading, and see you underwater!

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October 2017: DIVE 2017, Birmingham, UK

Sunday October 21st, 2017

This month was my first opportunity to discover the UK dive scene before plunging into the water, as I headed to Birmingham to get the latest from the largest diving exhibition in the UK. Known as DIVE, the 2-day event has been organised each year since 1991 by DIVER, the UK’s best-selling diving magazine..  Hundreds of exhibitors participate, offering holiday packages, training courses and dive gear but it’s also a chance to network, get tips and advice, receive gear discounts, sign up for magazine subscriptions or simply sit down with a coffee and catch up with old friends.

Upon entering the venue and walking through the crowds, I could feel the tension and excitement building among the many visitors and those who had come to represent their dive shop or resort. For the visitors, it was an opportunity to learn more, establish contacts with dive schools and decide on their next diving destination. For the dive schools, it was a chance to catch up with familiar faces, gain some new customers and present their services, goods and special offers.

For me, DIVE was a great insight into the UK underwater scene. Without further ado, here are some bits and bobs from the big day:

First up, I stopped to listen to a talk by diver Jack Perks on freshwater diving. Jack has written about river diving for DIVER and recently published his first book, Freshwater Fishes of Britain. While showing us some stunning underwater shots, he talked about the use of natural light in photography and introduced different areas across the UK that were good for freshwater diving. Being an Advanced Open Water diver, he does not organise any trips himself but did suggest getting in touch with local councils to talk about suitable sites.

Heading towards more sounds of laughter and talking, I met a dive school called Sound Diving based in Plymouth, another area in the UK that is a hotbed of diving activity. Plymouth is famous for a host of marine-related activities from diving to marine conservation and university research and the underwater environment is rich and varied, with abundant wrecks and reef systems, stunning sites that date back to the 1700s and drop offs full of marine life. Sound Diving offers regular boat dives and caters to customers coming alone, so even if you have nobody to dive with, you will still be looked after. With most customers staying at a hotel just a short distance away, it seemed the ideal destination for a weekend away and I was delighted to make contact with a shop in one of the UK’s most famous diving spots.

Foreign destinations were also out in full force. One shop in Egypt and the Maldives had returned this year to promote diving in both countries and introduce the famous coral reefs, crystal clear blue waters and tropical underwater world that I would love to see one day.  Violence, terrorist attacks and political conflicts have had huge negative impacts on Egypt and diving in the Red Sea, which is why the dive shop is developing its centre in the Maldives, but on a positive note, fish populations in the Red Sea have apparently exploded, with many more sightings of sharks and manta rays as well as more vibrant reefs that are healthier than they have been for years. Divers who end up visiting the Red Sea are said to be guaranteed some of the best diving ever, while the white sandy beaches, soft coral, atoll lagoons and rocky pinnacles of the Maldives were just as appealing.

Back to the UK, and an underwater photography contest was also underway with a host of photos by DIVER readers. There were many categories, including photos taken abroad, but I was blown away by the shots of UK and Irish waters. They introduced some impressive creatures that make their home in the chilly waters here, such as little fish that weave through seagrass, seals that meander over rocky seabeds, huge vibrant jellyfish, curious-looking shrimp and hungry cuttlefish drifting slowly by…these photos were a great introduction to marine life off and along the coasts of the UK and made me want to dive even more. So it was only fitting that soon afterwards, I joined Rosemary Lunn’s talk on UK diving. She said that despite the negative image of UK waters, there is actually a lot on offer. Titled “What’s Wrong with UK Diving?” Rosemary’s talk described how words such as black, silty, cold and boring had been heard all too often but usually by those who have never dived in the UK. She took us on an underwater tour introducing quarries, wrecks, drift diving, easy shore diving  and fun weekend trips.

DIVE was definitely worth attending, with a range of exhibitors and speakers in a really good location. Compared to Japan, diving in the UK is much more serious, perhaps because the Atlantic is a harsher environment than the Pacific with more wrecks, deeper diving and of course colder water! The understanding is that you are a certified diver who can take care of yourself and take full responsibility so it is up to you to plan your dive, dive your plan and make sure you are confident in all the necessary skills. After some easier shore dives to try out UK waters and get back into diving, I fully intend on joining a club in Bristol and diving in earnest here from 2018.

See you soon in UK waters!

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September 2017: The Seahorse Trust Seahorse Survey Course, Chepstow, UK

 

Saturday September 2nd and Sunday September 3rd 2017

Found in shallow tropical and temperate waters, seahorses have been the focus of marine experts across the world with their unique shape and features. At first glance, they’re a bit unusual, bobbing and drifting in the water, looking more like horses than fish. Yet seahorses are fish, and their behaviour is fascinating — they use their long snouts to suck in plankton and small crustaceans, and are among the only animal species in which the male gets pregnant. Their remarkable abundance and variety also make them popular among divers, who enjoy photographing them in various habitats worldwide.

Sadly, however, the enormous demand for seahorses has depleted their number in the wild. Some end up in countries like China or Hong Kong where they are said to have medicinal properties, while others become part of objects such as pendants or key rings. In light of this, moves are underway to preserve seahorses and address such issues. One example is The Seahorse Trust (http://www.theseahorsetrust.org), a UK charity set up in 1999 that studies seahorses and their habitats worldwide to educate the public and raise awareness of seahorse protection. In the Trust are a group of volunteers who help with fundraising, data collection and underwater surveys.

During my time in Japan, I helped the Trust with research and record keeping by sending them seahorse photos, so it was great to make contact with them in the UK recently when I learned about their new seahorse survey course — two days in the classroom for anyone interested in seahorses and how to survey them. Without hesitation, I put my name down for the first session at the National Dive and Activity Centre in Chepstow.

After introducing ourselves, things began with course leader Beccy explaining more about the Seahorse Trust, course content and objectives. We then looked at what a seahorse is, covering taxonomy, different species (there are approximately 45 – 65) and features including gill openings, eyes and of course their tails that can hold on to weeds and other objects in the strongest tides and currents. We also had a laugh over the male’s ability to get pregnant, especially as Beccy had given birth to her first child only weeks before the course! The next session explained why seahorses are under threat (habitat destruction, pollution, disturbance), measures to preserve them (Marine Conservation Zones, legal protection, controlling illegal trade) and whether we, as divers, could make a difference. The clear answer is yes, the most important message being that diver surveys are an opportunity to learn more about seahorses in the wild and thus crucial to their future conservation.

Things became more interactive when we looked at how to carry out an underwater survey. We learned how to look for seahorses, signs of stress they exhibit (tucking head into the chest, looking small) and how to use GPS devices and a compass. Four search techniques are generally used depending on what you are after, and we put those into practice by moving around the classroom, asking and answering questions. Other areas were also covered – why and how to record data, what data to collect, filling in a Seahorse Survey Reporting Form and taking photos. What really struck me was how, after taking this course, volunteers can join the Seahorse Trust for a survey dive at any time and apply for a license to survey seahorses in the wild — a UK requirement. The Trust is also arranging instructor training for this very course, so anyone who has taken it can then learn how to teach it to others.

It’s great that the Seahorse Trust invests time and money in its volunteers like this, and recognizes how citizen-science can provide sound scientific information to get a more long-term picture of seahorses and their habitats. No doubt a better-informed community of divers will help make better decisions and actively support sustainable marine management.

I was more than happy to invest my own time and money in this course because it will give me an opportunity to make a direct impact on seahorses and their habitats through surveys. By talking to the other participants, I was also able to learn a great deal about the UK marine environment in an enjoyable and interactive setting. There is still a long way to go towards solving the struggle of the ocean’s seahorses. However, if this course and underwater surveys can make even the tiniest difference, I’m more than happy to be a part of that.

 

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July 2017: Bristol Aquarium, Bristol, UK

July 2017: Bristol Aquarium, Bristol, UK

Seeing marine life up close at aquariums is exciting but the small, confined tanks don’t seem to teach us about natural behaviour underwater such as migratory patterns, foraging behaviour or life spans. Part of me will always believe that scuba diving is a much better way of learning about marine life, but even if you know how to dive, aquariums can be a lot of fun, a reminder of the beauty of marine life and a chance to encounter fish and other stuff you probably know about already or have seen thanks to your diving.  Following a recent move to the UK, one aquarium has been serving me well as I wait for my dive gear and camera to arrive from Japan.

Conveniently located in the centre of town, Bristol Aquarium aims to increase visitors’ awareness and understanding of the aquatic world with over 40 displays of aquatic life. The displays are bright and impressive thanks to a combination of the latest technology including low level lighting, and successfully mimic conditions found in the wild. They cover an array of subjects from the UK coast, Mediterranean waters and freshwater habitats to tropical reefs and even amphibians and rainforests. Visitors can take the time they need going from tank to tank and reading about waves, coral reefs and the effects of overfishing and how we can make more sustainable choices through the fish we eat. What’s also nice about the displays is that they’re about the same height as the average child so little ones can see everything just as easily as adults. They can also enter a small helmet-like structure, stand up and look above and around them to watch seahorses bobbing up and down.

One unexpected surprise is the Urban Jungle, a botanical house under an inflated film roof that begins with an open-topped display of rays. As you make your way up, you can get a great view of the ray tank below and learn about exotic plants and tree species found in the Amazon and Mediterranean. The path then takes you into the upstairs part of the aquarium where you can look down on an ocean-like display tank. This area is also home to a massive intelligent and curious Pacific octopus that drew crowds of people during my visit.

The information boards are engaging and suitable for everyone, while the combination of plants and marine life is very original and well done. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of marine life as they walk through a glass tunnel and with feeding demonstrations and talks on offer, there is ample opportunity to learn even more about what you’re seeing, with staff on hand to answer any questions. A ticket to the aquarium is valid all day, which means you can leave anytime and come back later for something specific if there’s anything you have missed or want to see again.

Although not as big or detailed as other aquariums I’ve visited, Bristol Aquarium is extremely educational with a really good focus on children. Hopefully the excitement and awe that these children get to experience will turn into a lifelong appreciation and respect for the ocean and all that it has to offer.

For more information on Bristol Aquarium, check out their website here: https://www.bristolaquarium.co.uk

 

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April 2017: Photo Record of Diving in Tohoku

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.

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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.

 

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March 2017: Enoshima Aquarium

With dolphins, penguins, sharks and a shoal of dancing sardines, Enoshima Aquarium, which opened in 1954, offers a fascinating insight into the ecosystem of nearby Sagami Bay and beyond. The history of the tiny island of Enoshima, which lies just across the water from the aquarium, is strongly connected to the ocean, the wonders of which come to life in a small and quaint aquarium near Tokyo.

Close to the open sea where warm and cold currents converge, Sagami Bay consists of a deep ocean (almost 2,000m), sand dunes, rocky stretches and a tidal flat that offer a diversity of ecosystems and an unmatched variety of marine life. A little over 1,500 fish species inhabit the bay, while nearly 900 species of shrimp and crab and just over 2,000 species of shellfish, octopus and squid also call the area home.

It’s no surprise that upon entering the aquarium, one of the first displays visitors come across is the Sagami Bay Zone. Having dived in Kanagawa prefecture and surrounding areas before, a lot of scenes in the tanks were extremely familiar. The main fish species exhibition is the big Sagami Bay Tank, which contains only marine life that lives in Sagami Bay. The tank is designed so that visitors can walk around and enjoy the display from all angles. Its highlight is the huge school of sardines that spiral in a dashing spray of silver. Another impressive sight is the Rocky Reef Tank featuring a jungle of seaweed swaying back and forth. Thanks to intense rays of light, the tank is as pretty as a picture. Small algae appear to have grown naturally, while tiny fish can be seen hidden and tucked away amongst the seaweed.

As an aquaculture student, I was also drawn to the Shirasu (whitebait) tanks. In 2013, Enoshima Aquarium successfully began cultivating anchovy, one of the breeders of whitebait,and is now aiming to be the world’s first aquarium to offer a permanent whitebait exhibition. Visitors are guided through the egg, larvae and fry stage although straining your eyes is a must to make everything out! The jellyfish collection is also impressive, and a recent 3D mapping projection system makes them appear even more wonderful, by allowing visitors to completely immerse themselves in the thousands of different species.

Walk in further and there are sections dedicated to penguins and bizarre deep sea creatures. The latter is by far the most interesting with its host of alien-looking creatures on display and Japan’s deep-sea research is also brought to life, although the penguins won’t disappoint visitors who are after the cute stuff. There is also a chance to see research carried out by Emperor Akihito, an established marine biologist, and his father, the late Emperor Hirohito, who was an authority on the species classification of marine life in Sagami Bay. Enoshima Aquarium is a scientific discovery through a mixture of fun and entertainment. It’s a cheap and educational way to spend half a day in the area, and great for children as well. Life definitely looks good under the sea!

Find out more at the aquarium’s website: http://www.enosui.com/en/exhibition.html

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