Okinawa’s Hedo Point: Go North, Young Man


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa's Hedo Point

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa’s Hedo Point

A drive north along Okinawa’s rugged coastline mimicked by Highway 58 can be quite refreshing, at least once north of Nago, having left behind the hustle and bustle red-lighted, gridlocked traffic of southern Okinawa in the rearview mirror.  But sometimes, contrary to the cliché, it’s not really about the journey after all; this long drive north is just a pleasurable expedition to a must-experience destination:  Hedo Point.  While the view from this Cape may be captivating, it’s the serenity of hearing the rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves lapping at the shore from our campsite on the beach that compelled us on this visit.

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo (辺戸岬 Hedo-misaki), or Hedo Point, is the northernmost point of Okinawa Island.  A narrowing spit of land jutting out north from the island’s tip, it faces the South China Sea on its west flank, and the Pacific Ocean on its east.  Hedo is part of Okinawa “Dai Sekirinzan Quasi-National Park,” a prefectural nature preserve first established in 1965.  This landside park is worth the travel alone, but that wasn’t the intent of this particular trip.  No, this time my friends and I were off to camp and scuba dive at our gentlemanly leisure in this place of known jagged beauty, above and below the waves.

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As one of the island’s most prominent landmarks, the area and adjacent park attracts visitors who come to enjoy their sheer beauty and challenging environment.  Offering a mixture of luscious green temperate rain forest, craggy cliffs scattered among high hills, and a seemingly ever-present ocean breeze, people arrive to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of Okinawa’s island life.  Even Commodore Perry, full of the bravado characteristics of his “gun-boat diplomacy” of the time, couldn’t resist its charms and visited (but recorded it as “Cape Hope”) during his expedition to Japan.  For our group, however, it was all about the near-virgin diving found here, and, when not diving, an opportunity to camp on a beach mere meters away from high tide!

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Be forewarned:  the point doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, except for maybe the most basic public toilets, a few stalls that sell food on what appears to be a relatively random basis, and, of course, Okinawa’s ubiquitous vending machines.  None of which are anywhere near the beach.  You can’t even expect a convenience store, which seem to dot every other square kilometer of Okinawa much further to the South.  If you plan to spend any time here, come prepared!

Paved Access Ends Here

Paved Access Ends Here

Camping here is rather unique and particularly refreshing, since you can camp right on the beach.  In fact, you can DRIVE your supplies directly to your campsite, located on a rather expansive crescent-shaped beach, complete with easy-to-get firewood and stones to act as a fire break.  HOWEVER, please don’t attempt to drive here unless you have full 4-wheel drive.  We watched a tourist drive a smaller type station-wagon onto the sand only to get promptly stuck.  Without any tow ropes, we couldn’t offer assistance.  Lucky for this couple, the beach sees visitors from time-to-time, and a Japanese-plated 4-wheeler was able to pull their care to the sanctuary of paved road with a proper tow, but only after a good hour or so of being stranded.

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

One other comment for you brothers and sisters in uniform:  I wouldn’t tell “dad” about your plans to camp at Hedo, at least if you are Marine Corps.  Two of our dive buddies were forced to get a “motel” (and that term is used only in the very loosest sense in this isolated part of Okinawa) about 20 minutes away since, according to the wisdom of the Corps, camping on anything but an “official” campsite is not legal.  Except for and to the Okinawans.  Go figure….  It’s ridiculous restrictions like these that make me lovingly hug my DD-214 a little tighter almost every single night.

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Access to this beach is easily found on overhead imagery anyone can view on Google; it is a short side-street drive from the point proper.  We could find no rules or regulations about camping here, and built fires for the duration with firewood and stones easily collected from within a couple of hundred meters of our site.  We were the only over-night guests, and we only saw maybe seven other people (no divers though) during our entire weekend stay!

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28928401894_f893d3bb29_bCape Hedo offers exhilarating diving as well, but maybe not for novices.  Here the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, one of many reasons that makes this area so interesting to scuba divers.  From the Cape’s observation point high on the cliffs, the undulating underwater terrain can be spied through the area’s clear waters, at least on a calm day.  Which leads to this important tip:  do NOT tempt fate here by diving in the wrong conditions.  Hedo is generally known only as a summer-time dive spot when gentler winds blow mostly out of the south and east.  In contrast, through much of the winter, the northwest winds and seas make this site unsafe to dive.  To complicate matters, strong currents are encountered once offshore, and rips can develop in the tunneling recesses found nearer to shore which make this geography so interesting to now explore.  Hedo hosts particularly unforgiving seas, so take heed and respect the elements.

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28928373444_00ca8390b2_bOn a clear day Yoron Island, the next major land-mass in the Ryukyu Island chain, can be seen on the horizon to the north.  Yoron used to be the symbolic demarcation point between Japan and Okinawa during the days of American Occupation of the latter (the former reverted to Japanese sovereignty shortly after the end of WWII).  Reversion activists frequently gathered at Cape Hedo to set watch fires, answered in turn by similarly minded people on Yoron.  A fact to which most Americans remain complete unaware (even those stationed here in the Military), control of Okinawa reverted to Japan only in 1972.  A monument, erected in 1976, to this the reinstatement of Okinawa’s sovereignty now stands tall overlooking the sea to the north.

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28930706873_a092030870_bWe camped in the fall, hoping to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of high summer.  Even though temperatures were moderated by a fast-approaching tropical storm, It never really cooled off at night.  I had assumed that between the breeze and temps in the low 80s, we would sleep well.  I assumed wrong.  What I didn’t factor was having to close up my tent due to rain.  Without that ventilating breeze blowing through my temporary domicile, I sweated way too much to sleep well through most of the night.  Between that and laying on undulating beach sand (should’ve leveled it more carefully!) without the benefit of any type of bedroll or padding all made for a very rough night of sleep indeed.  Luckily, we were planning a dive just after sunrise, with breakfast to follow.

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

29473209771_ac56798459_bThe inlet formed by the inward-bending crescent of the beach is chock full of crevasses, providing the opportunity to explore some unique underwater terrain.  There are huge, labyrinth-like landscapes here found almost immediately after dropping under the waves.  A note of caution about entries; there are some very deep and narrow crevasses that are quite masked by what appears to be a relatively flat, stable and shallow shelf.  Falling into one unprepared can be quite a shock at best, and potentially dangerous at worst.  Watch your footing, and watch the wave breaks, especially at night.  Trek the reef here with a BCD inflated to comfortably support you and your kit should you be surprised.  Moving to the “center” of the beach were a wash from the shoreline can be seen offers the earliest and perhaps the easiest entry, but a long walk at low tide.  And like all areas with such washes, this is also prime areas where rips can occur.

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We camped for two nights, which provided us 1.5 days to dive.  We elected to bring six tanks each, and arriving late afternoon on the first day we spent our time setting up camp, cooking dinner, and drinking by the fire until the rain chased us off.  The next day saw four dives in almost perfect sea conditions, while we only dove twice in the morning of our departure day.

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One of the funniest things to happen while we were there was the unexpected growth and quick approach of a tropical depression, which made a run at Okinawa from the south.  We had checked the weather prior to departure, but once on-site, our weather became a simple matter of looking at the ocean, 20 meters away.  Although we did note that the winds had increased, and rain showers started here and there, we thought little of it because the seas in our crescent bay were completely protected from the somewhat gusty southerly winds.  In fact, on our last day, with the winds picking up even more, the seas actually got calmer since the wind was, in effect, countering what little waves were coming in from the north.

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On our surface interval on our last day, one of our buddies, a retired Army pilot and contractor here on Okinawa, got a call from a coworker asking what we were doing up there diving in “Danger”.  Of course hearing only a one-sided conversation, all I heard was Ben replying, “What are you talking about Danger, it’s beautiful here!”  There wasn’t much more to the phone call, and I think most of us dismissed that comment as a jealous someone trying to ruin our fun with a rather low-brow prank.

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Well, he wasn’t pulling our leg after all!  We had expected to enjoy one of Okinawa’s gorgeous sun-sets over the East China sea during our drive home south along Highway 58.   But that was not to be.  As we excited the protected northern-facing bowl that our campsite sat in and crossed over the slight ridge to get back to the coastal highway, we were met with angry skies, gusting winds, and growing seas.  During the roughly three-hour drive home, the weather became downright nasty.  The storm hit us that evening.

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So, having been deprived of that sunset, I’ll have to plan this trip all over again.  Except this time I’ll bring a bedroll, more scuba tanks, and perhaps check the weather a little bit more closely….

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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.