The Diving in Japan Series - Part 3- Diving for Debris: Tohoku's Underwater Recovery Efforts

Bonnie Waycott
14 April 2014

Diving for Debris: Tohoku's Underwater Recovery Efforts

When talking about diving and Japan, it's worth taking a moment to pause and remember the country's biggest natural disaster - the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11th, 2011.  The destruction caused by the resulting tsunami meant there was plenty of restoration work to be done at sea.  As Bonnie Waycott explains, efforts are being made through diving to restore the affected areas.

 *All underwater photos Copyright Sanriku Volunteer Divers

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.

Three years on, work continues and there is still much to be done. During a recent diving exhibition in Tokyo, I talked to Hiroshi Sato who explained that the group is now much bigger and well known, but a lot of work remains. With about 3,000 volunteers, both Japanese and foreign, debris continues to be removed and much of the large items have been successfully cleared away. Because of slightly strict regulations among some fisheries-related groups, it has been harder to access and clean some areas than others but on the whole there is progress. The divers can also dive for fun in their spare time. During a dive it's possible to see scallops, sea squirts, lumpfishes, flat greenlings and eel grass.  The group is also making efforts to cultivate scallops, seaweed, oysters and sea squirts, and conducts ecology investigations and underwater surveys before setting up aquaculture farms. It also visits primary and junior high schools, introducing the group's activities and using underwater photos to show the children what it's like under the sea. Schools in the area have recently begun holding lessons on reconstruction and the group plays an active role in these.  For adults, exhibitions, seminars and talks are held in big cities such as Osaka and Tokyo.

One of the main attractions in the affected regions used to be the Salmon Swim in a nearby river.  Hiroshi had negotiated with local fishermen so people could don a mask and snorkel to observe the salmon return and run upstream after 4 years' migration through the open ocean.  Today the salmon are beginning to come back and Hiroshi is also working with aquaculture facilities along the river that farm the fish and release them into the water when they are fully-grown.

In future, the group aims to widen the area they are working in and clean up placesthat haven't been touched yet. Other projects in the works include exchanges among fishing villages, charity diving and observing the salmon. The group are also looking at turning their activities into an eco-tourist attraction, offering the chance to learn more about the affected areas through volunteering.

It's also vital to continue record keeping and spread the word about the latest activities but Hiroshi expressed the importance of showing gratitude by constantly thanking those who have given up their time to volunteer. What's made the biggest impression on him, he says, is the strong bond between the divers and fishermen who all get on extremely well. As one fisherman apparently told him, "we have been through so much because of the disaster but there have been joyous occasions too, in particular the sheer number of people who have come from all across Japan, and indeed abroad."

*Unfortunately the group's website (http://sanrikuvd.org/) is only available in Japanese but please email info@sanrikuvd.org for further information or you can contact me through the Dive Report website.  You can also read about my volunteering experience by clicking on my blog entry here (http://bonniewaycott.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/november-2011-sanriku-volunteer-divers-tohoku-japan/)

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