Dive with fishes and watch humpbacks in Japan’s Kerama Islands

05/22/2014 12:00 AM

05/21/2014 11:46 AM

At a depth of 15 feet, I struggled in a state of weightlessness. When my soles finally touched the sea floor, I regained my composure sufficiently to take a look around.

The water seemed to be a deeper shade of blue the farther out I looked. In the total silence, I was mesmerized by the vivid red and yellow fish darting around rocks and in and out of coral reefs. Occasionally, sunlight would reach the white sand on the bottom. It was like being inside a painting of natural colors.

Spellbound by the beautiful landscape, I found myself forgetting about the earache I experienced because of the water pressure.

I was at a diving spot off the Tokashiku Beach on Tokashiki Island, one of Kerama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

Though I’m no die-hard outdoor type, I’ve been drawn to the mysterious, overwhelming power of nature since I was young.

In March, the islands were designated as Japan’s 31st national park, the first designation of its kind in 27 years. To see the park’s blue ocean for myself, I signed up for a diving session for the first time in several years, this one aimed at unlicensed divers.

From Naha’s Tomari Port, a high-speed boat service to the island runs only twice a day, in the morning and the late afternoon. When I arrived at my inn on the island, the sun was setting. The next morning, I headed to the beach for the diving session.

It was late March. The water was a bit cold, but I gasped when I saw how clear it was. Its color seemed to be slowly alternating between shades of green and blue, probably because of changing sunlight conditions.

I traveled to the diving spot with Masatoshi Akiyama, 44, my diving instructor. I strapped on an oxygen tank and began my dive, gripping a mooring cable as I went. With Akiyama leading the way, I crept forward on the ocean floor.

Akiyama told me the names of fish we saw by drawing each of them on a whiteboard: spangled emperor, clown anemone fish, yellowstripe goatfish and more. Time passed very quickly.

Later, Akiyama, who has been a diving instructor on the island for 14 years, said: “I don’t know much about oceans elsewhere outside of Japan, but I often hear foreign tourists who have gone diving in oceans across the world say, ‘This is amazing!’ [when diving here]. Whenever that happens, I feel like our ocean is just as great as I thought.” He looked proud.

I had another reason to come to the island at this time of year: whale watching.

I’d heard that humpback whales come to the ocean around the Kerama Islands between January and March every year to raise their offspring in the warm water. After April, they head north.

I boarded a whale-watching boat with about 10 other passengers. I’d heard that during the peak period, whales could be spotted within a few minutes after setting out on the tour. However, it seemed the whale-watching season was almost over. I was unlucky at first.

After traveling for nearly an hour, our guide Yuko Asaya, 29, pointed out into the ocean. We looked and saw spouts of water shooting up from the waves. Eventually, we caught sight of three whales, including a baby, swimming gracefully.

“This place is surrounded by islands, so they have no natural enemies,” Asaya said.

Their tails dramatically hit the surface of the water before they dived deep, then they resurfaced several minutes later. Although I could only see them partially from the boat, I felt warm inside as I imagined a baby whale nestling with its parent in the water.

After the tour, I set out to travel around the island by rental car.

The sun was setting, and the night sky was filled with stars. The dark navy curtain of night gradually gave way to white in the morning glow. These sights were all very refreshing. But the beautiful “Kerama blue” ocean was the most memorable of them all. I heard it is particularly beautiful in midsummer, when the sunlight is intense.

I'll come back in summer, once I get my diving license, to see the special colors I’ve never seen before.

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