The Return to the Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture, JAPAN

Sunday October 16th, 2016

Returning to the Oki Islands to dive once more, I wasn’t yearning for the vast shoals of tropical fish and colourful marine life that I’d seen so far this year. Instead, I was looking forward to something slightly different. The Oki islands offer a topographically intriguing seabed of rocky structures that have succumbed to the relentless force of the sea, piles of giant boulders, walls and even caves, all crammed with endless nooks and crannies. The islands also boast a plethora of dive sites both near and far from shore, with some unsurprisingly fascinating underwater features. Down at depth there is plenty to steal your attention, such as rock formations with such sheer sides that they look as if they have been polished to precision. Around these dramatic life forms are sandy patches and grassy spots that are home to a beautiful variety of fish and invertebrates.

Iguri:  Giant striding into the waters off the dive site Iguri is a great way to start a Sunday. Our route took us north towards the open sea as we meandered through a small canal, passing rows of delightful houses. As we arrived, the sun was shining and the surface of the water was covered in gentle ripples with almost no waves.

The dive over Iguri’s main feature, a huge rocky mount, is both fun and full of atmosphere. Descending slowly down the anchor line we arrived at the top of the structure, which starts at around 15m. Its walls are covered in seaweed, marine growth and fish swimming everywhere. A large number of half-lined cardinal fish populate the rock, which eases its way down to an undulating sandy bottom with a maximum depth of around 26m. It’s a perfect site for divers of all experience levels and there is plenty to see, including rays and even a huge longtooth grouper watching us cautiously as it rested on the sandy seafloor. A variety of fish, such as damselfish and sardines call the area home too and the diving is effortless, with gentle finning all that’s required to move over the rocks and stones. Ascending slowly towards the end of the dive, the light envelopes an underwater landscape of boulders, and schooling fish sweep by while the odd dangerous stonefish sits waiting in the shadowy parts. Red sea bream and amberjack patrol the site relentlessly, while more discoveries await in the shallower depths, such as tiny crabs and colourful nudibranchs.

Katado:  Our guide paused at the cave entrance to Katado, peered backwards to make sure we were present, and began swimming forward. Once inside, he turned his torch on to light up a colossal wall covered in sponges and macrolife. Heading further in, we shined our torches all around to reveal features that were just as interesting as the areas closer to the entrance. Striped eel catfish wriggled around, while a comical-looking puffer fish glided slowly by.

Good buoyancy skills, as well as control and judgement, are all important at Katado as there are a few tight spots and the dive is no deeper than 11m. Despite the darkness, there is plenty of entertainment and a slightly spooky atmosphere as you venture further into the cave. It’s an atmospheric location, with beams of sunlight shining through the entrance and good photo opportunities (especially macro) for those with cameras. Because it all lies in relatively shallow water, you can spend pretty much your entire dive within the cave, with virtually no chance of running out of bottom time. Photography and macrolife fans won’t be disappointed with the amount of time available to get that perfect shot.  We were in there for just over an hour.

Crabs, nudibranchs and tiny shrimps poked their faces out from their lairs having clearly taken a foothold on the walls, and looking closely, we could even see a variety of bennies that looked like frogs, some with feathery tentacles above their eyes. The area was covered in sponges and colourful bits of seaweed, while the impressive walls did a good job of inviting us deeper inside where more nudibranchs could be found, displaying a broad palette of different colour forms amidst strong, angry-looking sea urchins in every crack and space. But it’s not just the macrolife that’s impressive — Katado is  home to a range of fish such as Japanese blacktail triplefin, stonefish (watch out for these!), black rockfish and marbled rockfish. After an enjoyable meeting with a school of half-lined cardinal fish dancing by and shining against the sunlight, we headed back towards the surface and exit. Katado is one of the Oki Islands’ richest in terms of diversity and abundance.

Given than most of the dive sites are no more than a 10-minute boat ride, it’s fair to say that the Oki Islands have some beautiful diving right on their doorstep. They may not inspire the same awe or possess the same allure as other Japanese dive sites, but do provide some fantastic and original underwater experiences.

Practical Information: Please refer to my previous blog on the Oki Islands (Nishinoshima, October 2014) for details on how to get to Oki, where to stay and diving costs

October’s Dives 

Dive No: 233, Iguri, entry time: 09:55, depth: 25.4m, dive time: 39mins, exit time: 10:29, water temperature: 22C, water visibility: 10m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used a 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight (due to heavy camera), jacket BC, 10L steel tank. Saw: red sea bream, amberjack, half-lined cardinal fish, ray, crab (charybdis acuta), longtooth grouper, sardines, damselfish, nudibranch (Glossodoris misakinosibogae Baba), sea urchins

Dive No: 234: Katado, entry time: 11:12, depth: 11.2m, dive time: 60mins, exit time: 12:12, water temp: 21C, water visibility: 10m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight, jacket BC, 10L steel tank. Saw: white nudibranch (chromodoris orientalis), blue nudibranch (hypselodoris festiva), nudibranch (glossodoris misakinosibogae Baba), striped eel catfish, pufferfish (Takifugu pardalis), Japanese blacktail triplefin, half-lined cardinal fish, black rockfish, stonefish, marbled rockfish, sea urchins

September 2016: Mikurajima, JAPAN

Friday September 2nd – Sunday September 4th, 2016

Swimming and snorkeling with dolphins is something I’d never really given much thought to, and certainly not at Mikurajima, an island about 200km, or 120 miles, south of Tokyo and technically part of the capital’s metropolis. I had heard that getting to the island was a hassle (because of weather conditions the boat doesn’t always dock), not to mention stories of rough seas and seasickness. Scuba diving is also not permitted so for me, the island didn’t seem to offer much. But this year I decided to see what it was all about, accompanied by a group of friends who insisted that I wouldn’t be disappointed.

With an imposing presence, volcanic Mikurajima is home to rich forests of lush green, a series of gigantic trees rooted deep into the soil. There are also a couple of shrines, steep hills, a hiking trail and nutritious water that flows down into the sea. Home to around 300 people, life on the island is slow and tranquil. The Kuroshio current flows around it, providing an environment that’s most suitable for marine life. There are no beaches, just huge cliffs falling to the shore, which mainly consists of giant rocks and pebbles.

The minshuku, or inns, on the island, have their own boats and arrange dolphin swims and rental equipment. Sunscreen is a must on the boat due to the lack of shade, and it’s also a good idea to take a seasickness tablet. Depending on conditions at sea, the boat travels slowly along one side of the island towards the pods of dolphins. With around 200 of them surrounding Mikurajima, sightings are almost always guaranteed. Once a pod has been spotted, the rest is simple — masks, snorkels and fins are quickly put on, and everyone jumps into the water, swimming in the general direction pointed out by the captain. Whether you come close to the dolphins, or even better face-to-face, is not certain, but with any luck, they will come close out of curiosity so the calmer you are (it’s important not to chase the dolphins or thrash around) the better the chance of watching them doing their own thing. Their squeals of communication also sound incredible underwater.

To get as much out of the tour as possible, swimmers jump in and out of the boat several times. If you’re not used to swimming this can be tiring, and frustrating if you jump in and find that there aren’t any dolphins after all. Depending on time and customers’ level of experience, some minshuku offer basic snorkeling and swimming lessons beforehand, although it’s probably best to arrange this yourself before you go. Visitors are only allowed three two-hour tours over a weekend, so everyone gets as much time as possible with the dolphins.

Mikurajima was a wonderful weekend get-away. In addition to the dolphins, we enjoyed delicious hearty meals at our minshuku and some excellent gelato at a tiny souvenir shop down the road. My friends were spot on — it didn’t disappoint.

Practical Information

  • We travelled to Mikurajima on the overnight ferry from Tokyo’s Takeshiba pier, and booked areas below deck to sleep in. We slept in the second class cabin, which consisted of small areas on the floor to lie down on. Blankets can be rented for 100yen each, and a small pillow is provided as well as an overhead locker for each person. A return ticket to Mikurajima is a little over 9,000yen. The boat was renovated two years ago, so everything is comfortable, clean and brand new. There is a restaurant (only open at certain times in the morning and from 17:00 to 19:00 in the evening) serving basic food like noodles and curry, vending machines with drinks and Haagen Dazs ice cream, showers and toilets.
  • The boat docks at Mikurajima around 6:00AM and staff from your inn are there to pick you up. Note that you cannot disembark unless you have accommodation booked (no camping is allowed).
  • Our inn (Yado Marui) was around two minutes up a steep hill by car from the port. On arrival, you are shown to a huge communal room with sofas, tea, coffee and a TV to get ready for the first dolphin swim, which begins around 8:00AM. Rooms are usually not available until lunchtime. One important thing is leave a towel and change of clothing in the bath and shower area, for when you come back after the first swim.
  • Having changed into swimming costumes and prepared masks, fins, and snorkels, everyone gathers outside the front door at 8:00AM for a briefing before being driven to the port. Staff provide thick waterproof jackets for the boat in case it rains or seas are rough.
  • Don’t forget sunscreen and a seasickness tablet. Seas can be rough and there are no shaded areas on the boat. It’s not worth taking bags, hats or anything else that could get wet or lost.
  • After the first tour ends at 10:00AM, staff will take you back to the port and the minshuku. A heated bath and some showers await so customers rinse their masks, snorkels and fins in the outside washing area before having a shower and bath. Swimming costumes can be rinsed while taking a shower. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and hair dryers are all available. After washing, spin your swimming costume in the washing machine and hang it upstairs in the drying room. Customers then have free time for lunch.
  • There is a restaurant down the hill from the minshuku serving set meals of rice, fish (raw fish or grilled), miso soup, pickles, curry etc for around 1,300yen. There is also a curry/pasta restaurant and souvenir shop that sells T-shirts, tote bags, key rings, stickers etc. They also do great gelato (mix of fruit flavours and yogurt flavour), about 300yen for a cup.
  • The next swim starts around 14:00 and lasts until 16:00.
  • Dinner is available at the minshuku from 18:00. We had a great BBQ of yakisoba, meat, vegetables, as well as raw fish and rice. There are no pubs and not much of a nightlife on Mikurajima but there is a shop nearby that’s open during the day, selling things like beer, toiletries and snacks.
  • The minshuku rooms are traditional Japanese, with tatami straw mats, paper doors and futon. They are big enough for at least five people.
  • Most customers do two swims on the day they arrive, and one the next day before taking the boat back to Tokyo.
  • On the day of departure, before the 8:00AM tour, you must check out of your room and leave all your luggage in the communal room. After returning, showering and more packing, payments are made around 11:00AM. A dolphin swim is 7,000yen per swim, and one night at the minshuku (with dinner and breakfast) is 8,000yen. Breakfast is a simple set meal of rice, miso soup, pickles, natto (fermented soybeans), grilled fish and dried seaweed.
  • Customers must be at the port for the ferry by 12:00PM. Usually people walk down the hill themselves while the staff follow by car with everyone’s luggage. After having tickets checked at the port, the boat departs around 12:30 and arrives in Tokyo at 20:45 via Miyakejima and Oshima Islands. We had areas below deck to sleep in but the restaurant opens around 17:00, and if the weather is nice it’s good to sit on deck and watch the Izu Islands pass by. You can also buy T-shirts, stickers and other souvenirs at the port at Mikurajima.
  • English-speaking dolphin swims can be booked through Tokyo Gaijins (http://www.tokyogaijins.com/upcoming/miyakejima-2015jun20-21.php). The group stays at neighbouring Miyakejima (where it’s possible to camp and scuba dive) and travels by boat to Mikurajima to see the dolphins. The journey time is around one hour.

 

 

 

 

July 2016: The Return to Shikinejima, JAPAN

Sunday July 24th, 2016

Our eyes scout the slightly murky water, but for the moment there is no sign of any turtles. Then, one arrives, gliding effortlessly in the distance. It pirouettes above the vents spewing bubbles of hot water before settling slowly over the rocks and soft beds of seaweed. More turtles soon follow, propelling forward and glancing at us as they move past, seemingly unconcerned by our presence.

This is a typical underwater scene at Shikinejima, a quaint little island 160km south of Tokyo. With clear water, natural resources and ocean-side hot springs, it’s a far-flung corner of the metropolis, a great holiday destination and home to around 600 residents. Tourists gather in droves during the summer high season, but at other times of the year it feels wonderfully empty and peaceful.

Diving off Shikinejima is not the most exciting, but the sites below offer plenty to see:

Mikawan, or Kaichu Onsen: Located in a small bay and surrounded by huge cliff-like rocks, the water here is extremely calm, making it ideal for beginner divers as well as the more advanced. Descending to around 6m, we were greeted by a carpet of medium-sized rocks. Swimming over them for a while, we soon noticed bubbles all around, rising gently from vents hidden in the many nooks and crannies. Although the water wasn’t very warm, we could stop and put our hands above the vents to feel the warmth. This site offers pleasing, shallow dives in a calm environment where schools of neon damselfish cruise slowly by and the rocks are adorned with frills of multicoloured seaweed utilising the nutrient rich water flowing past at the turn of the tides. Finning across the rocky bottom, we found that it soon gave way to a vast sandy patch and organic material containing even more vents and bubbles. This is a great opportunity to lie on the sand and study the vents in more detail, while for divers with a keen eye there are some interesting surprises, including sepia stingrays foraging in the sand and wafting under us, lighting up under our torches. Looking down we could see them gliding gracefully by, while further on, flatfish lay well camouflaged in the sand, watching cautiously as we continued on our journey.

Ashitsuki: This site also offers pleasant shallow dives in calm water with a range of marine life. In fact, we were inundated by sensory overload. Every part of the rocks seemed to be blanketed in a range of anemones, coral and seaweed, countless hordes that provide food for a number of fish. Gliding weightlessly through the water, we felt as though we were flying over an underwater garden. Extravagant anemones harboured dozens of clown fish darting in and out, while lobsters seemed to be under every overhang, sometimes venturing out with caution. Apart from the sea goldies and sweepers (don’t race in as the groups will move away just fast enough to evade that ideal shot), marine life encounters are typically smaller critters such as nudibranchs, including chromodoris lochi, serpent pteraeolidia and phyllidia ocellata, as well as frogfish. Shimmering and brightly lit up in the clear water, the nudibranchs make for excellent images against the blue of the ocean. We got to explore some wider and bigger rocks stretching down into the depths, and all along them were shoals of gnomefish, knifefish and others darting in and out of the protection of the seaweed and rocky growth. We were transfixed by swarms of yellow striped butterfish, largescale blackfish and damselfish, and spent the last part of our dive at depths of 5-6m, enjoying the sun penetrating the water and lighting up our surroundings. Small fish darted around and the clear water and colourful growth on the rocks made for a stunning dive.

Shikinejima is a great dive destination for Tokyo-ites needing to escape from the concrete jungle.  It’s a simple and beautiful example of rural Japan and a perfect opportunity to enjoy a natural and colourful underwater world.

 Practical information

  • We took the overnight ferry from Takeshiba Sanbashi in Tokyo with Tokai Kisen ferries (http://www.tokaikisen.co.jp/).  The ferry leaves Tokyo at 22:00 and arrives at 09:05 the following morning.  Tickets are about 12,000yen return (6,000yen for a single) and include a chair below deck but it is possible to rent warm thick blankets for 100yen each and sleep out on deck.  The ferry only has basic vending machines and a restaurant, which is not open at night so it’s advisable to bring your own food and snacks.
  • We camped at Oura Camp Site about 15-20mins walk from the port. It’s free to camp after signing in at the main reception. One vending machine is available, as well as areas to wash cooking utensils, cutlery and cook food. Basic pots and pans are available for use, as well as an area at the reception to charge phones. Toilets and showers (cold water only), as well as a car park, are at the bottom of the hill. Campers need to bring their own things (there is no rental service)
  • I booked my dives with Shikinejima Diving Service (http://www5.ocn.ne.jp/~sdsdive/menu_page_1.html).  Two boat dives and one beach dive comes to just under 20,000yen including tanks, weights and a guide.  It then costs around 6,400yen to rent a wetsuit, reg, BCD, mask, fins and boots.
  • For people with their own gear, diving equipment can be sent in advance from Tokyo for about 2,500yen using Kuroneko Takkyubin.
  • Immediately upon arriving at Shikinejima Diving Service, you see a huge family house on your right, with an area for diving equipment in the distance.  There is a round table outside for divers to sit and fill in forms.  Next to this table is an area for equipment storage, to wash, hang and dry gear.  A toilet and changing room are inside the house.  No books or magazines are available but tea is provided.
  • After loading the van with equipment and getting changed at the shop, we drove to the dive sites.  The boat is very spacious and flat with no indoor area and a couple of benches in the middle next to the engine where divers can sit.  Equipment is put on when the boat arrives at the dive sites.  Bring your own towel, sunscreen and snacks.
  • Lunch is not provided so after each dive there is a chance to go to the nearest store for food and drink.
  • All entries into the water are backward rolls.  Ascent is up a ladder.
  • After each dive, everyone heads back to the port for a quick break.  A member of staff from the dive school will then drive back with the empty tanks and return with new ones.
  • Divers are responsible for looking after their own equipment.  When the dives are over, they are free to use the school’s outdoor area to change and wash up as they like. The school also drives you back to your accommodation or any other place you wish to go at the end of the day.
  • Cycling is a great way to get around the island although there are many steep hills!  Full day bicycle hire is around 1,000yen.
  • We returned to Tokyo on the fast jetfoil, which leaves Shikinejima around 10:00 and gets into Tokyo around 13:00.   A single ticket is about 9,000yen.

July’s dives

Dive No: 231, Kaichu Onsen, Entry time: 10:08, depth: 11.3m, dive time: 29mins, exit time: 10:37, water temperature: 25C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, used a 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 10L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: turtles, sepia stingray, neon damselfish and scorpionfish

Dive No: 232, Ashitsuki, Entry time: 11:42, depth: 8.3m, dive time: 36mins, exit time: 12:20, water temperature: 26C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 160 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 5kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 10L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: chromodoris lochi, serpent pteraeolidia, sea goldies, sweepers, frogfish, glaucus atlanticus, gnomefish, Japanese bluefish, knifefish, clownfish, lobsters, phyllidia ocellata.

 

April 2016: The Return to Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, JAPAN

Monday April 25th, 2016

As every scuba diver knows, the urge to get into the water can strike at anytime, even when the weather is nice but the sea is still cold and you have no time or money to head somewhere warm. This is one of the reasons why I love going to Atami in Shizuoka prefecture. Not only is it possible to dive there when it’s still relatively cold, but it can also be done on a day trip from Tokyo. What’s more, April is still low season and if you go on a weekday, you’ll pretty much have the dive shop to yourself.

Located on the east coast of the Izu Peninsula, Atami is a bay enclosed by an outer sea wall, and most of the dive sites are at the bay’s west end, about 5- 10 minutes by boat outside the sea wall. Punctuated by rocky outcrops covered in soft coral and a large shipwreck for advanced divers to explore, Atami’s dive sites are calm and accessible. Soft corals and sponges cover every inch of the rocks protruding up from the deep bottom, offering a habitat for a wide variety of fish and other marine life. Moray eels lurk among the rocks and dark corners, while more observant divers might come across a colourful nudibranch or a poisonous stonefish. When conditions are right, larger pelagic species are also known to pay a visit from the deep.

Atami’s shipwreck, the Chinsen, is one of the most popular dive sites in the area. The ship lies in two sections at around 25-30m. Because of its depth and a mild current, which can sometimes occur at the surface, divers need an advanced certification in order to visit. The journey to the Chinsen is off a boat and down a long rope with nothing to see until the wreck emerges at about 21m. For divers more used to shore entries or being surrounded by rocks and coral during a descent, such an entry can be a bit daunting but once the dive begins it’s worth it, as the Chinsen is covered with colourful soft corals and teeming with life, where schools of anthias, cardinals and chromis surround you. Gliding towards the sides of the wreck, our torch beams lit up a small group of orange anthias, and patches of small anemones spread out over the structure, shoals of fish lingering between them. Descending down the sides to around 28m, we could instantly appreciate the extent of the coral biodiversity — healthy stands of branching corals and soft flowery species mixed with other types of reef building organisms. Damselfish and sea goldies rise and fall amongst the corals, feeding in the water column, while nudibranchs and critters are plentiful. During the middle of our dive, the sun broke through and illuminated the ocean as we passed a shimmering school of fish, a wonderful touch to an exciting and comfortable underwater experience. The dive here begins with the hulk and front area and is very easy to navigate — follow the sides until you reach the back of the wreck and swim past the rest of the structure which eventually leads back to the starting point. Raiding schools of fish rampage over the wreck on feeding sprees, gorging on an almost-endless supply of food, while close to the walls and into the darker recesses of the structure, you can spot stonefish skulking in the gloom.

Another of Atami’s main dive sites is Bitagane next to the Chinsen.  This is another highly colourful spot, again due to the abundance of soft corals. In fact, the enchanting coral garden landscape is reminiscent of an underwater art gallery with bright formations that have taken years to create. Bitagane is a gentle rocky slope with nooks full of life that plunges to around 30m with quite a few sponges and coral. The deeper areas are swathed in colourful soft corals, growth is impressive and healthy and everything is massed with crinoids. Fish action is conspicuous as well, with small schools of yellowstripe butterfish and cherry anthias, while fields of sponges with a scattering of anemones are a haven for chromis and other small fish to hide in and feed above. Finning over the coarse rocky structures in the middle of the site it’s also possible to find flatfish, and tucked beside the barrel sponges are photogenic nudibranchs, more specifically the Goniobranchus tinctorius, Black scrapers seem to be ever-present and stonefish are a frequent sight here as well. Large groups of fish shoal over the rocks, and sea urchins and small shellfish are abundant everywhere. Schools of sea goldies and the odd seven band grouper swim lazily around, while all the soft corals and sponges made for a colourful scene. Swimming down the sloping rocky walls to around 24m and slowly back up again, the scene was beautiful and full of life, with the reef looking incredibly healthy.

Whether you’re a photographer, a wreck enthusiast or just want to immerse yourself in the beauty of the marine life, there’s definitely something for everyone at Atami, where exciting and diverse diving opportunities abound.

Practical Information

  • To get to Atami, take the Shinkansen bullet train from either Tokyo or Shinagawa stations. The early morning train from Shinagawa leaves at 7:34AM (destination Nagoya) and arrives at Atami around 8:12AM. A single ticket with non-reserved seat costs just over 3,500yen. It’s advisable to arrive around 8AM to have a full day of diving.
  • I took a taxi (about 700yen, 5 minutes from JR Atami station) to Atami Scuba (www.atamiscuba.jp). The school is right on the port, with hot showers and toilets, a vending machine by the reception (150yen for a 500ml bottle of water), and a fairly large area with benches and picnic tables for barbecues and for hanging equipment. No tea, coffee and snacks are provided but there is a convenience store across the road.
  • The boat leaves for the first dive a bit before 10AM. After arriving, it’s best to start gearing up right away. Everyone puts on their equipment and walks to the boat to sit on the floor. Entry into the water is a backward roll.
  • After the first dive there is usually a 1.5 to 2 hour break before the next dive begins. Usually the dives finish in time for a late lunch.
  • Two boat dives cost 16,500yen including guide, two tanks and weights (rental gear separate).
  • All divers are responsible for setting up their equipment, washing it and tidying up after each dive. The showers have no body soap, towels or shampoo so remember to bring your own or buy from the convenience store.
  • After the dives the shop will drive you back to JR Atami station. There are a few restaurants close by selling sashimi, a range of seafood and other delicious dishes. The dive shop will be able to point you in the right direction.
  • The Tokyo-based dive club Discovery Divers  (http://www.discoverydiverstokyo.com/about-us.html) arranges regular trips to Atami in the summer for training purposes and fun dives.  Check out their website or Facebook page (Discovery Divers Tokyo) for more information.

April’s dives

Dive No: 229, Chinsen back part, Entry time: 09:22, depth: 25.5m, dive time: 38mins, exit time: 10:00, water temperature: 19C, water visibility: 8-12m, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 60 bar, used a 3kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 12L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: plaice, surfperch, yellowstripe butterfish, sea goldies, blacktip grouper, sea urchins, sea anemone, southern orange-lined cardinal fish, seven band grouper, coral, nudibranch (Goniobranchus tinctorius), black scraper, half-lined cardinal fish, cherry anthias, stone fish, Moray eels, damselfish, yellow chromis

Dive No: 330, Chinsen front part and Bitagane, Entry time: 11:34, depth: 23.8m, dive time: 40mins, exit time: 12:15, water temperature: 19C, water visibility: 8-12m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, used a 3kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, 12L steel tank, 3mm hood/vest. Saw: same as above

February 2016: The Return to Shiretoko, Hokkaido, JAPAN

Monday February 8th – Friday February 12th, 2016

Winter in Japan, and the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido is covered in snow and ice. Blizzards and bitterly cold winds sweep the area, but divers can still be seen heading towards the wintry waters, putting on their equipment and plunging in.

Ice diving is nothing new in this part of Japan. It begins when drift ice from the Sea of Okhotsk starts to move south around the end of January, reaching the Shiretoko coast and gradually filling the surrounding seas. Heading underwater here in mid-winter demands huge strength of character and full concentration, but a surprising world awaits including the striking beauty of the ice above and decent visibility. The flora and fauna off Shiretoko can only be described as different, with rocks and pebbles littering the seabed and forests of seaweed and odd-looking nudibranchs vying for attention.

I returned to Hokkaido in early February for my second ice diving experience and as I left, people wondered why I was going to dive, again, in such an environment. The water is cold and the risk of hypothermia is high. Even the dive operators, or those who only dive in warmer waters, must step up and adjust to the freezing cold ocean. But the looming quiet delicacy of the floating ice adds a dramatic and other worldly quality to the whole experience. There is nothing more exciting than marvelling at the ice formations above before looking at the wildlife below. Ice diving may be extreme, but it offers an incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

With water temperatures between 0 and -2C degrees or even colder and a sheet of thick ice skimming the surface, safety procedures are strict. Once underwater, not only are you unable to surface wherever you like thanks to a frozen layer, each minute in this extreme environment increases the possibility of problems like hypothermia. The usual procedure is for the dive shop to dig a hole over the chosen dive spot using a chainsaw or ice cutting machine, and through the hole goes a rope which divers use to get in and out of the water. But unfortunately when we arrived there was almost no ice, so our dives became normal beach dives as we gathered in buddy pairs and sat on the ice close to shore, putting on our gear and swimming out to sea.

Looking around, the extremely large rocks at around 3.5m are by no means exciting. The area is a series of rocks and tiny pebbles, covered in swathes of green and red seaweed, among which are starfish, shells, anemones and occasional tiny crabs. But there is also a wealth of macro subjects such as nudibranchs, shellfish and copepods, while the countless bits of seaweed dance above the rocks like leaves caught in the wind. Despite the somewhat plain and barren seascape, the whole area is still a bustle of activity.

The clione, however, is the real star of the show.  Also known as a sea angel, it’s a type of sea slug, a cross between a jellyfish and an underwater firefly, that hovers under the ice and drives divers crazy with its cuteness.  It’s a tiny dot in the vast ocean but many divers brave the icy waters just to photograph it.  This mystical being is an extremely photogenic, translucent little creature that spends its time slowly making its way through the water flapping its wings and cute ears as it passes by.

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Photo credit: Iruka Hotel, Shiretoko, Hokkaido, March 2013

Sadly, this may well be my last ice diving trip to Hokkaido. In recent years global warming has reduced the size and amount of the ice floes and until a solution is found, we are likely to see much less ice in future. Nevertheless I am still hopeful that next year we will return. For divers who want to take on a serious challenge and try something different, it’s an experience I highly recommend.

Practical Information

  • I flew with JAL from Haneda airport leaving at 11:55AM on Monday 8th and arriving at Memanbetsu at 13:40. I flew with JAL again on Friday 12th February, leaving Memanbetsu at 14:35 and arriving in Haneda at 16:30. Returning flights, including taxes etc. come to around 80,000yen.
  • At Memanbetsu a coach arranged by Kansai Divers (main contact person David Graham), a divers’ group in Kansai that had organised the trip, came to meet us. We used the same coach to get from place to place all week.
  • We stayed at the beautiful Shiretoko Daiichi Hotel, a huge 4-star complex with public baths, spacious Japanese-style and Western rooms, shops, wifi, delivery service and an excellent buffet breakfast and dinner with every kind of food and drink imaginable (alcohol is ordered and paid for separately). http://shiretoko-1.com/spa/index.html
  • The ice diving was offered through the shop Robinson (http://www.robinson.co.jp). Two dives a day were available, as well as a simple, warm and delicious lunch (soup, sandwiches, rice balls etc.) in their heated lodge, which contains a few benches and a stove. We changed into our dry suits at the hotel and loaded our gear into Robinson’s van (they picked us up at the hotel), before being driven for 10mins or so to the dive site. Equipment is set up outside the heated lodge on arrival. After the dives, all equipment can be stored in a heated dry room at the hotel.
  • Divers are responsible for their own equipment, including washing, drying and packing it before departure. When all diving is over, it can be taken to divers’ rooms to be washed and dried there. The bathroom area was spacious enough for small bits like masks or regulators. BCs and dry suits can be dried in the dry room. Equipment can be sent back to Tokyo directly from the hotel for around 2,000yen with Kuroneko Yamato delivery service.
  • Our final day in Hokkaido was spent at Abashiri. We went to Abashiri prison, which has been preserved from the Meiji period and is now a museum.
  • The total cost of the trip came to around 140,000yen (in my case this included dry suit and undergarment rental for 2 days). For more information contact David Graham of Kansai Divers at: dgraham.kobe@gmail.com or get in touch through the Kansai Divers Facebook page.

February’s Dives

Dive No: 226, Entry time: 10:37, depth: 4.9m, dive time: 15mins, exit time: 10:52, water temperature: -3C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 150 bar, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Saw: starfish, sea anemones, nudibranchs and small crabs.

Dive No: 227, Entry time: 12:45, depth: 5.7m, dive time: 21mins, exit time: 13:06, water temperature: -3C, water visibility: 5m, start pressure: 150 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Saw: clione, starfish, nudibranchs, seaweed/kelp, and sea anemones.

Dive No: 228, Entry time: 09:05, depth: 4m, dive time: 5 mins, exit time: 09:10, water temperature: -4C, water visibility: 5m, used a 10L steel tank, neoprene dry suit (rental), 3kg back plate, 5mm hood and gloves. Didn’t stay down there long enough to see much!

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 2016: Thailand Diving

Friday January 29th – Monday February 1st, 2016

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this could not be more so for the underwater habitats and inhabitants of Thailand’s seas. Vast, eerie, beautiful, breathtaking and even magical, Thailand is home to thousands of marine species. A closer look reveals delicate structures, textures and vibrant, perfectly placed colours.

Phuket is often referred to as the Pearl of the South and for good reason. The crown jewel of the Andaman Sea is the gateway to dive sites such as the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock whose year-round tropical climate and crystal clear waters draw divers from far and wide. For me, spending a few days here on my first ever liveaboard couldn’t have been a better way to start 2016.

The Similan Islands are some of Thailand’s most popular dive sites, and we spent a couple of days exploring everything they had to offer. With a giant stride entry into the water at our first site Anita’s Reef, we came across brain, honeycomb and stag coral erupting out of the rocks like perfect marine sculptures, while in amongst these works of art were nudibranchs, crabs and starfish. Schools of butterfly fish seemed involved in a feeding frenzy, along with gigantic numbers of yellow snapper. Soon I found a mantis shrimp protecting its lair with typical ferocity. The mantis’s bright colouring is the perfect fit for islands like the Similans, and if there’s a more photogenic creature in the oceans, I’m yet to snap it. Coral groupers surrounded large coral-encrusted boulders and bluefin trevally decorated the reef. The iridescent blue water washed over large stands of soft coral, and the simple colour contrast was breathtaking.

Further west of the islands, the underwater scenery is just as good with great visibility in the aquamarine waters. Oriental sweetlips, clown triggerfish and dogtooth tunas can be found swimming past the reef crevices, while batfish compete with sweetlips for the attention of cleaner wrasses. As turtles flapped by, the site made me appreciate how prolific sea turtles are in the region, and for macro lovers this area is a joy, as a wealth of subjects provide an eclectic image-making experience.

Soon we were heading north to Koh Bon, about 20km north of the Similan Islands and featuring one of the only vertical walls in Thailand. The main dive site is on the southwestern point with a step-down ridge that reaches just over 40m. The eastern side is where most divers enter the water to encounter dense and vibrant coral reefs full of movement, beauty and light. Swimming by with our torches at hand, there almost seemed to be a change in soft corals and the density of certain fish species. We found a small rise of coral heads with various fish flitting about, and sea whip branches and gorgonian sea fans providing a small vertical accent to the site. I followed the wall south and came across longnosed emperor fish, rainbow runners, bluefin trevally, anemone crabs and even an octopus trying to hide itself in a hole not quite big enough for the purpose.

Twenty-five kilometres north of Koh Bon is Koh Tachai, famous not just for common species of corals and fish, but also for larger animals such as rays, leopard sharks, nurse sharks and turtles. Whale sharks and manta rays are also known to make an appearance. Unfortunately we were out of luck with those, but nevertheless had a great time thanks to the healthy corals and plentiful reef life like colourful crinoids and masses of butterfly and angelfish. Giant trevally contrasted with sun and whip corals flailing in the slight current, and there were macro subjects to delight any diver: shrimp, sea slugs and small gobies, white-banded cleaner shrimps and anemone crabs. We also encountered big eye jacks patrolling the area, while small groups of longfin batfish shimmered in the blue and laconic sea turtles appeared to graze nearby. The scenery below the water took our breath away – giant morays and lots of yellow back fusiliers left an impression.

Our final site before heading back to Phuket and the mainland was Richelieu Rock, an open sea pinnacle 45km off the Andaman coastline. The pinnacle rises from 50m to the water surface, with limestone boulders here and there providing a haven for marine life. It’s a bit of a lone outpost, with tidal currents causing upwellings of plankton and attracting life from far and wide. Beginning our descent, blackfin and yellowfin barracuda glinted in the sunlight and we soon came across impressive growths of sponges, sun corals and all manners of life. Groupers and the odd cuttlefish congregated and passed by while the area was highlighted by batfish and hawksbill turtles of various sizes.  We also spotted ornate ghost pipefish, cleaner pipefish and even a tigertail seahorse or two. The shallow parts of the pinnacle are wondrous dives in their own right, and this trip made it clear why Richelieu Rock is among the world’s best dives. In fact, such a great diversity of dive sites and the special creatures found on them makes the Andaman Sea a fantastic long weekend getaway with very rewarding diving.

Practical Information

  • We booked our flights with Singapore Airlines, flying via Singapore to Phuket, arriving in Phuket around 17:00 in time for an evening pick up.
  • We booked our trip in Japan with an English-speaking dive guide who works at Kozushima’s dive shop Nangoku.
  • Further information on the liveaboard trip is available in English from West Coast Divers who run the trip on the boat MV Pawara. West Coast Divers are a dive centre in Phuket. http://www.westcoastdivers.com
  • A delux cruise aboard the MV Pawara for 4 nights and 4 days costs upwards from THB 25,700.
  • The staff from West Coast Divers pick customers up at Phuket airport or hotels depending on customer itineraries. The drive from the airport to the harbour (Tablamu Pier) is about an hour and a half.
  • Upon boarding the boat, customers are offered a welcome drink and there is a short explanation of the boat and its safety features, captain and crew introductions and a welcome dinner (buffet with a range of seafood, meats, vegetables, rice etc). The dinner is also slightly Western-style, with less spices etc. The boat then sets sail for the Similan Islands, arriving the next morning, after a ceremony on board to pray for good luck.
  • Day 1 at the Similan Islands includes 3 day dives and 1 sunset or night dive.
  • Day 2 is at the Similan Islands and Koh Bon, 3 day dives and 1 night dive.
  • Day 3 is at Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock, 3 day dives and 1 night dive.
  • Day 4 is at Koh Bon or Boon Soong Wreck, 2 day dives. After this, the boat heads back to Tablamu Pier, and customers are driven by mini bus back to Phuket.
  • The boat contains a large saloon, dive deck, spacious sundeck and upstairs area for sunbathing and sleeping.
  • Extra charges include the Similan Island National Park entry fee (1,800BHT), equipment rental full set (2,000 BHT for 4 days), torch for the night dives (100 BHT per dive) and dive computers (300 BHT per day).
  • All cabins include drinking water, 2 beach towels and 2 small towels, soap and shampoo, hair dryer, blanket, safe box, life jackets and international electric sockets. Wifi is very limited!
  • Tea, coffee, drinking water, cookies and fresh fruit are available at any time.
  • We arrived in Phuket after the trip in the early evening, and stayed for one night at the Phuket Airport Hotel (http://www.phuketairporthotel.com) which had a free bus to the airport, Western-style breakfast for a small extra charge, swimming pool, spacious comfortable rooms and restaurants nearby.

 January’s dives

Friday January 29th, 2016

Dive No: 213, Anita’s Reef, Entry time: 07:57, depth: 23.8m, dive time: 51 mins, exit time: 08:48, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used a 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw sandy partner gobies, pinkbar partner gobies, parrotfish, common cleaner wrasse, clown fish, spotted hawkfish, yellowback fusiliers, coral groupers, trumpet fish, garden eels and freckled garden eels

 

Dive No: 214, West of Similan Island #7, Entry time: 11:32, depth: 28.0m, dive time: 46 mins, exit time: 12:08, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw: banded coral shrimp, Valentin’s toby, triggerfish, trevallies, sandy partner gobies, parrotfish, sea turtles, yellowback fusiliers, coral groupers, trumpet fish, undulate moray

 

 

Dive No: 215, Elephant Head Rock, North of Island #7 and South of Island #8, Entry time: 14:56, depth: 29.9m, dive time: 46 mins, exit time: 15:44, water temperature: 31C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 20 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank. Saw: mantis shrimp, ribbon eel, barracudas, turtle, sea cucumbers, starfish, blue sea star, giant clams, red spotted coral crab, masked porcupine fish, triggerfish, sea bream, parrotfish, yellowback fusiliers and oriental sweetlips

 

 

Dive No: 216 (night dive) Donald Duck Bay: Entry time: 18:53, depth: 11.7m, dive time: 44 mins, exit time: 19:40, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used 4kg weight belt, 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 5mm wetsuit. Saw: baby squid, porcupine fish, porcelain crabs, spotfin lionfish, cardinal fish, goat fish, coral crabs.

 

 

Saturday January 30th, 2016

Dive No: 217, North Point, North of Island #9, Entry time: 07:23, depth: 30.1m, dive time: 47mins, exit time: 08:14, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 210 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminium tank and a 5mm wetsuit. Saw: pygmy seahorses, rays, fairy basslets, barracudas, wrasses, blennies, spotted hawkfish, ember parrotfish, bluebarred parrotfish, Indian mimic surgeonfish, scribbled filefish, masked porcupine fish

 

 

Dive No: 218, Koh Bon, Entry time: 10:45, depth: 22.2m, dive time: 53 mins, exit time: 11:38, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%), 12L aluminimum tank, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: trumpet fish, leopard shark, undulate moray, cornetfish, cardinal fish, blue-and-gold fusiliers, longfin banner fish, yellow sweepers, ember parrotfish, bluebarred parrotfish, surgeonfish

Dive No: 219, Koh Bon, Entry time: 14:08, depth: 24.7m, dive time: 50mins, exit time: 15:00, water temperature: 31C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 210 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox (29%) and a 5mm wetsuit. Saw: giant morays

 

 

Dive No: 220, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 17:38, depth: 22.3m, dive time: 42mins, exit time: 18:22, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, nitrox, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: giant trevally, barracudas, yellowback fusiliers

 

 

Sunday January 31st, 2016

Dive No: 221, Richelieu Rock, Entry time: 07:23, depth: 28.8m, dive time: 57 mins, exit time: 08:20, water temperature: 28C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: cuttlefish x 3, harlequin shrimp, napoleon wrasse, eels, crown of thorns starfish, coral banded cleaner shrimp, clown fish, yellowback fusiliers, humbug damsels

Dive No: 222, Richelieu Rock, Entry time: 10:18, depth: 28.6m, dive time: 48mins, exit time: 11:10, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: yellow tigertail seahorse (hippocampos comes)

 

 

 

Dive No: 223, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 14:31, depth: 22.8m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 15:07, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15-20m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw:

Dive No: 224, Koh Tachai, Entry time: 17:23, depth: 21.6m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 18:09, water temperature: 30C, water visibility: 15m, start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used 12L aluminium tank, nitrox (29%), 4kg weight belt, jacket BC, 5mm wetsuit. Saw: redcoat squirrel fish

 

 

Monday February 1st, 2016

Dive No: 225, Boonsoong Wreck, Entry time: 07:25, depth: 18.1m, dive time: 55mins, exit time: 08:20, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 5-10m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 90 bar, used a 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, nitrox (29%), jacket BC. Saw: cuttlefish schools, stingrays, emperor angelfish (juvenile), scorpion fish, honeycomb morays, bigeye snapper, lattice spine cheek, stonefish, yellowback fusiliers, longfin batfish, chromodoris annulata (nudibranch), chromodoris obsoleta (nudibranch), chromodoris fidelis (nudibranch)

Dive No: 226, Boonsoong Wreck, Entry time: 10:28, depth: 18.2m, dive time: 53mins, exit time: 11:23, water temperature: 29C, water visibility: 5-10m, start pressure: 160 bar, end pressure: 30 bar, used a 12L aluminium tank, 4kg weight belt, 5mm wetsuit, nitrox (29%), jacket BC. Saw:

 

 

 

 

December 2015: Miyagawa Bay, Kanagawa, JAPAN

Saturday December 5th, 2015

The waves gently wash against the side of the boat as we arrive at our dive site. The water seems clearer than I was expecting, with small shoals of tiny fish circling near the surface.  As I descend they’re barely visible through the thick blur of thermocline, but looking more closely they’re picked out sharp against the sun piercing through the water.  There aren’t all that many of them but the small swirling shoal is a welcome and unexpected sight here at Miyagawa Bay.

With its clusters of rocky structures, outcrops and boulders, Miyagawa Bay has been worn down by the action of the waves. It’s a convenient little diving area close to Tokyo, with a series of rock formations waiting to be explored, waters full of soft coral, various species that cover the rocky walls, anemones that fight for space and dives that are packed with colour.  The macro life here is particularly excellent.

We began with the dive site Kasagone, dropping into the water beneath a distinctive cliff-face rock formation.  I descended past a huge rock and a small chamber that opened out into a corridor with its walls almost devoid of life. My light cast eerie shadows along the walls and my splashing about caused a resident eel to look up and hide at the very back of its den.  Swimming past the rock and down to about 15m, I swam straight down a steep rocky wall and, following my guide, ducked beneath some boulders in search of any macro life I could find.  Half-lined cardinal fish flitted about in the blue close by as I followed the boulders around, eventually reaching an area at 16-19m that resembled nothing more than a sandy carpet, with more boulders and rocks dotted here and there. Settling in, I noticed that the site was covered with impressive growths of sponges, soft corals, gobies, nudibranchs and macrolife aplenty.  A black sided pipefish hovered in a tiny crack in one rock, while seductive seahorses, nudibranchs and determined not-to-shift frogfish immediately tempted away the close-up photographers in our group.  I was blown away by the seahorse and able to get very close for a few photos. Hanging out by the rock and taking in its colour and markings as it swayed to and fro in the mild current was simply stunning.

Our next site, Tobine, proved to be just as exciting.  Starting at 10m down a series of rocks, we descended slowly towards a swim-through tunnel carved out of rock and covered with substantial growth including soft coral and sponges.  Moray eels and pipefish hid between the rocks, some with their cleaner shrimp companions, but we’d come here to find harlequin shrimp.  Our guide shone a light into a small cave-like opening and sure enough, there he was, white and blue in the torchlight, watching us sternly as we took turns moving closer for a few photos. There were gorgonians, whip coral and fans everywhere at Tobine, while nudibranchs combed the rocks, a range of them munching on seafans and other growth along the rocks, and the odd two or three sat in gaudy splendour.  This is also a site where you can spend frustrating minutes attempting to find and photograph the small and shy wire coral goby as it sways here and there in the swell. There is a lightly encrusted layer of marine life over the rest of the rocks, with the occasional fish grazing on the growth and cleaning it up.  Before ascending, we popped out on a sandy plateau at the 20m mark and looked up at the quirky, distinctive rocky topographies.  Visibility was around 10-15m, enough to make out the impressive structures rising up into the blue. Nudibranchs, soft coral and even a few sea goldies distracted me as I made my way to the surface.

Visibility here is rarely crystal clear but it can vary tremendously.   Above all, however, prepare yourself to be blown away by the macrolife that has colonised the area. You’ll see a huge amount of nudibranchs, shrimps and tiny critters — surprising for a dive site so close to Tokyo. Everything is in profusion, abundance or even superabundance.  If you want leisurely dives at no more than 20m and plenty of photo opportunities, Miyagawa Bay won’t disappoint.

Practical Information

  • We took an early morning train (Keikyu Line) from Tokyo’s Shinagawa station at around 7:34AM and arrived at Misakiguchi station around 08:50AM.  A single ticket from Shinagawa costs 926yen and the journey takes around an hour and 15mins.
  • We were met at the station by staff from Nana Diving Shop (http://www.nana-dive.net) and taken to Miura Dive Center, a relatively old building at a harbour. The first floor is a communal area (wetsuits allowed), while the second floor consists of a series of tatami rooms where customers can get changed and leave clothes.  The building is quite old and run down but very spacious.
  • Next door to the building are a few showers (ask the staff for shampoo and body soap, otherwise bring your own including a towel) and free tea is available from the dive staff.
  • After changing into your wetsuit or drysuit upstairs, come down to the communal room and leave a small bag including towel, water, sunscreen and anything else you might need in between your dives.
  • The boat is small with room for about 20 divers to sit next to each other.  There is no shade.  Customers set up outside the shop next to the harbour and put their gear on once they are on the boat.
  • The dive sites are no more than 5 minutes away from the harbour.  On clear days you can see Mt Fuji from the boat as well!
  • All entries are backward rolls, and the descent is along a fixed rope.  Ascent is up a ladder.
  • After a briefing at around 09:50AM, the boat leaves for the first dive around 10:00AM.  It then leaves for the second dive around 11:45AM – 12:00PM and returns at 1:00PM in time for customers to get changed, shower and wash gear.
  • Around 2:00PM the staff drive you to one of the local seafood restaurants for lunch. Raw tuna, rice, miso soup and beer are all available. Lunch is also a chance to fill in logbooks and go over the day’s dives.
  • After returning to the dive centre to put gear away, the staff drive customers back to Misakiguchi station around 3:00PM.
  • Nana Diving Center is based in Hayama, slightly north of Miyagawa Bay.  Beach and boat dives are available in the Hayama area, while boat dives only are available at Zushi and Miyagawa Bay.
  • Two boat dives at Miyagawa Bay cost 13,000yen including tanks, guide and weights.

December’s dives

Dive 1: Kasagone: dive number: 215, depth: 19.5m, dive time: 48mins, entry time: 10:19, exit time: 11:07, water temp: 19C, water visibility: 15m, Start pressure: 190 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg weight (backplate only).  Saw neoclinus toshimaenis, Japanese seahorse, lion fish, banded coral shrimp, half-lined cardinal, banded gobies, black sided pipefish hovering in rock, chromodoris orientalis (white nudibranch), hypselodoris festiva (blue nudibranch), jorunna parva (nudibranch), splitlevel hogfish and frogfish.

Dive 2: Tobine: dive number 216: depth: 18.1m, dive time: 46mins, entry time: 12:19, exit time: 13:06, water temp: 17C, water visibility: 15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 50 bar, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest and 3kg weight (backplate only).  Saw harlequin shrimp, frogfish, glossodoris rubroannulata (nudibranch), glass fish, parrotfish, damselfish, threespot dascyllus, goniobranchus tinctorius, yellow chromis and sea goldies.

 

November 2015: Coral Conservation in Ishigaki, Okinawa, JAPAN

Friday November 6th – Tuesday November 10th, 2015

Earlier this year, I was asked by NHK if I would be interested in going to Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island for their travel programme Journeys in Japan, seeing for myself the underwater environment and hearing about efforts to cultivate and protect the coral reefs.

I have dived in Japan for many years, but the warm turquoise ocean off Ishigaki is particularly breathtaking.  Indeed, it’s only fitting that the waters off Shiraho, a village we spent much time in during the filming, are known by two different names; the Sea of Treasure, due to its vast range of marine life, and the Sea of Survival, highlighting its struggles against threats such as climate change and human activity.

Shiraho village looks out over a 12km stretch of coral reef.  The local community’s culture and livelihood have been intimately connected to the sea through festivals, fishery resources and religious rituals, and coral has long been used for food and building materials.  However, increased runoff from red soil from construction sites and the influx of household elements into the sea have increased the burden on the marine environment. Of particular concern has been the effects of the newly-constructed Ishigaki airport which opened in 2013.  Despite government information that marine life is not affected, many at Shiraho are doubtful. Farming along the nearby Todoroki river has also had a negative impact, as well as the increasing number of typhoons.

“The coral deterioration here has definitely been severe,” said Masahito Kamimura of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Japan who spent a great deal of time with us during filming.  He also explained that the spectacular Shiraho waters are home to the third-largest reef system in the world in terms of coral, with the world’s oldest blue coral and over 300 species of fish — all the more reason to offer protection.

In the mid 1980s, the WWF established the Shiraho Coral Reef Conservation and Research Center, or Shiraho Sangomura (Shiraho Coral Village), which Mr Kamimura is in charge of today.  Recently he has been working to champion a model of ecotourism and has established a separate community-based preservation organisation involved in the restoration of traditional fishing tools to prevent coral damage and the establishment of tourism guidelines.  Another program has been launched to plant shell flower, or getto, a species of ginger (Alpinia speciosa) to stop red soil from flowing into the sea.  People in the area have since developed a floral water spray for room fragrance using this plant, and part of the proceeds are put towards coral conservation. Steps are also being taken to restore a traditional fishing technique in which rocks are piled up in walls on the shore or shallow areas of the reef to use the tides to catch fish.  The rocks’ crevices provide an ideal habitat for many organisms, so the technique is being studied once again for possible revival.

During my journey I also visited Shiraho Sangomura‘s Sunday morning market, a weekly event that fosters local industries that use traditional handiwork to produce products such as ornaments made from coral and shellfish, and handkerchiefs dyed with natural materials.  I also saw the getto plant, sampled some rice balls wrapped in its huge leaves and came across some essential oils made from it.  Nearby is a small coral farming centre that grows coral fragments in tanks and plants them back in their natural environment.  Most impressive was the farmers’ efforts to regularly tend to each fragment.  After months of care and maturation the fragments are taken back to the sea and carefully installed. Soon they are taking hold in the reef, forming a new foundation to support the rich bounty of marine life.

Then there’s the diving!  During my time in Ishigaki I was filmed underwater with some spectacular coral and marine life.  There are few sights more awe-inspiring for divers than watching manta rays perform their graceful somersaults and glide majestically through the water, or feel as though you are flying over carpets of healthy-looking coral.  Learning about the island’s conservation efforts gave me much food for thought.  Although I’ve dived off Ishigaki a few times, I’m sure that I and my dive gear will be seeing this island again.

*You can watch my journey to Ishigaki Island on NHK World’s Journeys in Japan, which will be shown on Tuesday December 15th.  More details to follow soon! http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/tv/journeys/index.html

 

 

 

October 2015: Koishihama Bay, Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN

Monday 5th October, 2015

It’s 1AM, and a group of fishermen prepare to go scallop farming off Koishihama Bay near Ofunato in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture.  They spend about 3 hours at sea and return to the port by 4AM, scrubbing and cleaning the scallops, so that by 6AM the shellfish are packed up and ready to be transported across Japan for sale.

It’s been a little over four and a half years since the March 11th disaster destroyed Koishihama’s scallop farming industry, but thanks to local people’s efforts things are now up and running, as fishing boats haul in large catches of Koishihama Hotate, a scallop raised artificially in the area. The scallops, farmed where the Oyashio and Kuroshio currents meet, are known for their thick, tough texture and sweet flavour. Scallop aquaculture began in Koishihama about half a century ago.

This month I returned to Tohoku for a few days to join Sanriku Volunteer Divers in inspecting Koishihama’s underwater scallop farm.  After a 5-min boat journey out into the bay, we began our descent into the cold and murky water.  Visibility wasn’t the best, so we stayed close to a fixed rope as we swam to around 5m.  I seemed to be descending into an area devoid of life that opened out into more and more deep blue water, although the water was clear enough to make out some rock formations below and an impressive drop away into the blue.  My light cast eerie shadows over the rope, highlighting clusters of sea squirts and mussels as well as tiny feeding fish and little critters.

Just then, a row of ropes began to emerge in the distance, like a huge curtain that seemed to spread for miles and miles.  Rising above a vivid backdrop of deep blue, every facet of this grand structure seemed to be covered in something.  The sea was teeming with a few shoals of feeding fish as we began our journey forward. Small jellyfish slowly wafted by next to us, lighting up in our torches.

We’d arrived at Koishihama’s underwater scallop farm, each rope encrusted with healthy-looking scallops and sea squirts, with bits of kelp and seaweed swaying gently in the mild current.  These filter feeders growing into the current were more impressive than other growths I’d seen before.  Gliding weightlessly through the water, we spent 30mins swimming through the structure and floating next to it, using our torches to see whether the scallops were opening and closing, whether they looked healthy and whether any had died and dropped off the ropes.  We were also on the lookout for debris such as nets, wires or plastic bags that had become entangled with the ropes, removing these as we went on our journey. At just over 20m, it’s all too easy to forget how you deep you are here as you become engrossed in the work.  Ascending to the surface later on, my torch caught on some small sea cucumbers and scurrying shrimp-like critters as I passed by.

The tsunami on March 11th swept away the young scallops and the rafts at the farm here, and only 2 of the 40 fishing boats in the bay survived.  Today, 16 of the 17 scallop-farming families in the area have resumed work, and the first scallops were shipped in September 2012. Close to the bay, the Sanriku Railway has reopened, and Koishihama Station’s waiting room contains a huge collection of scallop shells that people have hung over the years with written messages and prayers for good luck. Sanriku Volunteer Divers are also optimistic with the recent completion of a small office next to Koishihama Station, and work in progress to build a bigger dive shop and headquarters further inland.  Going forward, the group is hoping to turn their volunteer work into more of an eco tourist attraction, and to create opportunities for people to learn about the natural environment of Sanriku through recovery efforts.

As for the scallops, they were definitely thriving, and tasted delicious after the dive.

Practical information

  • To get to Koishihama from Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shinhanamaki (this journey takes about 2.5 to 3 hours, single ticket around 13,000yen).  At Shinhanamaki, change to the JR Kamaishi Line and take an express to the final stop, Kamaishi (1.5 hours, single ticket 1,660yen).  From there, take the Sanriku Railway Minami-Rias Line towards Sakari and get off at Koishihama Station (35 mins, single ticket 770yen).
  • I stayed at the Hotel Tsubaki (http://hoteltsubaki.com) in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.  It’s a newly-refurbished Western-style establishment with baths, showers and toilets in each room, towels, hairdryers, shower gel and shampoo, a communal bath on the ground floor, and a Japanese-style breakfast all for 6,200yen a night.  Dinner is also available at an extra cost.  Bicycles can be hired, but the town of Ofunato is a little far on foot, so a car is recommended. Taxis can be arranged from the hotel.
  • Ofunato has a range of places to eat, from Japanese-style dishes to more Western meals but with local ingredients and a Japanese feel.  There are a couple of convenience stores in the town and a decent-sized supermarket.
  • Contact Hiroshi Sato at Sanriku Volunteer Divers (http://sanrikuvd.org, Japanese only) or myself for further information on volunteering, and making the necessary arrangements. Pickups are also available from Shinhanamaki. The group charges 5,000yen for one fun dive, including tanks, weight belts and guide.

October’s dives

Dive 1: Koishihama Bay: dive number: 195, depth:18m, dive time: 32mins, entry time:14:26, exit time: 14:58, water temp: 18C, water visibility: 5m, Start pressure: 190 bar, End pressure: 50 bar, used a 10L steel tank, 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight (plate) and 1kg extra weight in pocket.  Saw…scallops!

August 2015: Bluefin Tuna at the Kinki University Fisheries Laboratory, Kushimoto, JAPAN

*Articles on the story below are due to appear in Intrafish Media’s Fish Farming International magazine (http://fishfarminginternational.com/fish-farming/farm-focus/) and the UK’s The Fish Site (http://www.thefishsite.com) in October. The Laboratory’s work will be covered in more detail, accompanied by plenty of quotes from Professor Sawada and Professor Kato. A big thank you to both Professors for taking the time to show me around! 

Friday August 21st, 2015

In August 2015, I was honoured to visit the Fisheries Laboratory of Kinki University in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture and see its farming operations for myself.  The Laboratory has become known for its work to address the problem of rapidly declining wild tuna populations and in 2002 became the first in the world to cultivate completely farm-raised Pacific bluefin tuna. 

Cultivate the seas!” It was under this philosophy that the Fisheries Laboratory of Kinki University began. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Koichi Seko, the first president of the university, believed Japan would have no future unless people cultivated the seas and more seafood was produced, so he founded the Laboratory in 1948 by first establishing a seaside research facility in the town of Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture. Bluefin tuna farming began in 1970 with the fishing of small juveniles off the prefecture’s coast, and in 2012, 70,000 – 80,000 young fish were successfully produced.

During my visit I spoke to Professor Yoshifumi Sawada, Director of the Laboratory’s Oshima Experiment Station, and Professor Keitaro Kato, deputy head of the Laboratory’s Shirahama Station, who explained the concept of “full-cycle aquaculture,” in other words “raising artificially hatched larvae to adults, collecting their eggs and hatching them to create subsequent egg-laying generations.” We covered vast areas ranging from circular cages on the surface of the water that are used to grow the tuna, to the pros and cons of fishmeal and alternative diets such as those including plant protein.  We also discussed biosecurity, disease prevention and touched upon collisions, which is apparently just as serious a problem as disease.  The large size of tuna — they can grow up to 350kg — can get the fish into trouble with fast-moving tuna-on-tuna collisions inside large farming pens.  These collisions can sometimes have fatal consequences.

Sawada and Kato also described the many challenges and obstacles, including research into alternative feeds to reduce the amount of fishmeal and make operations more sustainable.  One of their very first challenges was to increase survival rates from harvested eggs to hatchlings, and preventing death among the larvae also requires further research. Despite these however, Sawada is confident that their work will contribute to reducing pressure on natural tuna stocks.  “Thanks to our control over all aspects of the bluefin tuna lifecycle,” he told me, “we can offer a stable supply of tuna without depending on fish stocks in the wild.”

The Laboratory’s work is being funded via a business model in which farmed tuna is sent to restaurants owned by the Laboratory in Tokyo and Osaka.  The profits are then used to fund further research and development. Sawada and Kato’s team is also working on getting its farmed population up, and mapping the entire DNA of tuna through blood samples to isolate the best DNA characters for disease resistance, growth and sex identification.

As global populations of bluefin tuna continue to decline because of worldwide demand, the Laboratory’s work couldn’t be more welcome, but only time will tell whether farmed tuna is the way forward.