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Bonnie Waycott

In early June, hoards of divers and non-divers arrive for an annual clean-up project aimed at removing debris and litter from the lake bottom and surrounding areas.  The lake is around 900 meters in altitude and goes down to a depth of around 138m.  Following a Mount Fuji eruption in the 9th century, a large prehistoric lake separated into three smaller ones that are still connected with each other by underground waterways.  LakeMotosuko is one of the three.

Before the clean up, divers can pick up a map from the organizers, which marks out areas with the most litter.  Once separated into pairs, they are then free to choose where they want to go and head right in.  The lake is caked in thick sediment (ash and silt) so stable buoyancy is crucial.  Kicking hard will stir up the sediment and worsen visibility, making things difficult not just for yourself but also for your buddy and in the worst case you can lose each other altogether.  Each buddy pair also has a mesh bag to put the litter into so the diver with the bag must remain suitably buoyant as his or her load becomes heavier.  

Upon descent, the underwater scenery begins with a slope of sediment and volcanic rocks, strewn with items like fish hooks, fishing lines, beer cans, plastic containers, hair ties and small boxes that once contained takeaway meals.  Usually the clean up is conducted at a maximum depth of around 9-10 metres.   A lot of debris is simply dumped into Lake Motosuko due to the camp sites, excursion boats and windsurfing facilities that are close by, while pollution from various water activities has made the lake cloudy so despite swimming carefully, visibility is not altogether great.  However, there is some life to be spotted such as weed-like plants and some large grey fish that are probably a type of trout, as rainbow and brown trout are known to inhabit the lake in addition to shrimp and other smaller fish.  At 16 degrees the water is cold.  Wearing a dry suit is the best option by far but it’s possible to cope in a 5-7mm wetsuit and a 3mm hood and vest underneath.  A hood and gloves are also essential.  Due to the altitude and low temperature, 30 minutes is the recommended time to stay underwater.

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Bonnie Waycott

Miyakojima Island is the place to go for limestone and unique dive sites created by natural forces, seismic and volcanic activity.  Diving here is a chance to explore another world with fascinating geographical features.  The island is about 300km from the Okinawa mainland, with spectacular coral reefs, huge tunnels, rocks, arches and caves.  A couple of ocean currents that pass north of the island bring with them a sea of nutrients, plankton and an array of fish, adding to an already-vibrant and fascinating underwater environment.

Most of the caves and arches are winding, horizontal or stepwise tunnels which open out into more sandy wide areas and smaller coral reefs.  Some are as deep as 40m to 70m and some inner parts can be almost or totally dark.  The seawater in the area has very low energy and the sediments found along the bottom are generally very fine.  A lot of the main dive sites that offer this kind of environment are found along Irabuisland, one of the many islets around Miyakojima.  One site here, Gakeshita, consists of a large rock surrounded by smaller ones that divers can meander through.  The surfaces are covered in anemones that all shield varying kinds of clownfish while it's also possible to spot trumpet fish, shaded batfish, purple queens and peach fairy basslets.  The abundant sea life is evident at all depth ranges, allowing divers to see plenty of variety.  Because of the coral in the shallower depths, this site is good for getting a feel for two totally different environments - coral gardens and limestone. 

 

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Bonnie Waycott

If you'd rather swim around and meet turtles, this is the place to be as well because Shiotobiya is the home of Yamachan, Tokunoshima's famous green sea turtle that's lived in the area for over 10 years.  His mountain-like shell (Yama is mountain in Japanese) means he stands out from the other turtles and normally he grazes off the rocks at around 10-15m or simply drifts about.  Far from being camera-shy, he is more than happy for divers to swim up close and take his photo. 

The island is not all boat dives, and if you'd rather enter the water calmly and quietly, you'll be taken to Senma Bay, where at four meters, over a flat bed of rocks, the site actually looks like any other with blennies, butterfly fish, angelfish and Moorish Idols.  But keep descending to about 16 or 17 meters and you'll come to a sharp drop with a sandy bottom in the distance.  The journey down is a great chance to see up close Tokunoshima's rough and rugged underwater terrain, full of small openings, cracks and crevices.  The next lionfish or nudibranch could be just around the corner and large specimens of the endangered green turban shell also call the bay home.

Even though Tokunoshima is not that well known, it's a surprisingly good place to visit with a range of points suitable for both beginners and advanced divers.  There's plenty of marine life to keep everyone occupied, as well as the odd swim-through to negotiate, and all at reasonably shallow depths.  Just keep your eyes open and enjoy the experience!

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Bonnie Waycott

A lot has been written about the manta rays that congregate off Ishigaki Island in Japan's Okinawa prefecture.  But there's a lot more to this southern tropical paradise....

Ishigaki Island's coastline offers a good variety of dive sites but most visiting divers are lured to Manta Scramble, one of the island's most famous points.  As the name clearly suggests, this is where manta rays gather, or rather scramble, to feed on plankton and be cleaned.  Below them, divers can look up and marvel at this spectacular underwater show.  Out of the blue depths the manta rays appear and float gracefully, encircling you with an incredible ease of movement.  Manta Scramble is something of a rendez-vous spot for these beautiful creatures and worth a visit if you are a diver in Japan.  This is because getting up close and personal with these harmless giants makes for a dive that won't soon be forgotten.  If you're lucky enough to witness the graceful manta gliding and somersaulting through the sea, you'll be in awe.

With much focus on manta rays, dives off Ishigaki Island tend to always involve a visit to Manta Scramble if conditions are good, but if luck is not on your side and the manta rays don't appear, never fear because there is still a lot to see.  Schools of anthias fish give their name to Osaki Hanagoi Reef or Anthias Reef, which houses rocks swathed in gorgonians and othercoral structures that explode in a range of colour.  Deeper down, dark labyrinths seem to rise from the seabed producing an interesting contrast.  The huge structures offer refuge for a multitude of big and small animals.  From the many cracks, tropical species like sea goldies and white-rayed shrimp gobies dart here and there while honeycomb moray eels and leopard morays remain on guard, watching you intently and poking out from below.  Other sites are home to a mix of sprawling table corals, star and brain coralsthat are absolutely buzzing with a variety of angels, butterflies and much more.  Most of this coral can be found at 6-8 meters and there is a range of macrolife so fans of smaller creatures will want to pay close attention.

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Bonnie Waycott

The sea off Yoronto is almost permanently a tropical turquoise and shallow water stretches for miles out towards the reef.  The marine life is flushed withbright blue water and visibility can be superb.  The diving involves plenty of shallow sandy areas as well as drop offs, arches, tunnels, crevasses and narrow passageways. Huge monoliths also rise from a depth of over 30m ending at around 15m from the surface while collections of pinnacles of varying sizes add to the rugged topography of the dive sites.  At 34-35m lies a boat, said to have sank around May 1993.  With the right planning it's possible to dive this wreck but it's just as spectacular if you remain at 20-25m and look at it from above.  When the current is relatively strong, schools of white tuna and bluefin trevally are known to drift by.  The area surrounding the wreck is not home to much but the ascent is a natural amphitheatre - big coral mounds and lovely hard corals where nudibranchs, schools of longfin batfish and square fairy basslets reside. 

Several swim throughs and reef canyons burrow through other dive sites that are beautifully sculptured with a range of small and large crevasses and arches.  Some of the passageways here are particularly narrow so you need to keep your equipment close to you and maintain good neutral buoyancy but they are teeming with macro life and great for close up shots of anything you might find. Turtles and squid often play over the surface of these passageways while the best coral growth is there too, and tiny reef fishes dart in and out of the branch coral.  Blue banded snappers and triggerfish also feature in a variety of interesting settings, while porites coral also inhabits vast swathes of the area, housing a never-ending forest of Christmas tree worms of every colour in the spectrum that disappear instantly as you approach, only to open again very slowly once they know you are out of sight.

 

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Bonnie Waycott

The scale and destruction of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami were beyond anyone's expectations.  Three years on, the disaster is still very much on people's minds with images of the giant wave and destruction still vivid.   In the months immediately after the disaster, I began looking online for volunteer work that involved diving or anything marine-related when one day I came across Sanriku Volunteer Divers, a group that's been diving almost everyday since March 2011 to continue restoring the affected regions.

Hiroshi Sato, who established the group, comes from Iwate Prefecture, one of the most badly hit areas.  He was working as a dive guide in Thailand when the disaster struck.   Immediately he returned home and began helping out, when one day he was told that as a diver, he could help recover the debris that had been washed out to sea.  This led to a huge underwater clean up and as word spread, other divers began joining in. Today volunteers from all over Japan and abroad are being accepted into and assigned to appropriate projects.  It's important to note that those who wish to participate in underwater activities need a good deal of experience - Rescue Diver at the very least.  Non-divers can also join in by helping out on land and assisting the divers.

With a rope around their waists, the divers are paired with another volunteer who waits on land holding the end of the rope.  They descend slowly to about 6-10m and are often underwater alone so they must be 100% comfortable with their equipment and any potential dangers such as getting tangled or stuck.  Once their ropes have been securely tied to an item of debris, they pull on the rope a couple of times and the person on land brings the debris up. 

If an item needs to be lifted with care or cannot be removed without specialist equipment, the divers ascend to explain this to those on land.  Because they ascend and descend quite often, good ear-clearing skills are a must. Cranes are used to remove anything big such as tree trunks, while fishing nets, fishing gear, branches, trays or car tires can be more easily taken away.  The debris is then sorted as much as possible, while personal items like handbags are put aside and cleaned in case someone later claims them.

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