OKINAWA – A dive destination of note

Japan has a plethora of pacific ocean islands which are unknown to the world; let alone the diving world. There are three main sets of islands south of  Kyushu: the Nansei islands, the  Sakishima islands and the Yaeyama islands. In the south- Ishigaki is the biggest island in the Yaeyama group with a small city, a large naval base disguised as a coastguard facility, and a series of beaches, resorts and an airport that can handle the 737 jets. Irimote is a larger island of primal jungle and a hundred nautical miles to the west is Yonaguni Island- the hammerhead infested rocky outcrop closer to Taiwan than anywhere else. Okinawa- the main Island f is huge, and yet it’s an oceanic island far from the Asian continent. It takes two and half hours to fly from Hong Kong which is the closest point of main-land.  Tokyo a good 3 hour jet flight from Naha International airport. Ostensibly part of Japan, Okinawa is very different to the main islands of Japan; The air and sea temperature are warmer and the atmosphere is very different. The people are slower, the traffic and the public transport basically non-existent. And we won’t beat about the bush; the diving is mindblowing.

Raf Jah investigates Okinawa for Karamanju.com and brings back tales of sea snakes, clear water, coral fields that rival anywhere and a plethora of sharks to boot.

IMAGES AND WORDS: RAF JAH

Japan has a plethora of pacific ocean islands which are unknown to the world; let alone the diving world. There are three main sets of islands south of  Kyushu: the Nansei islands, the  Sakishima islands and the Yaeyama islands. In the south- Ishigaki is the biggest island in the Yaeyama group with a small city, a large naval base disguised as a coastguard facility, and a series of beaches, resorts and an airport that can handle the 737 jets. Irimote is a larger island of primal jungle and a hundred nautical miles to the west is Yonaguni Island- the hammerhead infested rocky outcrop closer to Taiwan than anywhere else. Okinawa- the main Island f is huge, and yet it’s an oceanic island far from the Asian continent. It takes two and half hours to fly from Hong Kong which is the closest point of main-land.  Tokyo a good 3 hour jet flight from Naha International airport. Ostensibly part of Japan, Okinawa is very different to the main islands of Japan; The air and sea temperature are warmer and the atmosphere is very different. The people are slower, the traffic and the public transport basically non-existent. And we won’t beat about the bush; the diving is mindblowing.

Raf Jah investigates Okinawa for Karamanju.com and brings back tales of sea snakes, clear water, coral fields that rival anywhere and a plethora of sharks to boot.

IMAGES AND WORDS: RAF JAH

Okinawa’s history is prevalent. Okinawa itself has scores of islands around what the locals euphemistically call the mainland. Originally called the Ryukyu kingdoms and independent from Japan, the islands were brought under Japanese control before WW2. The second World War has indescribably shaped Okinawa ever since. The American forces needed an island with which to bomb Tokyo, and so took Iwo Jima and Okinawa Jima. The battles were long and bloody and explain the total devastation of Naha. The United States then went on to rule Okinawa until the early 1970’s when Okinawa had a referendum. The vote was precariously close with many voting to remain with the United States, but union with Japan wining the day. To this day, some Okinawans grumble about the authenticity of the vote. In 1973 the Islands were handed over to Japan- and the whole of Okinawa with ancillary islands became a prefecture of Japan.  Regardless of who the civil administrative power was, the United States kept their military bases and thousands of personnel on the islands who remain to this day.

In 1990 a young US Marine called Doug Bennett was posted to Okinawa. He liked the people and he liked the diving. When he tired of protecting his nations’ interests in Africa and Japan, he returned to Okinawa in 1995 and opened a new dive company called Reef Encounters. Doug’s was to become a ground breaking business.

We arrived in Naha Airport on a blustery day. Doug’s youngest instructor Daisuke arrived to collect us. As we drove up north to Chatan, he briefed us on his surprisingly very positive take on Okinawa and the US. “When you see the demo’s – it’s just the same few people. The Americans are a huge part of the Economy here and they are generally very polite and nice people”. Our hotel was more like a motel in that the reception was tiny but the rooms huge. They were very American in their make up, with kitchenettes, microwave, bedrooms, lounges, and TV’s.

“This used to be US officers accommodation for Kadena Airbase” Doug later told me.

The next morning we arrived at the dive centre very late. Huffing and puffing lugging our cold water gear, we had mistaken the distance from the hotel. Daisuke was amused and not bothered.

“Doug had to go to a meeting- he told me that I should take you to the Sunabe sea wall”

We loaded the Reef Encounters minibus with our kit and tanks and drove back to our hotel. We kitted up and climbed over the sea defence wall and walked over the reef top to drop in. This was weird, we were diving off a road, on the exact same place where the US forces had landed on the Island.

The reef started just below the surface of the water. We entered by lying on our backs and paddling a few metres until we reached the edge of a long “cut” or channel that was about 10 metres deep. We descended to 8 metres and started to move along the sandy bottom. I gasped. The water was a chilly 21’c. I had no name 5mm Cambodian wetsuit that I had picked up in Istanbul on the cheap. It was good enough. The cold water seeped up my legs and arms, but 20-21 was not cold enough to make it unpleasant. I twisted the bezel on my momentum dive watch– at least I did not have to wear gloves – I thought to myself.

In order to access the deeper water, we had to swim out through the cut. This was not at all onerous as the walls were paced with hard and soft coral and abounded with fish. Daisuke tried to gather us together and lead us out, but I was mesmerised by some nudibranches and had camera snapping away happily. Doug had briefed him well, and he gave me the leeway a photographer so craves. A highly venimous- sea snake came by and to my consternation found me mesmerising. It played below me and then swirled around my legs giving me some excellent photo opportunities, but doing nothing for my air consumption! Eventually it left me in peace, and went off to play with some other hapless diver. The experience while disconcerting was quite unique. Eventually Daisuke managed to herd us out of the cut and we popped out and turned right. Okinawa is famous amongst the knowledgeable diving community for its macro life. I was expecting the scores of nudibranches and tube worms that we did see; but I found myself astounded by the marine life. Schools of small jacks and fusiliers sped by. The visibility has been promised as 10metres but even on this grey day I could see 20m. The soft coral was as exquisite and colourful as any in south east asia. It waved gently in the sea action as we swam by. The end of the cut made a natural north south facing wall, but spurs of reef stuck out to sea in an easterly direction. These made for long shallow walls that started at 10m depth and went down to 20m.

 

Daisuke now came into his own. He knew exactly where we were, took us along the reef spurs into deeper and deeper water. Then we would head off into the blue and find a coral bommie packed with anthias, nudibranches, moray eels, and “critters various”. My air was not doing well with the excitement and the photography. I signalled Daisuke and he led us back to the sea wall.

We climbed out as a pair of F22 raptors flew overhead and landed at Kadena. We switched tanks over and had an onagiri for lunch. A ball of rice wrapped in spinach with a salmon interior. A Hercules sailed lazily by as Daisuke told us that a decent interval had ensued. We strapped our tanks on, I adjusted my bezel and swam out to repeat the experience. This time we did not turn right but left. Again my air did not last as long as I would have liked. As we climbed out a second time, I was left feeling that I had barely touched the surface of the Sunabe Sea Wall diving area.

Without wishing to sound overly dramatic, I was simply blown away by what could only be described as Okinawa’s house reef. Sure it was only 22m deep, it lacked massive pelagic action but under the flight path of a US Airbase and diving the most dived site in Okinawa, (which was still not crowded) we were presented with impressive tropical diving.

The Sunabe seawall is one of the many dive sites on Okinawa, but the Kerama Islands, 20 miles off the east coast of the Okinawa mainland were reputed to be the special dive location of the Northern Ryukyus.

Reef Encounters has an impressive Taiwanese dive boat that looks suspiciously like a Bertram. A team of us were now assembled; Scots, English, American along with our Japanese guides Daisuke and Toyo. Doug was our skipper and we assembled at the marina early in the morning. The weather was idyllic but the sun had not come out.

“I cannot believe this is February man” Doug muttered as our twin diesel engines opened up and we steamed into the channel. I sat on the flying bridge, ostensibly taking photos, but really just chatting to Doug, picking his brains about the Ryuku Islands.

These islands and their beauty fascinated me. Their size was massive, and yet the Japanese had built carefully and with some taste. Naha was a city but a small city, and the resorts on the northern coast were built with an eye to blend into the greenery. The only downside of Okinawa was that the tourism infrastructure was almost entirely designed for the Japanese. The presence of the US forces had created an English speaking section of the Japanese populous who made their business serving Americans. These people were only too happy to adapt their services for tourists. What made it all work was the sheer friendliness of the Okinawans. When we took a bus somewhere- the bus drive would explain in single words or hand signals what we needed to do next. Where communication failed, the sheer goodwill of the average Okinawan would bridge the gap- and we, as tourists always felt extremely welcome, and safe to get lost.

My thoughts were interrupted as a series of rocks appeared at the side of the boat. Classic Okinawa Fishing boats sat at the edge of a clear light green reef with the men casting their nets as they always have. Away from the reef, water was a gorgeous blue. We motored slowly on around the reefs and between some islands.

“Some say there are 27 Islands here and some say 5” Doug drawled. “It sorta depends upon how high the tide is”

“How many dive sites do you have? ”

“Oh about 200” he replied nonchalantly. We were only to do three this day.

We circled a large rock masquerading as an Island. Goats strolled around on the steep grass that came down to black rock cliffs.

 Doug stopped the boat and moored up. We rolled into the water- between twin rocks – a site called: kuroshima. We dived along a wall which led off onto a spur which joined onto one of the other rocks making an Island. Daisuke took his divers around the Island, but we could not get past the main coral strewn wall.

The colour of Okinawa is everywhere

The water was clear with 30m visible in all directions. Small yellow soft corals were surrounded by angel fish. We descended lower and lower to some emperors who were sitting at depth. Around a fan. They watched us lazily, not bothered by our appearance at all. I snapped them and the twin flashes of my camera popped and lit them dramatically. I looked at my guage. We had reached 32m. My computer was downcalucating rapidly and I did not really want to go into decompression. I signalled Cisca and asked what she wanted to do. She motioned up and along – so we slowly ascended to 10 metres. At that point Daisuke appeared out of the gloom and brought his divers back past us to headed for the boat and reef top. We thought we should also return but took our time. We came shallower on the wall until we came to 10 metres and then moved along what was the base of hill. Just before coming back to the anchor line, we entered a narrow underwater defile with a series of small caves or cracks to the left and right. The surge pushed us up through the gaps and we had to hang on to glance in at the sweepers and nudibranches. We managed to spend another 15 minutes in this shallow location, but in our thick suits and heavy weights made every movement an effort and my air consumption was hammered.

We swam back to the top of a coral cliff where the boat was moored and went to do our safety stops.

Our next dive was on a large square rock in the middle of the ocean. Named Azu’s cave it was marked by a black and white post warning passing boats about the rock. The sea had picked up slightly and we dropped in and entered the rock. We literally swam 20metres through in the most dramatic swim through. All the way along the tunnel emperors mingled around the large gorgonian fans. I kept stopping to look up, with my strobes on torch mode. I felt I could spend half an hour in here alone, but I did not want to test Daisuke’s patience. As we exited the cabe, Daisuke led the group forward. He motioned me and asked if we wanted to join. We could not. The rock was so large, and such a magnet of life, that we opted to stay there.

As he headed off, we circled it, slowly at 20metres depth, taking in the fans and fish. Daisuke had headed off down a sand river; I noted it for future reference, waved and he was gone. The surge pushed us around the rock -This was big boys diving, it took all of our skill to stay stableand enjoy what we were looking at. Lion fish crawled all over one wall and soft coral and fans on the other. The leeward sides of the rock being more alive than the others.

After our circuit we thought we should follow Daisuke. I thought had selected the correct sand river and finned slowly up the coral trench. In this way we kept our selves away from the current. Schools of jacks and emperors sped by clearly on their own business. When our air getting low, I looked around. There was simply nowhere to do a multi level dive. Nowhere to do a stop and look at anything. So I sent a buoy to the surface and we ascended to stop.

We surfaced and the The weather had taken a definite turn for the worse. I looked around and inflated my BCD even more. I could now see for miles. I saw a spot and waved the SMB. The boat was there, and turned towards us.

“Sorry dude,” Doug shouted from the bridge ”The others came up miles away and then a pod of whales turned up so we watched them”

“no stress” I gasped as I climbed up the ladder laden down with my kit “the dive was awesome- and we knew you were coming”

The weather had turned and Doug wanted to be closer to home. Doug took us to Nagando Reef, North wall Where we all jumped in to 18m water and landed on a reef. We were in full drift. This time we stayed glued to Daisuke and sped along the reefs and sand. A sea snake followed us for a while, and then a reef shark appeared; it swam alongside us and then wandered off on its own business. In the midst of the dive we spotted a leaf fish and had the interesting experience of trying to shoot a macro photo in a 3 knot current- I think I just about managed it. By the time we surfaced we had covered an impressive distance and it was almost stormy. I climbed back onto the boat with the others and we steamed the last few miles home.

A few days later Daisuke was roped into dropping us off at Naha Airport. It was sad saying goodbye to the Reef Encounters team- they were excellent professional divers who guided us and others through calm and advanced diving. They were super safe and took the time to demystify Okinawa for us.

 
KNOW AND GO- PLANNING YOUR TRIP:

The keramas are a hidden gem. Famous in Japan for their diving, they are a world class destination with Sharks, Mantas, Orcas, schools of fish and macro creatures.

Japan however is unique. The public transport on the mainland is excellent but in Okinawa it is non existent. You will end up hauling your kit all over airports train stations and often enough down the street. Divers are encouraged to take single wheelie bag and keep kit down to a minimum Such as reg suit mask and fins. Reef Encounters have excellent aqualung BCD’s and Regulators. . Spring and summer are idyllic with tropical water and air temperatures

Divers have a variety of choices. They can book direct with Reef Encounters: www.reefencounters.org   Tel   +81 98 9959414

Or they can book through global Dive Specialists African and Oriental

www.orientafricatravel.com . African and Oriental have a close relationship with Reef Encounters and can add Micronesia and other locations to you itinerary. You never pay more with A&O.

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