Dive into adventures of the deep

Travel

Dive into adventures of the deep

by: Carlo Niederberger | .
Metropolis Magazine | .
published: May 02, 2013

Palau, the Maldives and the Great Barrier Reef are places most often associated with dazzling diving and unforgettable vacations. And as summer fever kicks in, many Japan-based scuba divers—as well as those planning to take up the sport—are looking to Asia and the South Pacific for thrilling underwater explorations. But few are aware of the subaqueous sanctuaries found in seas closer to home.

Stretching across more than 20 degrees of latitude, the Japanese islands sprout from the sun-soaked, tropical waters of the East China Sea east of Okinawa to the frigid, iceberg-infested Sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido. Divers, needless to say, have plenty to plunge into—and while cold water, dry-suit diving may not be every diver’s cup of tea, plenty of world-class wet-suit dives on wrecks, corals and undersea landscapes lie between the temperate waters off nearby Izu to the unexplored oceans of Okinawa.

Past and present

On April 6, 1945, the USS Emmons, a 2,200-ton destroyer-minesweeper, was one of the armada of US Navy vessels providing support for the invasion of Okinawa. All had been quiet until late in the day, when Japanese kamikaze aircraft began raining down on the fleet. Five suicide planes struck and mortally wounded the Emmons. Fearing the ship would fall into enemy hands, US forces intentionally scuttled it, and the minesweeper quickly disappeared beneath the waves.

It is believed that local fishermen have long known where the Emmons sleeps, and a handful of deep-sea divers have descended upon its decks for the excellent spear fishing found in and around the wreck. But it wasn’t until the Okinawa Summit of 2000 that the Japan Coast Guard stumbled across a small oil slick on the ocean’s surface, and plotted the coordinates showing where the sunken ship was leaking traces of fuel. The “discovery” prompted the local diving community to investigate, and after months of research, a group led by Richard Ruth launched an exploratory dive to find the Emmons, 56 years after it had last seen daylight.
“The first dive was one of shock, surprise and not believing we were still in Okinawa. I had to remind myself to turn on the camera,” recalls Ruth, 36, operator of Fathoms Scuba, one of the first English-language scuba diving shops based in Okinawa. The wreck lies on its starboard side in 45m of water, one kilometer off Kouri-jima, a small island lying northeast of the Motobu Peninsula, near the city of Nago. On a clear day, a diver can make out the hulk from a depth of 25m, but visibility is usually poorer, and the often-strong currents bring in schools of fish and other marine life. Unexploded ordnance lies scattered in some sections of the wreck, and near the gun barrels, according to Ruth, “a broken 20mm anti-aircraft gun sags in defeat.” These potential dangers, as well as the unpredictable currents and the sheer depth of the wreck, make this dive a challenge, and one that is open only to advanced divers trained in deep immersions.

Disappointingly for avid wreck divers, the Emmons is the only plotted wreck dive in and around Okinawa’s mainland. But for those preferring shallower, more tranquil waters and tropical marine life to barnacle-coated derelicts with jagged edges, Okinawa Honto has plenty to offer. “Many of our customers from the States familiar with diving the Caribbean say the variety of fish here is amazing compared to over there,” says Douglas Bennett, who runs Reef Encounters, and who has been a NAUI instructor for nine years. One of Bennett’s top local picks is Sunabe Seawall, a shallow spot that begins at 1.5m and goes no deeper than 18m, the standard limit for open-water divers. “These are some of the best soft-coral reefs in the world, densely packed with a huge variety of soft corals and reef fish,” he explains of the location where numerous entry and exit points, and the shallow depths, allow for a full day of diving and exploration.

Another prime spot is Maeda Point, a wall dive that brings divers face-to-face with batfish, parrotfish, barracudas, emperors, clownfish and more. Currents here are low to moderate, and the 6-34m depth allows divers with a range of experience levels to enjoy the drop-off dive, which also offers a whole different look at night. Okinawa’s other wall dives, intended for the more experienced, include the Zampa Cape, a drop that bottoms out at over 90m with swift currents riding above the abyssal darkness.

But all told, diving off the Okinawan mainland is only a drop in the ocean in terms of what Japan’s southernmost prefecture has to offer for scuba enthusiasts. Those intending to combine a diving vacation with the prolific nightlife of Naha, Okinawa’s largest city with a population of over 300,000, as well as the various sightseeing spots offering a glimpse of the ancient Ryukyu culture, may be content probing no further. Diehard divers, however, should look west to the Kerama Islands, a small archipelago located 40km from the Okinawan capital, where diving is considered out of this world.

Wild west

“Blow-your-doors-off awesome,” is how Bennett describes Kerama, and he, like Ruth, runs quasi-daily trips to the 28-island chain where the ocean floor is carpeted with more than 70 species of hard and soft corals and where the prolific sea life ranges from the tiniest reef dwellers to the largest pelagic species, including manta rays, dolphins and whales. The beauty of Kerama lies partly in the range of dive sites it offers, from shallow, sheltered bays ideal for beginners or learners, to outlying pinnacles protruding from the depths that challenge even the most experienced. The sparse population of the islands means there is little human discharge, and the water is exceptionally clear, with visibility extending as far as the eye can see.

Most of the diving is done around Tokashiki Island, a relatively large outcrop on the eastern border where the ferry from Naha docks. Notable dive spots in the area include San-Tra, where finger reefs rise out of white sand, and rays and sea turtles hover, and Agari Cable, a 21m-deep breeding ground of garden eels and fingernail-brushing cleaner shrimp, with a shallower reef to decompress on while watching rainbow-colored tropical fish darting to and fro. “But my favorite,” Bennett says, “is Twin Rocks, where currents sweep between the pinnacles and form a small bay that’s packed with coral and small fish, while around the outside you can see tuna, jacks, sharks and more cruising the deep drop-off.”

Ruth and Bennett, both former military personnel stationed in Okinawa, can often be seen prowling these waters guiding boatloads of guests, but if there’s a place either would most like to be diving, it’s Yonaguni. The westernmost island in the Okinawan chain is home to superb drift diving through limpid waters, and during the colder months is known to attract hundreds of hammerhead sharks that divers can swim with. Both Fathoms Diving and Reef Encounters conduct regular trips to the frontier island to catch the predators, as well as other breathtaking sites, especially an outcrop of underwater ruins discovered in 1986 that are believed to date back 10,000 years.

Another popular destination around the Ryukyus is Ishigaki Island, considered the hub of the Yaeyama Archipelago, which includes Iriomote, Taketomi and Hateruma islands. The recent completion of a Club Med resort on the island—located near Kabira Bay, named by the government as one of the 100 most picturesque spots in Japan—has provided foreigners with a familiar lodging option. More importantly for divers, it lies minutes from the famed Manta Scramble. With a near 100 percent chance of manta ray sightings in October, this dive site is “definitely worth the trip and much closer than Yap,” the Micronesian isle known as a manta gathering point. Ruth, who claims to have come across as many as 12 different mantas there on a single dive, organizes trips every October and April to bring his clients face-to-face with the giants of the deep.

Home grown

But while the coral reefs and turquoise waters down south may attract the majority of holidaymakers looking to make some bubbles, a whole new world of diving awaits Tokyoites just outside their doorsteps. “I kind of feel bad for those people in Tokyo who think that to have good diving, they need to go down to Okinawa,” bemoans Matthew Endo, 36, who has been a dive instructor for six years and who oversees Mar Scuba, a local full-service dive operation. “It’s warm water down there, sure, but the water is clear and blue with no nutrients. In Izu, you have green water, lots of plankton, seaweed, kelp, this upwelling of warm water from the Philippines, and you just have incredible diving. Izu has some of the best diving in the world.”

Patric Spohn, who heads an international diving operation in Tokyo, TokyoScuba, is one of the first to concur. With scheduled trips to locations all over the Izu Peninsula, TokyoScuba gives its certified divers a taste of everything—from wrecks and caverns to shoals, and, of course, the deep blue, all within the boundaries of Shizuoka Prefecture. Just outside Atami lies the Chinsen (sunken ship), an 85m-long relic shattered into two pieces at a depth of 35m. A buoy marks its location, and divers can circumnavigate it easily and explore the hulk starting at 20m, making it a straightforward excursion for advanced divers. Across the peninsula is Kumomi, where a short boat trip from shore leads to an outcrop of rocks, underneath which lie mazes of caverns. “Very simple and nice diving,” Spohn calls it, because the caves all lead out into the open, which means no specialty cave-diving course is required. Further north sits Osezaki, a popular spot during the summer when hundreds of divers gather along the beach and plunge into the shallows that provide an exemplary training ground for novices. Endo, who also conducts trips there, refers to it as a spot in which to “dive in and find everything.”

Expert divers, though, may want to seek the ultimate thrill at Mikomoto Island, an offshore location that runs right in the path of the Kuroshio Current. “You have to be confident there,” warns Spohn of his preferred dive spot, “since there is a ripping current.” The currents, in fact, sometimes travel in opposite directions, and require sufficient level-headedness and adequate buoyancy skills to stay ahead of the game.

“In the late summer season, if you have the right guide, drift from the main island into the deep blue sea, and stay at about 20m underwater with over 100m below you, you will just run into them—a family of about 120 hammerhead sharks.”

As beautiful as such a sight may be, the ocean can be a perilous place and scuba diving carries with it its inherent risks. For the most experienced divers to those biting on a regulator for the first time, perhaps the most important consideration is finding a guide or instructor one can communicate with comfortably. Fortunately for Tokyoites, the coast is clear.