By Bonnie Waycott
Situated in the southern seas off Kagoshima Prefecture, the island of Yakushima, famous for its lush green forests, heavy rainfall and hiking trails, is well known as a hiking destination, rather than a diving spot. Visitors trek through this UNESCO World Heritage Site for a glimpse of what is said to be Japan’s oldest tree, the Jomon Sugi, a sub-species of Japanese cedar that’s supposedly around 7,000 years old. Yakushima’s natural wonders also inspired the setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Princess Mononoke, with scenes of lush, green forests and trees.
But unlike the many hikers on the island the day I arrived, I was about to embark on my first dives into the little-known underwater world of Isso and Nagata along the north coast. These are Yakushima’s main diving areas, with shallow reefs, coral, rocks and marine life of all shapes, sizes and colors. The weather was excellent, and the sun burned brightly through the sea, lighting up the deep blue water as I prepared to dive in.
This is the final resting place of a Mitsubishi A6M zero, a long-range fighter aircraft operated by the Japanese Imperial Navy from 1940 to 1945. At first, there is nothing to see but a carpet of white sand, but soon a dark cluster emerges; a propeller wing sticks out of the sand while the rest of the wreck is buried deep beneath. Intact and with new coral growth emerging, the propeller is a riot of color, surrounded by a range of fish, shrimp and moray eels poking their heads out of their hiding spots and watching intently. Divers can lie on the sand and get really close to this structure that’s full of white sock fire shrimp, cleaner shrimp, blackspot cardinal fish and slender sweepers. There is a stream of action happening here, as fish nibble on nutrients trapped in the sea fans while tiny critters cling to the outer edge of the structure, hoping for the best vantage point to catch passing food particles.
Tearing my eyes away from the deep blue I turned my attention to a sea fan clinging to a steep wall and filtering the mild current. The bottom of the wall is sandy and a great place to crouch and lean forward to see what’s attached to the outer edges. We’d settled at around 89 feet (27m) and had begun inspecting all the nooks, crannies and soft coral on the wall, seeking out the life within. The critter to look out for here is the pygmy seahorse, clinging by its tail to the coral and swaying to and fro. Rock formations are scattered here and there at this site, providing plenty to investigate and many opportunities for photography. Schools of gold striped goatfish amble about, while sea goldies, square-spot fairy basslets and blacksided hawkfish glide slowly by.
The sandy channel floor at this site holds a multitude of life. The dive begins with a series of rocks interspersed with sandy parts, and plenty of life within the cracks. Heading deeper down, tiny jawfish keep an eye out for danger, poking out of their holes and sinking back at any hint of movement. Macro subjects such as nudibranchs and clams also abound. Little shrimp dwell deep in the rocky structures, while a tiny orange crab hides amongst the protective facade of a branch coral. The prize of the day is a good-sized turtle swimming by, gauging what was going around it and then after satisfying its curiosity, moving slowly past before departing into the deep blue. Colorful soft corals conceal much life, so much so that it can be hard to find a clear patch of rock here. Look out for the bluestripe snappers, yellowstripe goatfish, anthias, lionfish, parrotfish and zebrafish that dart around and swim past in the distance.
Yakushima is well worth a visit — you can enjoy the best of both land and sea on this fascinating little island.