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.

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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)

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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.

 

 

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January 2017: Ocean Planet, Ginza, Tokyo

Thursday January 19th, 2017

This month, I attended a small underwater photography exhibition called Ocean Planet in Ginza, Tokyo. One major theme in Japan when it comes to the oceans, and especially at this time of year, is the Tohoku region, which was hit by the March 11th 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Six years since the disaster, it’s still a huge topic, and the exhibition was an opportunity to think about that through a series of photos taken off the Onagawa area, and enjoy more light-hearted subjects such as whale sharks in Mexico and nudibranchs in Indonesia.

Underwater photographer Hiroyuki Tomura is from Saitama near Tokyo, and his work has recently been attracting much attention. Photography became something to accompany his diving, until he decided to study it more formally. An avid scuba diver, he has dived in various locations around the world and is always amazed at the beauty and diversity of the marine life he sees. Through his work and company (also called Ocean Planet), he hopes to raise awareness of our oceans and inspire others who are interested in taking up underwater photography. I took the opportunity to find out more about him and his work.

— What made you become an underwater photographer?
“I used to dive for fun in places like Okinawa and Izu, and began taking photos while doing so. I started to take photography seriously when I decided that I wanted as many people as possible around the world to see, and learn more about, the underwater environment that I was seeing and capturing.”

— What is the most important thing when taking photos underwater? What do you make sure you do?
“I focus on the distance between myself and my subject and check that my diving skills, such as buoyancy, are up to scratch.”

— What skills do you need to become a professional photographer?
“People define the word professional in different ways so it’s hard to answer, but if we are talking about someone who takes photos for a living, not someone who is just very good at taking photos, then he or she would need detailed knowledge of underwater photography to begin with. You need the skills to take good photos, but how can you put those skills to work on land, not just in the water? That’s worth bearing in mind. I’d also say the ability to market your work, convey a message and treasure the encounters you have and the connections you make.”

— What camera do you use?
“I use a mirrorless camera, Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. It’s small, and easy to retake photos. It’s easy to operate in the water too!”

— Where do you like taking photos, and how often do you dive each year?
“Recently I’ve been diving quite a bit in Indonesia and the Maldives. I take a lot of photos of shipwrecks, so I like Micronesia, the Philippines and Palau. In one year, I’d say I spend over a third of my time in the water.”

—What’s been your most impressive or dangerous encounter underwater? Any special experiences?
“I’m always blown away by the ocean because it’s full of things that are very impressive. I’m easily impressed when I’m able to capture a subject I’d been aiming for but when I come across something I didn’t think I would…those unexpected encounters…I love those as well. I don’t think I’ve had any dangerous experiences underwater when it comes to marine life. I have had problems with my gear at deeper depths, which has been a bit scary, but luckily my buddy was there to help.”

— At the exhibition, you displayed a set of photos that were taken off Onagawa in Tohoku. How do you think the ocean has recovered since the disaster? Can you tell me a bit about changes in marine life, topography and seabed?
“I dived in the affected areas about a year after the disaster, and to begin with the seabed was covered in rubble. I saw a lot of things such as daily items and fishing gear. But thanks to friends who have been persistently removing rubble from the water and cleaning the seabed, the number of such items has gone down considerably in Onagawa. Incidentally, that is where I usually dive when I go to Tohoku. But the amount of debris is only going down because people are entering the water and working as hard as they can. I have heard that some areas still cannot be reached and a lot of debris remains. Compared to immediately after the disaster, marine life has recovered and towns and houses are being rebuilt, but it’s too early to say that the region has completely recovered.”

— Can you tell me about your future plans, places you want to dive this year, and any goals you have for 2017?
“I’d love to find more and more inspiration from around the world. There are too many places I want to go to right now! My goal for this year is probably to build even more on the themes I have been working on, and for as many people as possible to know more about me and my work. I’d love people to become interested in the sea because of me.”

— Lastly, do you have any advice for people who want to become professional underwater photographers?
“Continue. A photographer who I very much admire said this exact word to me. I would say continue, but always keep an image of the future you want in your mind. Never give up.”

As divers, we have all read books and articles on underwater photography, and there are a lot of amazing photos out there, but sometimes those photos can feel out of reach. What I enjoyed about Hiroyuki’s exhibition was how simple and accessible it was. Looking at his photos, I felt that I, too, may one day be able to take such photos. Not only was the exhibition thoroughly accessible, but it was also easy to understand, and a good primer for those of us who are passionate about diving and want to capture our experiences as more than just memories.

To see more of Hiroyuki’s photos, visit his website at http://hiroyuki-tomura.com

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January 2017: Sydney, Australia

Monday January 2nd, 2017

Because of the famous Great Barrier Reef, Sydney is often overlooked as a dive destination, but dig a little deeper and the variety of year-round diving is clear to see. Further south where the water is more temperate lies a range of pristine sites, as well as an area of southernmost coral reefs with more than 60 sites to enjoy.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to travel too far, but after seeing in the New Year in Sydney, we were delighted to start 2017 in the water with a couple of shore dives north and south of the central business district. Sydney’s varied diving locations surprised us both, and with so many to choose from, picking two was hard. There are also areas that are perfect for beginners or indeed non-diving partners who want to give scuba a try. Because of the day’s weather and water conditions, we settled on two locations, Bare Island and Camp Cove.

Bare Island is an islet in south-eastern Sydney, about 16km from the central business district. It’s home to a fort structure built in the early 1880s, and offers spectacular scenic views. For divers, the eastern side of the island has better visibility and shallower depths, while the western side offers more marine life.

Crossing the bridge to the island, going down a flight of stairs and turning left across the rocks, we began our descent in slightly rough conditions along a cut out in the rock that looked like a small boat ramp. Although it’s a great entry and exit point, the dive can get off to a difficult start when the waves are high (as they were when we went). Underwater is a huge carpet of sand and some gentle slopes, punctuated by rocks and small walls decorated by soft coral and seaweed. Visibility is not always flash, changing from one day to the next, but when it’s good, it’s a treat for the eyes. We swam down a gentle slope decorated by rocks, coral heads and a variety of features from seaweed patches to more sloping sandy bottoms. The waters host their incredible marine life in and around these rocks, scattered among the seaweed and soft coral growth that populate the shallows. The highlight of the dive soon came when a huge blue grouper appeared from the deeper depths and began swimming with us. Clearly interested in divers, it came in for a close look, but, not too sure what to expect, darted off shyly, before returning and staying with us until our safety stop. The island is also a haven for macro lovers. Look closely and you can spot weedy sea dragons lurking among the kelp and seaweed, a fantastic display of anemones, as well as starfish, crabs and nudibranchs to keep you interested.

Camp Cove is a small beach at the southern entrance to Sydney Harbour. Popular for swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing, it’s a good spot for shore diving because the variety of marine life is more accessible to divers compared to other sites. As the beach is also quite sheltered, it remains protected from adverse weather apart from northerly winds and swells, and is an easy and relaxing dive site suitable for all levels. After the challenging entry and exit at Bare Island, we were delighted to walk into the calm waters of Camp Cove, put on our masks and fins and begin our descent through clear blue. Visibility was good at around 10-15m and clear sand spread out into the distance. I finned over the sandy carpet and soon spotted a porcupine fish nestling against a small rock. We then swam for a few minutes to the north reef, where we came across some rocky structures whose walls fell onto the sandy carpet. Kelp and seaweed covered the top at around 4-5m. There was a lot of small stuff to be seen here — starfish, crabs, nudibranchs and beautiful anemones. Soon, I looked down to see a couple of sting rays gliding gracefully below before settling on the sand. This was clearly a good spot for them to feed, and we could feel the mild current as we swam through and around a cluster of huge rocky structures. Hovering above, we were able to marvel at their beauty. With gentle sloping sandy reefs and more dramatic walls and pinnacles, there is plenty here to keep divers hooked.

Moving along the reef, we took our time examining the cracks in the rocks and the small overhangs. On and around the structures were more crabs, pipe fish, wrasses and some small red fish with huge eyes that I couldn’t identify. Underwater conditions couldn’t have been more benign, and the site is more than suitable for novice divers needing to be comfortable in the water. Cruising back towards the beach at the end of the dive, I spotted a tiny, well-camouflaged cuttlefish hovering over the sand and seaweed, and a frogfish sitting still close by.

Visibility in Sydney may not always be crystal clear but when it’s good, prepare to be impressed by the marine life that has colonised the area. If you’re looking for easy, leisurely dives at no more than 20m and plenty of photo opportunities, Sydney’s shore diving won’t disappoint.

Practical Information

• We booked our dives with Dive Centre Bondi (https://www.divebondi.com.au) on Bondi Road near the famous beach. Divers make their own way there by 8AM to show cards, log books and make any outstanding payments. We paid a deposit online beforehand.
• Two guided dives cost AUD$55. Full equipment rental (mask, boots, fins, wetsuit, tanks and weights, BCD, regulators and computer) is AUD$120, full equipment rental excluding mask, boots and fins costs AUD$100, while two tanks and weights rental costs AUD$50.
• At the back of the shop is an area to prepare gear, a changing room to try on wetsuits, store tanks, and sit and write up log books. There is also a car park, with two vehicles belonging to the shop.
• After preparing and loading gear into the vans, we drove to our first dive site.
• Note that no tea, coffee, snacks etc are provided. Divers must bring their own lunch, snacks, drinks etc.
• At Bare Island, we put on our gear at the car park and walked over the bridge wearing our tanks and other gear. The descent is down a small line provided by an SMB. Divers gather at the bottom of the line, before swimming out behind the guide.
• After the first dive and before the second, divers must dismantle their equipment and take off their wetsuits (no wet items in the vans).
• At Camp Cove, we also geared up at the car park and walked into the water, walked back out and removed gear at the car park.
• After the second dive, everyone returns to the shop. One hose is available to wash gear, but divers are responsible for their own gear only, not for anything they have rented.
• There are no showers, shampoo, conditioner etc available for customers. Customers are expected to go back to wherever they are staying and clean up there.
• The day ends around 3PM, and there are usually 6 available places for shore dives (maximum 6 divers and one guide)

January’s dives

Dive No: 237, Bare Island. Entry time: 10:45, depth: 12.3m, dive time: 37mins, exit time: 11:22, water temperature: 20C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, rented 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, used an 11L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt. Saw blue grouper, nudibranchs, seaweed

Dive No: 238, Camp Cove. Entry time: 13:25, depth: 5.5m, dive time: 33 mins, exit time: 13:58, water temperature: 20C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure 200 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, rented 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, used an 11L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt. Saw: cuttlefish, pipefish, stingrays, frogfish, seaweed, sea urchins, sponges, porcupine fish.

 

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January 2017: Gearing Up for Another Year

Happy New Year!  I’ve recently returned to Japan after seeing in the New Year in Sydney, and was delighted to start 2017 by diving near Bondi. I’ll be writing about that soon, but before I delve into the new year, this is perhaps a good moment to start looking back at last year.

Things got off to a great start in 2016 with a trip to the Similan Islands at the end of January. With white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, the dive sites were excellent and we were blown away by the warm temperatures and rich marine life.

I then spent a lot of my time getting reacquainted with some of my favourite dive sites near Tokyo, such as Atami and Shikinejima……

……and discovered the island of Saipan in October. The Northern Marianas cater to all levels with shallow and deep dives, spectacular caverns and stunning coral reefs. Only 3 hours by plane from Tokyo, it’s a quick and easy destination for divers living in Japan (photos below courtesy of Jun Hashimoto at Wondersea).

I’ve seen a vast range of marine life over the years and in Japan at least, I felt that it had been kept relatively safe from growing numbers of tourists including scuba divers. But a fellow diver sent me an article stating that half of Japan’s largest coral reef had died because of unusually high water temperatures between June and September. Read more about the problem here: http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201612160042.html

To that end, efforts continue to safeguard the marine environment, not just in Japan but in other countries too, and the role of divers is drawing increasing attention. In October 2016 I welcomed to Tokyo Juliana Corrales from UK marine conservation charity The Reef-World Foundation.  She is involved in Green Fins, a public-private initiative of The Reef-World Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme that provides a code of conduct to divers and dive shops to reduce environmental impact. On Juliana’s first trip to Japan, we visited dive shops, travel agencies, magazine and website editors to spread the word about Green Fins and got a Green Fins story in Marine Diving, Japan’s leading dive magazine.

To top off another active year, in December I became a member of a growing community called Women4Oceans (http://women4oceans.weebly.com), which supports, promotes and represents women working in ocean-related fields.

The beginning of 2017 will be the start of more opportunities. I’m delighted to have been approached by a couple of new publications regarding future diving articles on Japan, and in April I’m hoping to attending some diving events in Tokyo and Singapore. A dive trip to the Ogasawara Islands is also in the works, and in July this year I begin my Masters thesis in Sustainable Aquaculture. But by far the biggest change comes in May — after 10 years of living in Tokyo, I’ll be saying goodbye to Japan and returning to the UK. As sad as it will be to leave, I’m excited about my next chapter and discovering a new kind of diving. Rising Bubbles will continue, albeit in a slightly different style.

Thank you for reading and…..see you underwater!

 

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October 2016: Saipan

Thursday October 27th, 2016

As the weather cools down in Japan, many divers look to warmer destinations for upcoming trips, somewhere with a good variety of dive sites that doesn’t break the bank.  The tropical island of Saipan ticks both these boxes. One of the fastest growing tourist resorts in Micronesia, it’s a world of magnificent beaches, year-round outdoor activities, a cacophony of international and indigenous cultures and, of course, world-class scuba diving.

Saipan is home to a variety of frequented dive sites and there is no shortage of fun or discovery: small reefs to action-packed bommies or dramatic walls; shallow or deep; sites fit for beginners or the more advanced. The Grotto, for example, is the island’s premier spot and one of the world’s best cavern dives. Descending a long, steep staircase into a huge sinkhole, divers enter the pool at the bottom and work their way towards one of three exit holes to the open ocean, passing beautiful walls, swim-throughs and caves. If this sounds like a bit much, however, there is still plenty on offer. Rather than something adventurous, we wanted somewhere quiet where we could relax in shallow water and swim over vast coral reefs and colourful marine life, so we were delighted with the chance to explore the plethora of life at Lau Lau Beach.

This beach is home to one of Saipan’s largest coral reefs and most popular snorkelling spots. On our first dive we soon found a series of rock formations blossoming with life and an area of huge, well-developed plate corals with beautiful delicate tips. During the calm descent, we swam over to a rock that was overlaid with a spray of filter-feeding creatures. A crab hid within the mass of colour and a medium-sized trumpet fish emerged from among the diverse life. We made a beeline for a series of medium-sized rocks animated with a small bouquet of nudibranchs. Further on in the dive, we couldn’t resist approaching a hawksbill turtle busy grazing on algae. It paid no attention to us and eventually headed to the surface to breathe. Butterfly fish added to the show, seeming to dance under the beams of sunlight. An intrigued group of them paid me a visit while a couple of barracuda glanced at me as I passed by.  A careful inspection in the sand revealed various hermit crabs, while back on the reef angelfish devoured what they could find. Lau Lau Beach is also home to well-concealed stonefish and lots of crustaceans. The maximum depth here is around 20m but there is plenty to see in the shallows, such as big Moorish Idols that sometimes form schools along the reef’s outer edges. As we headed to the exit, the dive had one more surprise in store, as we spotted an octopus that stayed where it was for several minutes, seemingly content to watch us without feeling the need to camouflage its appearance. Octopus often prefer to retreat into minuscule crevices but not this one…well, at least while we were there!

For our next dive, we entered from a different point where the rocky walls proved to host many small creatures such as gobies. Below the ocean surface was a carpet of coral and rocky structures spreading hundreds of metres into the distance. The dive began with a series of connecting sandy, winding paths that divers could swim over while observing the reef fish, nestled close to the rocky walls (good buoyancy skills are a must here). The area featured wall after wall of rock and coral with dramatic formations dotted here and there. The walls were covered with life and decorated with black coral, tube sponges and white barrel sponges. Threadfin butterfly fish patrolled the wall edges and a procession of circling barracuda past in the deep blue. We took in the scenery, watching angel and other fish cruising over the reef. A banded sea snake coursed through the corals, stopping to delve deep into a hole to corner a hiding fish and then undulated towards us, unconcerned by our bubbles and more focused on finding prey.

Lau Lau Beach offers amazingly clear blue water and with the white sand and colourful reefs, it lends itself to some excellent photography. But with so much going on over the reefs, it was hard to know where to look and what to photograph, so we headed slightly away from the structures to marvel at the view with encrusting sponges and vibrant angelfish. Arguably among the best features of this dive were the resident schools of bigscale soldier fish, several quite tame turtles and hundreds of big-eye scad forming a huge bait ball. The highlight was swimming quite close to them, watching them disperse and then congregate.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of life at Lau Lau Beach and it’s well worth a visit. The sheer quantity and volume of marine life was staggering. This could have been one of the most prolific and exciting dive sites I had seen for a while.

Practical Information

  • We flew direct to Saipan from Tokyo’s Narita airport with Delta airlines, leaving around 10:25AM and arriving around 14:30 Saipan time (13:30 Japan time) on Saturday October 22nd, 2016.
  • We were picked up at the airport by our resort, Fiesta Resort and Spa (http://www.fiestasaipan.com/experience/), where we stayed for 7 days.
  • We booked our dives with a Japanese travel agent, HIS, located at the Fiesta Resort. HIS arranged our day with the dive shop Wondersea Saipan (http://www.wondersea-saipan.com/diving-fun.html). Two dives cost USD100 (including tanks, guide and weights, excluding rental gear).
  • A staff member from Wondersea Saipan came to collect us from Fiesta around 8:00AM to take us to the dive shop. From there, we signed a waiver form and gathered our gear for loading into the van. Free tea and coffee is available, as well as spacious tables, books and magazines on marine life (mainly in Japanese) and a noticeboard with diving-related information at the reception. Outside the main entrance is a car park and area to wash gear after the dives.
  • The drive from the shop to Lau Lau Beach took around 40mins. An extremely poor dirt road leads down to a valley and wide bay. There are no facilities at Lau Lau Beach, not even toilets and showers, so the shop prepared cold tea and water. We got changed into wetsuits behind the van, and set up our gear before going to the edge of the water for the diving briefing.
  • There are at least 4 points of entry that are marked by ropes. We walked into the water until we were waist-deep, then put on our masks and fins, and started swimming out.
  • After the first dive, we had an hour or so surface interval back at the van before making our way back to the water for the second dive.
  • Gear is washed upon return to the dive shop and hung up to dry on the racks outside. During this time, we spent time writing up logbooks and going through photos.
  • There are no showers available at the dive shop. As the dives usually finish in the morning/lunchtime, customers are driven back to their resorts where they can shower and change in their own rooms.
  • Don’t forget to bring a towel to have with you after the dives.

October’s dives

Dive No: 235, Lau Lau Beach, entry time: 09:08, depth: 16m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 09:54, water temperature 29-33C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, wore surf shorts, rashy and 1kg weight, used a 9L aluminium tank. Saw: octopus, turtles x 2, ball of big-eye scad, clown fish, anemonefish, phyllidia coelestis nudibranch, barracuda, threadfin butterfly fish, Pacific double-saddle butterfly fish, bigscale soldier fish and trumpet fish

Dive No: 236, Lau Lau Beach, entry time: 10:53, depth: 18m, dive time: 50mins, exit time: 11:45, water temperature: 29-34C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 60 bar, wore surf shorts, rashy and 2kg weight, used a 9L aluminium tank. Saw: barracuda, fish ball (big-eye scad), clown fish, nudibranchs and trumpet fish

*Many thanks to Jun Hashimoto of Wondersea for the photos! 

 

 

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