Riding Hammerheads & Horses: Yonaguni Island

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I wasn’t supposed to fall in love with scuba diving.

Yet there I was, shivering cold in a 5 millimeter wetsuit in February, drift diving in the blue open ocean to try to intercept migrating hammerhead sharks on the westernmost Japanese island, close to Taiwan.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, the anticipation was palpable.  I was cutting my excitement with a knife & spreading it onto toast for breakfast every morning.

  1. Leg 1:  After work on a Wednesday night, to my local train station.
  2. Leg 2:  Bus to Haneda Airport.
  3. Leg 3:  Flight to Naha, Okinawa.
  4. Leg 4:  Flight to Yonaguni Island, Okinawa the next day.
  5. Leg 5:  Pickup in cold, rainy paradise by the dive shop van.

I was nervous that I wouldn’t make it to the train station in time to catch the bus to the airport.  I was nervous that the bus would get stuck in traffic, & I’d miss my flight.  At Naha Airport, there were announcements & signs telling us that our small plane to Yonaguni would be rerouted to Ishigaki Island or Miyako Island if the winds were too strong.  I’ve never paid so much attention to the flight crew’s safety brief, & you best believe that I read every English word of the in-seat safety card.  Take-off!  When our little plane landed, strong winds & all, on the oceanfront runway of little Yonaguni Island, I felt every good piece of karma that I’ve ever released into the universe coming back to me.  Namaste.

To Sou Wes dive shop!

Sou Wes runs a top notch operation.  Herding us diving sheep from shop, to dock, to blue water dive, back to shop, repeat, repeat, repeat for 4 straight days.

I could really get used to this hammerhead searching, blue water drift diving routine.  The hammers come every winter, with the strong currents.  To find them, we followed our trusty guides, usually Toyo-san & Mar-san, expert hammerhead searcher extraordinaires.  The routine seemed simple enough:  The boat would drive about 15 minutes or so to a potential hammerhead sighting spot (“Hammerhead Point”), then we divers would backroll into the water, drift in the current at 10 meters, watch our dive guide below at 25-30 meters, & swim furiously down towards him whenever he shook his bright yellow light–our signal that hammerheads were a-lurking.  This didn’t happen during every dive, but when it did, the rush was real.  We’d kick our fins as fast as we could, establish buoyancy before plunging too deep into the abyss (& before feeling too much nitrogen narcosis), focus our eyes like laser beams onto the invisible line protruding from the guide’s arm to wherever he was pointing, then look…  & look…  & enjoy.

Video credit:  Klaus H.

It’s moments like that, those seconds to minutes of being surrounded by hundreds of hammerhead sharks in the deep blue open ocean with no bottom in sight, that remind me why I’ve invested so much time & money & physical exertion & mental exhaustion & book learning & dives when I was so cold & uncomfortable with no visibility…  I was reminded of why I needed those moments to prepare me for incredible underwater experiences like this.

Photo credit: Oleg D.

On the last day, we rented a van to sightsee around Yonaguni, daydreaming that the abundant horses & cows around the island were actually hammerhead sharks.

Another awesome trip with the DiveZone Tokyo crew, diving friends who’ve become diving family.

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