Love and Radiance:  Sunflowers of the Ryukyus


“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind.  Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention.  Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!

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27324539151_6bbb25bba7_bThe Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century.  Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly.  As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.

Radiance and Sunflowers

Radiance and Sunflowers

27358829101_8b6fd30fcf_bNot only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot.  Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera.  The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over.  But more so in Japan.  So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.

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26823387523_4c9bdf3e89_bHanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers.  Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords.  If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship?  Wear this one.  Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering?  Wear that one.  This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell.  In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words.  More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.

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27120015580_47ce4d0a95_bThese pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory).  The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting.  There’s just something about sunflowers that is special.  I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both.  Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.

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27154089480_6e3e0fe7bc_bIn Japan, flowers are not just given to women.  And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States.  The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received.  Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.

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For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty.  Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.

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Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum:  A Moving Visit


“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-1-early-morning-disasterkobe-earthquakeOn January 17, 1995 at 5:46 in the dark, cold morning, the city of Kobe and the surrounding area of Osaka, Japan, were rocked by a massive earthquake in what became to be known as “The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake”.  The region, home to some 3.5 million people and an economic center of Japan, was devastated.  Electricity, water, gas, transport and most emergency services were left inoperable, many for weeks.  Innumerable structures were damaged or destroyed, directly by the quake, or by fires which raged the city afterwards.  Survivors were left to face the cold winter with nothing.  Worst yet, the quake destroyed 249,180 homes, and left 6,434 people dead and another 43,792 injured and in need of medical care.

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Jody and I have a vested interest in learning about earthquakes; they are an all-too-common occurrence in Okinawa (see Love and the Ring of Fire for more).  The Kobe Earthquake Museum, more officially known as the tongue-twister “The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution” (DRI), was opened in 2002 to commemorate the tragic event and to educate visitors about earthquakes and disaster mitigation and prevention.  The museum includes a theater, life-sized dioramas, and expansive exhibits halls, all of which catalog the cataclysm in great detail.

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maxresdefault-1Please note that this is not a casual stroll at your own pleasure visit.  Guests are queued for hard start times, where they are shuttled to the upper floors as a group to a movie screening.  Standing in the theater, a powerfully moving bass creates tactile soundscapes, and a 3-dimensional large screen supports stunning visuals, which when combined offer a fairly immersive experience of that fateful morning.  The roughly seven minute movie leaves most speechless.  But keep in mind that in reality the death and destruction depicted took only about 20 seconds….

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After the movie guests are quickly herded through a life-size diorama depicting scenes of damage from the quake.  Personally, these types of displays are some of the most interesting, and I would like to have lingered here, taking in the experience.  Unfortunately, at this point you are on the museum’s time, and out you go.  Oh, and by the way, no photos are allowed in these areas (of course).

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bn-gm010_0116j__j_20150116014629Next guests will find themselves in a large exhibition hall filled with photos, exhibits, and audio commentary detailing every aspect of the disaster and recovery you could imagine.  There are extensive displays on how the people and the government attempted to deal with the devastating effects of the catastrophe.  There are English-speaking docents here, and a free English audio guide is provided, keyed by numbers displayed on the various exhibits.  I must admit, the sheer amount of information presented here is overwhelming; it’s hard to take in so many accounts and data of such an event….  Two of the most moving stories I encountered, and will never forget, both involve the death of a loved-one.  In one, a man recounts that his wife was injured in bed when their home collapsed, and although she was still warm when he put her in his car, she was already cold when he went to remove her at the hospital.  Still more tragic, a sister recalls escaping the collapsed wreckage of her home and locating her sister, still pinned in place by debris.  As a fire started to consume the remains of their home, the sisters had to part, one telling her family to leave her to save their selves, the other having to listen helplessly to her sister die in the flames….

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kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-rebuilding-and-recovery-montage-wmVisitors proceed down in the main building after the exhibit hall, where various other interesting information and simulations are provided.  Crossing a skybridge to a secondary building, the focus shifts to water disasters and how prepare, mitigate and respond more effectively and efficiently to such calamities.  Little things, like anchoring furniture resulted in many escaping the quake uninjured.  There was also a tongue-in-cheek traveling exhibit on, what else, but the potty!  Seriously, after weeks and sometimes months without potable water, human waste became a huge and dangerous problem during recovery efforts.  Games and experiments are offered throughout to help visitors learn about natural disasters and how to minimize risk and damage in future.  The focus in this second facility, however, seems to be more focused on children.

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Jody and I spent a morning at the museum, more an archive of first-hand testimonials than almost anything else.  This catalog of suffering goes far in meeting the self-stated goal of the DRI:  ensuring that the lessons of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake are never forgotten.  We left impressed about not just the extent of damage and loss of life, but more indelibly imprinted was how quickly Kobe and the entire area recovered after the tragedy.  A revival made possible only through people helping people, which in the end, is all it takes to make a genuine difference.

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Location:  Located in HAT Kobe, a relatively new city district east of the city center.  A ten minute walk from Iwaya Station on the Hanshin Main Line, or in a 15 minute walk from Nada Station on the JR Kobe.

Website:  http://www.dri.ne.jp/en

Hours:

October-June:  09:30 to 17:30

July-September:  09:30 to 18:00

Fridays & Saturdays:  from 09:30 to 19:00

Closed on Mondays, December 31st and January 1st

Admission

Adult:  600 yen, discounts for secondary students, elementary & junior high students free

River Rats: Trekking to Tadake Falls


I'm my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

I’m my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

Hiji Falls?  Yep, a grand meandering nature trail which follows a snaking river to a delightful waterfall.  But where the river cannot be enjoyed as it is roped off in most locations.  And where swimming is not allowed, supposedly made too dangerous due to rocks and freshwater parasites.  Ah, the intersection of both American and Japanese cultures of fear.  Want to get wet and trek up a river through the jungle and enjoy climbing behind, in, and even up to a high and pounding waterfall?  Then Tadake Falls must be your next off-road adventure on Okinawa.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking with our Japanese friendsTadake Falls, which I have also found on some maps written as “Tatake,” offers magnificent river trekking.  There’s not just an unprepared trail here, there is no trail.  No, the trail is the river running through the dense Okinawan rain forest.  And that means in various points there is deep water to wade across, rocky constrictions to scramble across, and even a rope swing or two along the way for the more daring to try!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, happy in the Okinawan jungle

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, a river runs through itJody and I decided to try the trek on a summer weekday morning in August, the height of the Okinawa oppressive summer.  Thinking that the crowds would be smaller and that we would be beating the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, we set out early.  WRONG!  Although the falls has been historically a somewhat hidden treasure on Okinawa, the increased tourism to Okinawa, combined with a number of recent articles about the fall trek in the American periodicals on the Island has turned what surely was once a quiet, tranquil hike into a still enjoyable journey, just with a slew of Japanese and American like-minded visitors.  And one inherent with problems finding parking.

There are some really rocky stretches!

There are some really rocky stretches!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, navigating the streamOh, did I mention that the trail here is the river?  Unlike at Hiji Falls, itself a worthwhile visit and hike, come prepared to get wet – that’s the whole point!  Water shows are a MUST since the path is totally improvised and quite rocky.  And although we lathered up with sunscreen before embarking on our latest adventure, it really wasn’t needed, at all.  The path is almost completely shaded by the jungle’s canopy, encroaching overhead from both sides of the river.  And although our visit was during the sweltering Okinawan summer, the shade combined with a forested breeze and the downright cold river water kept us calm, cool and content.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, beginning our trek

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, fall colorsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, dragonfly friendIt takes about 30 minutes or so to get from the trek’s starting point to the falls.  That is unless you stop to enjoy nature in all her wondrous ways.  Or perhaps you decide to try a rope swing into the river’s refreshing water (but be wary of the Tarzan-esque vines found everywhere!).  Or maybe you stop just to float for a break in one of the deeper pools fed by a mini-waterfall found along the way.  The hike is not hard, and often easier for unflinching, lower-center-of-gravity humanoids we call kids.  Just take your time and watch your footing.  Although you don’t have to be an athlete to journey to the falls and back, I would not suggest this particular adventure for anyone with back, knee or foot problems, or those who are unsure of themselves on their feet.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking through the river

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, managing the rocksOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jungleMake sure you take your leisure along the way.  Make time to appreciate nature’s beauty that here folds around and over you like a thick, green umbrella.  While the walk is predominantly shaded, tantalizing glimpses of bright blue sky can be spied through the canopy’s gaps.  Colorful leaves in the water, brilliant and not bashful dragonflies, and thousands of gemstone-like rocks offer innumerable distractions along the way!  The riverbed is mostly firm, coarse sand and pebbles, but there are areas of soft sand, and still others that consist of jagged and sharp rocks.  Although there is a warning about the river and its potential hazards at the head of the trail, the river was quite low, with very little current.  Most of the river is no more than knee-deep, maybe waist at a couple of points, and the deepest parts can be completely bypassed on land if you do not wish to swim.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, peaecful waterfall and cairnsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyEverything changes, however, once you round a river bend to the right and arrive at Tadake Falls!  Water comes cascading down with force from a cliff sixty feet overhead.  The water turns into a showering spray at the base, pushing away a cushion of air that is surprisingly powerful.  In front of the waterfall is a large pond, perfect for swimming and lounging.  Its comfortably sandy bottom has a fairly steep slope, and quickly reaches a depth where wading is necessary.  In front of this pool across from the falls you will find some nice areas to set up camp or a picnic, in sandy patches or on rocky ledges of your choice.

Watch your skirts - there's a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Watch your skirts – there’s a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, climbing around the fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyThe fall’s water hole itself gets deep as you near the falls, but be careful – there are “hidden” rocks underneath in the areas to the falls’ left and right.  If you approach the falls from its sides, you can find a slippery rock ledge that will take you fully behind the falls.  And, as you look at the falls from across the pond, a rock pinnacle to the left allows for catapulting jumps into the falls’ pond!  The water is a cold spring-fed 70 degrees, and can be quite a shock, but one which quickly passes as you acclimate.  There is also a trail that leads up to fall’s source, but it is almost impossibly steep (and unprepared).  We did see a number of people take this excursion; Jody and I were happy enough to stay and enjoy the falls from down below.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, victory at the falls

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, tall fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jumping for joyDo yourself a favor and pack a few things for the trip.  Wear a bathing suit and water shoes for the trek.  I do not recommended scuba booties unless they are the kind with rubber tread that offers some traction; the felt kind so common here would be very slippery on the slick rock found all along the river.  Snacks and drinks are really nice to have at the waterfall, but of course you’ll have to trek them in and out.  Sunscreen was not really necessary, and neither was bug spray – put both on if you are the paranoid type, they won’t hurt.  Taking any or all this will necessitate a waterproof bag or the need to bypass on land the deeper parts of the river.  But what you really want is a place to leave/lock your keys, towels for when you get back to the car, and a change of clothes makes the long trip back home much more comfortable.  To top off an adventuresome morning, stop by Café Captain Kangaroo for one of their unbeatable burgers.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Jody's attention signage at the falls

DIRECTIONS:  Do yourself a favor and take the Expressway all the way to the end, and then the Nago bypass tunnel, which will save you a TON of time and frustration avoiding 58.  It will still take you about an hour to get there.  Taking a right on 58 once out of the tunnel, and note then you hit the Family Mart (on the left) where the turnoff for Yagachi Island is found.  About 7 kilometers further down the road, you’ll reach the “Henan” bridge, which you’ll know from the colorful blue and red pillars covered in hearts on either end.  You can take either the road just before or just after this bridge – they meet up at the same place once inland, but there is a small sign for the falls just before crossing the bridge, one you’ll probably notice too late to make the turn!  Follow a curvy road for almost 3 kilometers, and stay on the “main” road.  You’ll think you are lost, but keep going; you’ll know when you have arrived at the falls.  A large “warning” sign serves as the head of the trail, and while there are a few parking spots there (4 or 5 cars at the most), you’ll most likely have to keep going straight and park along a long stretch of the road running along the river.  Parking options here are VERY limited, and some people had to walk quite a distance just to get to the river.  If you have any question about whether you are in the right place, look for Japanese wearing brightly colored full-size life vests.  Then simply follow them!

Map Tadake Falls

Whale of a Time! Diving with Okinawan Whale Sharks


Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 2 WM

The animal passed closed abeam to me, close enough that I could stretch out an arm and allow my hand to brush against the length of its flesh as it swam by. I was breathing slowly, trying to take in as much sensory perception as I could, this being my first time swimming with such massive creatures. But just as the gentle giant was halfway past, it decided on a rather abrupt change of course. In doing so, its tail started a full swing in my direction with speed and force. Seeing it coming and knowing I was no more than a rubber ducky in bathtub, I turned to take the impact on my back. “UGH” I went as the tail struck solidly, and then smoothly shoved me aside. Spinning back around, I was able to see the tail, as tall as I, complete its strong follow-through. Truly a massive and powerful creature!

The whale shark is a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known living fish, the largest confirmed had a length of 41½ feet, weighing in at about 47,000 pounds. Unconfirmed reports of considerably larger whale sharks abound (and manatees are thought to have provided the basis for mermaids – riiiigggghhhhht). They are, by far, the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, and are thought to have originated about 60 million years ago.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, watching from the net WM

They are found in open waters of the tropical oceans where water is warmer than 71°F. With lifespans believed to approach 70 years, sexual maturity is not reached until they are about 30. Whale sharks have very large mouths which they use to filter-feed mainly on plankton. Despite its size, the whale shark does not pose significant danger to humans. Whale sharks are docile fish; younger whale sharks are gentle and often play with scuba divers. They are considered harmless to humans.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, Tori with the Shark WM

Okinawa has one of the most fabulous aquariums in the world, one of the few which display multiple whale sharks in captivity. The Ocean Expo Park Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館) welcomed its 20 millionth visitor already in March of 2010, and was for a time the largest aquarium in the world until the Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005. Chura means “beautiful” or “graceful” in the Okinawan dialect, and umi means “ocean.”

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, diver dwarfed WM

And while the whale shark can be experienced in the wild in various places around the globe, in all my travels and 1,000 dives, I’ve encountered only one off Pensacola diving the USS Oriskany. But Jody got to see a migrating pod of 10 or so in the Red Sea while deployed to Africa a few years ago. Yes, there are snorkel and scuba charters that claim to guarantee wild sightings. Admittedly, I’ve never taken one of these “focused” trips, but a close encounter with these gentle giants has always been on my list of “to do” underwater adventures. It just has never risen to the “must do” status. Until recently.

A divemaster I trained, Ms. Tori (what a cool name to have in the Far East!) was leaving Okinawa to go back to the states, and the week prior she decided to book a whale shark dive and asked me to come along. Sure! It’s summer, the water is warm under sunny blue skies, and the whale shark pen is just down the road and slightly offshore from where I live. Most Americans book the experience through the “Torii Scuba Locker,” one of the military-run dive shops (this one affiliated with the Army) on the island. But there are many Japanese tours that are more than happy to host westerners with English-speaking staff. Even when you book through Torii Station, a local Japanese boat is used, although you are escorted and guided by an American Divemaster for the trip.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 2 wM

But where do these sharks come from, and why are they kept in a net off Okinawa? To some, it just seems cruelly unnecessary. But many whale sharks are caught accidentally by Okinawan fishing nets. Before they are released, they are held in an open ocean net enclosure, where the claim is that they are fed and cared for to ensure their safety. Some are rotated into the Churaumi Aquarium to give animals held there a break, or sent to Osaka’s aquarium, but the vast majority are released. While they are held, dive and snorkel trips are offered to those who wish to pay.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 4 WM

The dive trip starts at Torii Scuba Locker, where anything you may need can be easily and cheaply rented. After filling out the standard dive industry paperwork, a group briefing is provided which clearly lays out the flow of the dive. The only real concern of this particular dive that diving will occur in an overhead environment with no direct access to the surface. Further, with some chance of temporary entanglement with the net can occur. Both concerns are easily addressed by the Divemaster – part of why you’ll be well escorted for your trip. Caravanning to the nearby Yomitan Fishing Port, you’ll park in proximity to the dive boat and setup your kit. The actual boat ride to the site is measured in single digit minutes, so it’s important to be ready to go! And, although it’s a short boat ride, it can be rough: take your Dramamine at least an hour before boarding.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head WM

I won’t lie here or paint a pretty picture: Japanese dive boats can be chaotically crowded. There is usually more than one boat going at a time, although the divers will be loaded on the vessel nearest the dock. Japanese dive boats have no seats and have a completely open deck plan. Loading last, we put our gear wherever we could, taking a seat on the boat’s gunwale for the short jaunt to the whale shark enclosure. A low backroll will get you quickly into the water, and after the Divemaster joins you, a quick descent and check of the group is completed en route to the underwater opening at the top of the cylinder-shaped netted pen.

The top of the pen is about 15 feet below the surface, where the first distant, hazy glimpses of the giants can be had! The whale sharks kept here, while not anywhere near record size, still dwarf the divers as they enter the cage. We swam with two individuals, one smaller I would estimate at about 18’, and the other quite larger, at least 25-28’ in length! The actual enclosure is much larger than you might think; it’s impossible to see completely across the 330 feet from side to side, while the floor of the net bottoms out at 65-70’.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, waiting to get in

We waited at the net while the lead Japanese Divemaster opened the entry and cleared the way. Passing head down through a small hole in the top edge of the net, our group gathered inside, where we observed feeding for about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the small bite-sized nature of the krill intended for the whale sharks (remember, they are filter feeders), also serves as the perfect meal for many other species of fish. An abundance of other fish, all hangers-on, continually clouded our view in their hopes of bagging some spillover.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 3 WM

When the feeding concludes, a loud rattle is heard underwater, the signal that the pen was now open for free-swim. The whale sharks were not shy; if they thought you had food, they would approach rather straightforwardly, sometimes with their mouths wide-open. But neither were they aggressive; when they realized you had no food, off they went.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time WM

As the larger shark tended to stay shallow, I descended to near the bottom of the pen, where I was almost alone. There was only one other Japanese diver, a female, and we enjoyed the smaller animal that swam this lower depth’s perimeter. Having the animal brush right by and interact with them eye-to-eye was astonishing.

Free-swim lasts about 20 minutes, and sure enough around a half hour into the dive we heard another series of rattles from the Japanese. Sadly, time to leave our new aquatic friends. Of course I worked it out so that I was the last visitor to depart, leaving only a single Japanese staffer behind me to tidy up the exit. We completed our three-minute safety stop; although you can spend the majority of your time at 20’ on this dive, excursions to 65’ can easily be made.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 3 WM

Of course there is controversy about keeping these animals in captivity, like there is surrounding the treatment of any animal, from the declawing of cats to cattle raised for slaughter, to mammals in zoos, to these giants penned in the wild. For instance, a study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived, on average, only 502 days in captivity. In this regard, Okinawa is clearly a world-class leader, holding the record for whale shark long-term exhibition at over 10 years!

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, Divemaster Brenden leading the dive

Some conservationists feel that it is unnecessary and even cruel to take animals from the wild and showcase them. Some say that it’s more about the benjamins, not conservation or education. The truth is, as I like to say, somewhere in the middle. I believe that those who have a chance to swim with whale sharks will never forget the magical encounter. For me personally, I held off from diving with these sharks for many years, in part because of this controversy. However, after my own captivating experience, I intend to become much more of an ambassador of and more ardent supporter for the protection of these majestic animals. And hopefully it is true that most of the animals kept off Okinawa are generally kept only a short time and released. Hopefully.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 2 wM

Reservations to dive (sorry, no snorkeling option) with the whale sharks must be mad 24 hours in advance. The Torii Scuba Locker is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The trip is $135 per person and includes tanks, and the shop requires an Advanced certification OR more than 20 dives experience. The To dive with the whale sharks, contact Torii’s Scuba Locker at 644-4263 and ask for Ashley – she’ll take good care of you!

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, diving with Torii Station and the Hypes

Read More:

http://marinesciencetoday.com/2013/02/18/swimming-with-whale-sharks-beneficial-or-cruel/#ixzz3jcDEccX0

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/us/29shark.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&

These Weather Systems are all Drunks….


Wx

“Our old friend Halola is still churning away in the Western Pacific.  She’s been partying hard out there for quite a while now.  Last weekend she made the mistake of hitting a bottle of wind shear, which is like tequila for typhoons.  A little wind shear, and before you know it they’re falling apart, puking moisture in all directions, losing their strength, and collapsing into a soggy mess.  She spent most of the past weekend as a mere tropical depression, trying to remember where she’d left her wallet and her car keys.  But now, she’s piecing herself back together again.  Today she was sober enough to act like a proper tropical storm, and by Wednesday she’s expected to be back up to typhoon strength.  But, she’ll probably never exceed Category 1 storm strength again.  Too much hard partying will do that to you.  Halola won’t be visiting Okinawa either.  Apparently she heard how much we like to party on this island, and just the thought of it so soon after her awful tequila experience made her turn green.  Seriously.  Just look at that satellite photo.  Look at how green she is.  She might be sunburned in a couple of places too.  Meanwhile, here in Okinawa we’re getting plenty of rain without Halola’s help.  It’s not a typhoon though.  It’s just a weak low pressure area bringing us a lot of moisture and stealing our sunshine.  It’s going to rain through the night, so it’s stealing our moonshine as well.  You see?  These weather systems are all drunks.”

~From the Facebook Community Group Okinawa Typhoon Pics & Info.

 

A “JAW-some Valentine’s:” Diving with Hammerheads at Yonaguni


“We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The Ocean is not our territory – it’s theirs.” ~ Peter Benchley

“We should be afraid of sharks half as much as sharks should be afraid of us.” ~ Peter Benchley

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Jawsome Valentine

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates….

“Valentine, you’re JAW-SOME!”

So read the cover of the box of chocolates that Jody hauled all the way down to Yonaguni Island…. Deciding to spend the long lovers’ weekend to dive specifically with migrating hammerhead sharks in the waters around the extreme southwestern Japanese islands, this was indeed the perfect valentine gift. A picture was immediately posted on Facebook, and “JAW-SOME” became the catch-phrase of the trip to describe our dives with such wondrous apex predators of the mysterious deep.

Yonaguni - more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni – more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni Japan 2015, arriving in YonaguniYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, unpacking at our hotel - test shot with the underwater cameraYonaguni (与那国島, sometimes Yunaguni) is one of the Yaeyama Islands, famous for being the westernmost inhabited island of Japan. Located only a mere 67 miles from Taiwan, that island-nation and general thorn in China’s side is visible from this part of Japan on a Chinese-pollution-free day (see Smoke Gets in Your Eyes for more on Japan’s smoggy skies). Yonaguni is exceedingly popular with divers exactly because of the large numbers of hammerhead sharks that school there during winter. February and March are said to offer the best times to swim with the sharks, often times schooling in numbers verging on the uncountable. Not only are the sharks present daily during this period, most of the shark dive sites are located just minutes from port, situated over steep cliff-like underwater drop-offs, allowing for great visibility, big pelagics, and strong currents in which to cruise.

This is what we all dreamed of!

This is what we all dreamed of!

Dives one and two (of eight total) during our 4 night stay were on the Yonaguni Monument – more on that is an upcoming blog. The next six dives over three consecutive days were all about stopping…because…(wait for it)…it was Hammer Time! Or they involved shark hunting. The kind where the only shots taken are with cameras and the only stuffing was of our large western bodies into Asian-sized souvenir t-shirts!

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed "Shark Point"

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed “Shark Point”

The weather was beautiful for diving, almost couldn’t have been better. A rainless weekend with temperatures actually reaching up into the 70s, we were all surprised that even the seas around Yonaguni were about five degrees warmer than the cold winter waters of Okinawa this time of year. Although the winds shifted and started to blow and its fetch raised a healthy sea, it was only bad enough to cause one case of sea-sickness in our group of eleven divers.

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

The hammerheads of Japan’s southern seas are of the “scalloped” variety Sphyrna lewini, part of the family Sphyrnidae. Not surprisingly, the Greek sphyrna translates as “hammer”. The most obvious feature of this shark, as in all the other kinds of hammerheads, is the “hammer” shape of their head. Although smaller than the Great and Smooth hammerhead species, scalloped hammers are fairly large at around 14 feet and well over 300 pounds, and is the most common of all hammerheads, consisting of nine species total.

Shark Hunting:  Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60'

Shark Hunting: Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60′

Me Chillin' in the Drift

Me Chillin’ in the Drift

Hammer Hunts dives 1 and 2 were almost identical disappointing repeats of each other. Taking a left out the port and heading southeast, we dropped in just about ½ mile offshore in water so deep that the bottom often couldn’t be seen even at 80’ but which ripped by at what we estimate as 8-10 knots. We all would corral into a loose group at 30’ with the Divemaster, then head down to 60’ to drift and wait. And wait and wait we did, for the next 30 minutes each time. At that point “time” was called by our Japanese divemaster, making a “T” with his hands. We slowly ascended up to our safety stops, and then surfaced together to await pickup by the dive boat, quickly backing down on our group bobbing in the 2-4 foot seas.

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

“Okay! Go to the boat. Go! GO! GOOOOO!” the divemaster pleaded with us as both we the divers and the boat captain fought the ripping current. Once aboard we all agreed: yes, there were shadowy sightings here and there by some members of the group, but no real confirmed sightings of anything concrete and in the numbers all of us expected.

Find the Shark Shadow

Find the Shark Shadow

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody suiting up for our dives 2The scalloped hammerhead primarily lives in warm temperate and tropical coastal waters, down to a depths exceeding 1,500 feet. These sharks have a very high metabolic rate, which governs much of their behavior. Hammerheads feed on cephalopods, such as squid and octopus, and fish such as sardines, mackerel and herring. Larger sharks also feed on smaller sharks, such as smaller reef sharks. During the day they are more often found close to shore, but at night they become solitary hunters moving further offshore and into deeper waters.

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

For shark hunts 3 and 4 we all were getting more eager (and maybe less patient) to see sharks. Some of our group met some Japanese ladies who, the previous day, had dropped into a huge group of schooling hammerheads! And this very morning another group with our dive charter spotted 5 swimming together. Our chances had improved. Or so we thought.

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Our Selfie, Underwater!

Our Selfie, Underwater!

While these sharks can pose a danger to humans (Scallops are one of three hammers that have bitten humans), they are not normally considered aggressive. But that’s not what we’ll tell all our friends! Nor is that what most people will think regardless of any bizarre statistic illuminating the chances of a shark attack that you may choose to quote. Like my personal favorite: a person stands more of a chance of dying from falling coconuts than he or she does of a shark bite…. It’s true; check it out! Hammerheads, if confronted or provoked, respond by dropping their pectoral fins and swimming with stiff, jerking motions – a clear warning that a diver should retreat or seek shelter.

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“OHHHH-kay, ev-re one! Red-EEE?” our Japanese guide inquired while standing on the top of the boarding ladder at the stern of the boat. “OHHHH-kay, let’s GO!” he finally responds to our impatient replies, then counted quickly in Japanese, “Ichi-nei-san!” And with his “one-two-three” he disappeared into the foamy white waters churned by the boat’s screw and stern dive ladders. We all followed in quick succession, dive-bombing the ocean much like skydivers exiting an aircraft as quickly as they could. And believe me, we certainly were no more graceful!

This Shadow Came Back Around for Another Pass!!

With whitish bellies and greenish-grey dorsal coloring, hammerheads quickly blend into the reduced visibility ever-present in the murky ocean depths. I’m convinced this type of melding with the environment is exactly why combat aircraft are painted the same greenish-grey coloring: to blend in with the haze always at the horizon. These sharks have an uncanny ability to simply disappear with a sweep or two of their tails. No wonder we saw so many creepily teasing shadows!

That's Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

That’s Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

stop-hammerhead-timeHammerheads have better vision than most and can actually see 360 degrees; by looking up or down, they can monitor the complete seaspace all around them. Like all sharks, hammerheads have electroreceptory sensory pores and nostrils on their snouts. But in hammerheads these sensors are spread out over a much wider area, allowing these sharks to hunt more effectively. This special arrangement of sensors allows for the detection of as little as a billionth of a volt, and when combined with excellent smell, the sharks can quickly classify and hone in on distressed, diseased, or decaying organics and other bodily fluids. And yes, to answer your question, those fluids primarily include blood.

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Drifting quickly with the fast-moving currents, we drop again deep to about 70’. And then THERE. There was one. In the murky distance. And as quickly as all of us could grab a tenuous handhold on a massive nearby stone block, the shark was gone. There wasn’t ever enough contrast for any of our cameras to focus. And you know what divers say about underwater claims: didn’t happen it there isn’t photographic proof! We released our grips and were immediately flying again with the swift currents, and surfaced once again with only a couple of sporadic sightings and lots of talk about shadows darting here and there.

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

On the Hunt

On the Hunt

But these nebulous sightings weren’t what any of us had come so far for. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of diving with many sharks along the southeastern coast of the United States, where sharks (grey reefs, nurse, and bulls mostly) are seen routinely. I’ve also had the opportunity to partake in no less than three “shark feeds,” a rare chance to see a shark feeding-frenzy, live, up close and personal. No, we all were in Yonaguni to see schools of hammerheads, not just their fuzzy ghosted shadows at the edge of our perception.

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Unfortunately, hammerhead sharks are massively overfished, slaughtered simply for just their fins. These sharks are captured, “finned” where their dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are all sliced off, and then the shark’s body – still alive – is thrown back into the sea to die a slow, painful death. Because of this savagely wasteful practice, the scalloped hammerhead is on the “globally endangered” species list, with population declines of up to 95% over the past 30 years. Hammerheads are among the most commonly caught sharks for finning. But they are also used in food products (“flake,” fish fingers, fish & chips), and commonly killed as by-catch due to indiscriminate fishing practices.

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d011345920070228091707Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, peaceful scuba diver Jody WMOur last day on the island had arrived, and we only had two dives left. This was it. The weather was moving in, winds were up and the seas had started to kick. Some boats were not going out to the area where the sharks congregate, but our diving service was still gaming for the hunt. We were pleading to be taken to another dive site, as the last four dives at the same location yielded just about squat. The staff at YDS – Yonaguni Diving Service – agreed and our boat’s captain decided on a different locale. Making the quick trip from port, we got ready once again. The boat was a-rockin’ as we scrambled off the stern, but on dive five, again only a single hammer was sighted, one much deeper and more shy who fled no doubt upon sensing not our presence but our desperation!

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Killing millions of sharks every year just for their fins is an immoral waste and non-sustainable practice. Shark fin soup is merely a status symbol in Asia, one reserved for only royalty. The fins don’t even add flavor, but instead are dried and used as only a texture. While shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy at up to $100 a serving, more and more people, groups, and even restaurants are giving up the dish and calling for a ban on the practice of finning.

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Hammerhead Sign!

Hammerhead Sign!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

And then the last dive was upon us. This was it. A $1,400 per person five-day trip with three days of rather exhaustive diving had all come down to this one final sub-30 minute dive. The pressure was on for YDS; their and our divemaster’s reputation for amazing shark dives was on the line. We returned to this new location in even rougher seas and dropped in once again. And very soon after reaching our drift depth…. One. Then two more. No wait, there are FIVE! Yes, we had found them – there they were, schooling together!! Our divemaster tapped on his tank with his simple noise maker – a long steel bolt tied to his buoyancy compensator. I only glanced his way having already spotted the sharks, enough to see him make the hammerhead sign he had briefed. I was lucky enough to be on the side of the group where the sharks were schooling, and immediately but slowly starting making way in their direction as I descended deeper and deeper to match their depths. Snapping photos and admiring their sleek and powerful beauty, I checked my computer as I was passing 110’, plenty deep enough with our time and air constraints. We were warned the sharks would drag us deeper and deeper, and as these sharks continued downward there was still no bottom in sight as I leveled out at 116’.

A Small School, but Still a School!

A Small School, but Still a School!

Ed Chills Vertically

Ed Chills Vertically

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

This school of scalloped hammerheads, although small by Yonaguni standards, was an amazingly invigorating sight. While an accurate count is hard to come by, we agreed that there were at least ten in our immediate vicinity. A few even hung around to make another pass, seemingly as interested in us as we were in them, an event I decided to video with my ten-year, non-HD small point-and-shoot underwater (see my underwater photos of Japan at Dive The Blues Scuba). To divers, this experience is akin to those seeing a lion up-close-and-personal on safari in the Serengeti plains of Africa. It is hard to describe the surge of emotions one feels when faced with an uncaged, untamed wild apex predator on their own turf (as it were) and terms. And in numbers that could not be defended against. It may be difficult for some people to grasp, but stepping foot in the ocean at the beach in just a bathing suit is really no different from walking into the jungles of Southeast Asia wearing just the same. And who would do that, right? The sea is not our domain nor do we belong there, and when we tread into the jungles, terrestrial or aquatic, we must be ever wary and always respectful.

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We rely on the earths’ oceans, every bit as much as the hammerheads do. The earth’s weather, our fresh water, much of the world’s food supply, and even the very air we breathe are all sourced from the seas. Sharks play a critically irreplaceable role in the ocean’s massive aquatic ecosystems, and have every bit a right to be here as you and I. They deserve our respect as much as they get our admiration.

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody and I enjoying our time with the hammerheads

Shark fin soup? No thanks.

I’ll take an inexpensive box of “JAW-SOME” chocolates any day….

Yonaguni Japan 2015, group shot at YDS at the end of our adventure

Our Dive Group with our Japanese Guide!