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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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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