Far Eastern X Files: The Yonaguni Monument


A Terrific Free-Diver’s View of the Yonaguni Monument 

“Ooooooooh-Kay, let’s go diving!” our Japanese divemaster from Yonaguni Diving Service (YDS) says in his passable but heavily accented English.

Cheers go up from the eleven of us congregated across the stern of the dive boat, all in great anticipation of this, our first dive not just in Yonaguni but on the famous (or infamous) Yonaguni Monument. Standing on the top rung of the boarding ladder, I can see the mysterious structure looming just there in deep, visible here and there as the waves play peek-a-boo with their shifting patches of blue-black darkness and bright blue refractions.

Dive Briefing

Dive Briefing

“Ichi…,” he calls once cleared by the boat’s Captain, and continues, “…Ni…SAN!!”  On “three” our our leader disappears backwards into the water. The rest of us are not far behind.

The group descends immediately and conducts a rough rendezvous at about 60’, surrounded by giant stones which, at first and quick glance from afar, seemed to broadcast the tell-tale marks of the hand of man. Signaling all okay, our tour of the underwater “ruins” begins.

Me Coming Through "The Gate"

Me Coming Through “The Gate”

Jody at the Gate's Exit

Jody at the Gate’s Exit

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, titan step WM“This is Gate,” our divemaster has written on his underwater slate in good, clear English. He points to an opening in a rock face, at first hidden in the early morning shadows, but clearly there. It is an oppressively small opening, just large enough for divers to swim through, and swim through we all do in a follow-the-leader way, making sure pictures are taken of our emergence into the Monument proper. “That wasn’t’ carved,” I think to myself, and note that it didn’t even appear to have been “constructed,” although many claim it to be an arched gateway entry into the complex. If so, the ancient residents there were taller than leprechauns.

Emerging from the Gate, We have Arrived!

Emerging from the Gate, We have Arrived!

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, twin rocksYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody checking out the twin columns 2 WMOnce “inside” the complex, we immediately are faced with the “Twin Towers,” sometimes called “columns.” They are not columns, but very large slabs of stone, roughly matched in size and orientation. They are indeed pretty good representations of rectangles, probably about 20 feet (or more) long, and they are more or less aligned with each other, with only a couple of inches of gap between. Images of Stonehenge dance in my mind, and for an instant, I could envision some astrological purpose for such design and placement given their odd resting angle. Or could it be that fractured rock just happen to fall and get wedged in this position??

Jody with the Twin Towers

Jody with the Twin Towers

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, terraces WMYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody swims for the boat over the monument WMWe round a corner and start to fight the famous Yonaguni current. The waves can be seen crashing against the stones on the surface just overhead. And turning the corner we come face to face with the Monument’s “terrace,” an awe-inspiring sight for anyone, believer or skeptic. Straight lines, sharp angles, and flat surfaces all too perfect to have been formed by Mother Nature alone are all right there, a feast for the eyes. Yes, I do so want to believe. Thinking about similar ruins around the world, one wants to believe that there is an Asian counterpart to Maya temples or the ziggurats of Sumer, or even Atlantis!

Me on the Way Down to the Monument

Me on the Way Down to the Monument

But there’s other magic here besides the possibility of undiscovered ancient civilizations. There are optical illusions, which are often the case in water. Water absorbs colors in natural sunlight very quickly; passing about 30 feet, most of the red, yellow and orange in sunlight is already gone. The dark blues, purples and greens remain, and do well to hide imperfections, much as wearing black does for the movie stars. Sure, from a distance stones seem to be clearly carved and overly ordered, but from up close, this often-taunted “perfection” blurs with the very edges and angles of the rock, themselves covered in fuzzy biological growth that helps complete the illusion from afar.

Group Photo on "The Turtle"

Group Photo on “The Turtle”

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, hovering over the turtle

The Only Turtle I Saw on the Monument....

The Only Turtle I Saw on the Monument….

We come to a shallow point of the ruins referred to as “The Turtle.” Loitering there as a group, I admire the stone formation, but have a very hard time seeing a turtle. In the most abstract sense it is there, but then again…. Turtles have a long and symbolic history in Okinawan history, with even the earth being carried on one’s back. But what appears from a distance to be a carving is really a stretch of anyone’s imagination. Initially the turtle’s head seems to be a finely carved symmetrical triangle with a sharp point, a rarity in nature. That triangular head is matched by another triangular notch in the stone terrace just below, evidence of uncanny alignment.

Japanese Dive Map

Japanese Dive Map

But again, King Neptune and Poseidon’s light show in the underwater world create illusions. The “triangle” is, in fact, pretty well deformed, particularly on one side. And those notches so well aligned? They are not: actually offset from one another, the only alignment comes from a shared fault line in the stone, clear to even the most casual observer upon closer more objective inspection.

Group Photo on a Monument Terrace

Group Photo on a Monument Terrace

After 30 minutes our air supplies are running low. Fighting the wicked currents blowing across the stone (could the currents be responsible for grinding down the flat surfaces over time??) has taken its toll on the dive group, already lower on air than normal since we’re all using smaller scuba cylinders that are standard throughout Japan.

Climbing Back Aboard

Climbing Back Aboard

We surface and our dive boat backs down on the group to pluck us out of the surging sea, crashing up against the rock just tens of meters away. Looking at the islands cliff face just above the monument’s location, I can’t help but see clear resemblance in the stone. Or could it be that a manmade temple complex sank into the ocean in some ancient cataclysmic event lost to time?

“So,” Jody asks once we are back on board the boat and breaking down our gear, “what do you think?”

The Turtle Head's sloppy geometry and clear fracture lines are clearly evident here....

The Turtle Head’s sloppy geometry and clear fracture lines are clearly evident here….

Immediately in my mind the word “NATURAL” flashes bright red with a klaxon horn matching each illumination, must like a modern aircraft cockpit warns a pilot of fact over a fiction which he or she may want to believe. But I think for a few moments, trying not to say anything too extreme or absolute. Nothing good ever comes from such a position.

“Well, it’s pretty clear to me that it’s mostly artificial,” I state flatly, carefully leaving room for debate and inclusion. “Although there are a few things that seem suspect!”

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The Yonaguni Monument (与那国島海底地形 Yonaguni-jima Kaitei Chikei, “Yonaguni Island Submarine Topography”) is a massive underwater rock and stone structure off the coast of Yonaguni, the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. There remains a debate whether the site is completely natural, is a natural site that has been modified by human hands, or is wholly a man-made artifact. Since there are those who so badly want to believe, often the site is called in Japanese the “Yonaguni (Island) Submarine Ruins” (与那国(島)海底遺跡 Yonaguni(-jima) Kaitei Iseki) in a nod to those wishing for a more interesting explanation.

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The Yonaguni Monument divides the masses of people who now visit there, much as it splits the massive ocean flowing by. There are believers and there are skeptics, and not a lot of in-betweens. I didn’t pole our particular tour group to the island; I didn’t want to try and take anyone’s faith away in an idea so grand. And besides, it’s almost impossible to debate people when their strongest evidence is rooted only in faith. Jody I think agrees (mostly) with me.

The idea of a stepped-pyramid is not hard to imagine

The idea of a stepped-pyramid is not hard to imagine

Many if not most scientists note that there is nothing on Yonaguni that can’t be explained by natural processes. Yes, such an explanation is totally pedestrian, but supporting evidence is just too easy to find. Geologists recently have been able to watch, in real-time, typhoons tear away at Yonaguni’s coast and observe how the rock broke apart along horizontal bedding planes, creating level terraces and vertical steps exactly like those found on the Monument. Geologists will also tell you how many rocks, especially those with high mineral content, have incredible regularity, including nearly perfect angles. The contrary argument comes armed with a whole plethora of evidence, including stone tools, post-holes, wedge marks, and incised markings resembling “art.”

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody swimming near the steps

People want to believe, of that there is no doubt. The public pop-culture controversy involving the “Yonaguni Monument” is no different. Though of as a submerged man-made rock formation, remnants of a 10,000 year old Japanese civilization, some have even connected it to the “Lost continent of Mu.”

Never heard of the Continent of Mu until going to Yonaguni

Never heard of the Continent of Mu until going to Yonaguni

The site was “discovered” by dive tour operator Kihachiro Aratake in 1985 as he searched for new sites from which to dive with schooling hammerhead sharks (see A JAW-Some Valentines for our shark adventure at Yonaguni!). And the person most responsible for camp of believers in a 10,000 year-old lost civilization of the lost continent Mu is Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist at the University of Ryukyus. Over the past 15 years, Kimura has come to the conclusion that this monument is most definitely manmade. According to Kimura, the largest structure at the site appears to be a complicated, monolithic, stepped pyramid that rises from a depth of 82 feet. While he claims the structure resembles a ziggurat, a type of vertically stepped structure found throughout Latin American and in the Middle East, such abstract dots are hard for most people to connect in their perhaps more discerning minds.

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Some pretty strong leaps of faith in these labels!

And of course there are claims of many additional structures nearby, including a castle, five temple-like structures, and what seems to be a huge stadium, said to be connected by roads and canals…. The cynic in me notes that at one time many if not most people believed the dark lines seen on Mars through early telescopes were clearly roads or canals of a lost yet advanced civilization who once thrived there.

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Mu is the name of an almost wholly made-up “lost” continent whose entire concept was proposed by 19th-century traveler and writer Augustus Le Plongeon. He claimed, based on scant evidence that cannot be reconfirmed or reproduced (think of the Mormon tablets), that several ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt and Mesoamerica, were created by refugees from Mu—which he originally located in the Atlantic Ocean. This concept was popularized in public opinion and expanded by James Churchward, who asserted that Mu was once located in the Pacific…without any real proof to back such claims. Not surprisingly, Mu in modern times is considered to be an entirely fictional place.

Yet, people so badly want to believe….

Stones of the Bimini Road

Stones of the Bimini Road

bimini-mapGrowing up in South Florida in the 1980s, I remember a “discovery” not unlike that of the Yonaguni Monument. The “Bimini Road,” sometimes called the Bimini Wall, is an underwater rock formation near North Bimini Island, part of the Bahamas chain of islands. The “road” consists of a half-mile long northeast-southwest “linear feature” composed of roughly rectangular to “sub-rectangular” (remember the optical illusion discussion above?) limestone blocks. Various claims attest that this feature is a wall, road, pier, breakwater, or some other man-made structure. Even though there’ been extensive research and investigation into this “road,” credible evidence or arguments for a man-made, ancient origin connected to the lost civilization of Atlantis remain largely lacking.

Yet people continue to believe.

The Cliffs over the Monument

The Cliffs over the Monument

Kimura first estimated that the Yonaguni monument must be at least 10,000 years old, dating it to the 9th century, BCE, predating all the other massive buildings of ancient mankind. This assumed the site was created when it was last dry land during the last Ice Age, a date incongruous with our accepted modern understanding of the spread and development of ancient peoples. In 2007, partly to avoid this rather bothersome problem, he revised his age estimate to 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, more in line with the history of mankind in the region, but a time when sea level then was close to current levels as we experience now. To still allow for the idea of human involvement, he now suggests that after construction above the ocean, earthquakes and other associated tectonic activity submerged the structures to where we find them today. While most scientists, archeologists and anthropologists think all of this rather unlikely, Kimura, who so badly wants to believe, further claims beyond the multiple structures that he can identify, he himself now surmises that the site may be a remnant of the mythical lost continent of Mu, an idea already rooted in dubious origin as discussed above.

I barely had a cell phone signal!

I barely had a cell phone signal!

The existence of an ancient stone working tradition at Yonaguni and other Ryukyu islands is demonstrated by sold tombs and several stone vessels of uncertain age. However, pottery, stone tools and large fireplaces found on Yonaguni are dated only as far back as 2500 BCE. Further, these communities were small and most likely found it very difficult to eke out an existence; such ancient settlements almost certainly lacked the resources, manpower and extra time and energy for building such massive stone monuments.

model of yonaguni  discovery channel magazine   for Voices of the Rocks article

It’s not unfair to say that Kimura has become obsessed with the Yonaguni Monument since first visiting. I’m convinced that at that over time he came to his own personal emotional conclusions, rather than using anything resembling the scientific method to investigate what are really extraordinary claims. He founded the Marine Science and Cultural Heritage Research Association, an organization devoted to proving that the Yonaguni Monument is not merely the natural formation it appears to be to so many, but rather a manmade structure, consisting of a huge network of buildings, castles, monuments, a stadium, and other structures, all connected by an elaborate system of roads and waterways.

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This is exactly the kind of manmade mystery that people love! And the news and mass media of all types have run with the dubious story, trumpeting Kimura’s discovery with clichés like “Scholars mystified” (they really are not), “underwater city” (yet to be proven), and “Japanese Atlantis” (in a silly nod to the dubious idea of the lost continent of Mu). History’s Mysteries on the History Channel produced “Japan’s Mysterious Pyramids,” (I didn’t see any “pyramid” on my dives there) an episode which promoted the idea of a long-lost advanced civilization, but with almost no critique or balanced reporting. And worse, the show Ancient Discoveries aired an episode called “Lost Cities of the Deep,” featuring Yonaguni. And both the BBC and the Discovery Channel have produced loose “documentaries” promoting a rather one-sided view of the Yonaguni Monument as having a mystifying manmade past. And if it’s on TV it must be right, RIGHT?!?

What TV Wants you to Believe

What TV Wants you to Believe

What the Face Really Turned out to Be

What the Face Really Turned out to Be

What People Wanted to Believe about Mars....

What People Wanted to Believe about Mars….

A case-in-point for me personally is the Yonaguni “Face.” Conspiracy theorists love to lock onto the idea of a face carved into the stone of the monument. The face, or “Jacques’ Eyes” as it is sometimes called (named after Jacques Mayol who used to freedive the site), appears on a large round-ish boulder, and consists of two depressions near where eyes might be, but it certainly in no way even remotely resembles a carved head. Examining photographs of the Jacques’ Eyes formation, I remain far from convinced the eyes were carved. They’re large concave depressions without distinct edges, not eye shaped, not symmetrical, misaligned, and not convex like an eyeball. Even an incompetent artist would have done a far better job if eyes were the goal! Even Kimura doesn’t go so far to presume it is a human head or face, even though he does claim that the “eyes” were indeed carved by hand. This whole idea is just way too reminiscent of the “Face on Mars,” which of course turned out to be simply Venus and Zeus playing with celestial light against natural formations. But people so want to believe, right?

The "Face" of Jacques' "Eyes"!

The “Face” of Jacques’ “Eyes”!

We did manage to find Nessie!

We did manage to find Nessie!

Yes, even for me, a believer in science and (naughty) skeptic by nature, I too at times want to believe. I’m addicted to “Finding Sasquatch,” used to search the skies for UFOs while flying and at sea during my time in the Navy, and I actively taunt ghosts wherever they are claimed to lurk in the hopes of having a personal paranormal experience. But alas, to date, nothing out of the ordinary has really happened to me, other than an exciting life well-lived!

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Unfortunately, my beliefs don’t extend to the Yonaguni Monument. And it appears I’m not the only skeptic when it comes to Dr. Kimura’s bedrock interpretation. Virtually every marine geologists who have seen the pictures are perfectly satisfied that the formations as-is are fully consistent with those that occur naturally, both on and around Yonaguni, in addition to other parts of the world. Yes, the site is impressive and unusually dramatic, and yes, there are features that make divers do a double-take, but seriously, I quickly came to the conclusion that what we were diving on, over and through was not the work of man, but the hand of god…meaning Mother Nature at her artistic finest. The only thing that made me stop and really consider the possible manmade origins of the monument was initially the triangle of the “Turtle,” but even those hopes were dashed as described above.

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, me swimming along the terraces

At the end of the day, here will be those who believe the Monument is natural, until a “smoking-gun” can be provided as evidence to the otherwise. And there will be true believers, whose faith remains strong, even in the face of mounting evidence contrary to their belief. Sasquatch, the Shroud of Turin, the recent supposed photos of naked aliens running around Mars…. They all point to the same thing: that part of the human condition is wanting so badly that there is more to life that what there just appears to be.  Me – all the cosmic mystery I need as I sit here and work on the final draft of this blog is the purring love of my cat Cleo.  There is no greater proof of the power of life than the tangible bonds we share as part of nature.

A Supposed Photo of an Alien Walking on the Moon

A Supposed Photo of an Alien Walking on the Moon; Do You Believe?

We make it back to dive the Monument one more time. The steep forbidding gothic cliffs above, the eight story tall stone giant below. Again there is awe at the world’s amazing wonders, and yes, even creeping doubt. But I have to conclude, sadly, that Yonaguni, while a terrific rural example of old-tyme and laid-back Ryukyu life which happens to offer amazing sites for scuba divers, just isn’t the seat of an ancient advanced civilization or the Lost Continent of Mu….

Me and Jody Posing on the Monument's Main Terrace

Me and Jody Posing on the Monument’s Main Terrace

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, peaeceful Jody WM

 

For more information, and for sources used in creating this blog, please see the following:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4220

Chang, K. “The Formosa Strait in the Neolithic Period.” Kaogu. 1 Jun. 1989, Number 6: 541-550, 569.

Hudson, M., Takamiya, H. “Dental pathology and subsistence change in late prehistoric Okinawa.” Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. 1 Jan. 2001, Volume 21: 68-76.

Jiao, T. Lost Maritime Cultures: China and the Pacific. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 2007.

Kimura, M. “Yonaguni.” Marine Science and Cultural Heritage Research Association. Dr. Masaaki Kimura, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

Milne, G., Long, A., Bassett, S. “Modelling Holocene relative sea-level observations from the Caribbean and South America.” Quaternary Science Reviews. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 24, Numbers 10-11: 1183-1202.

Schoch, R. “An Enigmatic Ancient Underwater Structure off the Coast of Yonaguni Island, Japan.” Circular Times. Dr. Colette M. Dowell, 19 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

Dunning, B. “Yonaguni Monument: The Japanese Atlantis.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 Aug 2010. Web. 22 Feb 2015. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4220

http://www.freediverhd.com/2014/04/yonaguni.html

http://www.scubadiving.com/travel/japan/secrets-yonaguni

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.

Not-sure-how-many-people-get-eaten-by-sharks

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!