In the blue waters off Ishigaki Island in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, a huge manta ray sweeps past an excited crowd of divers. The divers watch in awe as it drifts into the distance before turning and coming back to within metres, followed by another and then another. More divers submerge into the sea from the surrounding dive boats as the mantas circle in quick succession, playfully dancing in the water column and delighting their audience as they cross and entwine one another…
Just three and a half hours away by direct plane from Tokyo, Ishigaki is the main island and second largest in Okinawa’s Yaeyama archipelago, and sits in the heart of one of Japan’s most celebrated diving areas. It features profuse coral growth, clear blue water, shoals of fish of various species, turtles and more, but what makes it ultimately special is the crowd of manta rays that gather close to Kabira Bay on the island’s west coast. Manta City and Manta Scramble are two of the most famous dive sites, where manta rays literally scramble to be cleaned between April and November when the wind blows mainly from the south.
Both sites are also accessible between December and March, provided conditions are good. With an 80% chance of seeing mantas, divers can get reasonably close to them at numerous rock formations that act as underwater cleaning stations.
There, they can stay still next to the rocks at around 10m, watching the mantas hang out while small fish pick at their skin, removing bits of dead flesh. Perfectly content with the plankton-filled water, the mantas approach slowly, hovering overhead for several minutes before departing into the deep blue.
More Than Mantas
With much focus on these beautiful creatures, Manta Scramble and Manta City are usually on the agenda for divers but if the manta rays don’t appear, or the manta parade isn’t enough, there is still a lot to see. This diving destination is rich with life no matter which dive site is chosen. Large structures with steep sides rise from the deep, while coral slopes and gardens sparkle with reef fish. Resident turtles, entirely used to divers, follow close by or simply go about their business without fear or apparent regard.
Schools of anthias fish give their name to Osaki Hanagoi Reef or Anthias Reef, where marine life is profuse and small rocks dot the area, swathed in gorgonians and a range of colour. Sea goldies and white-rayed shrimp gobies are encountered at almost every turn, while leopard moray eels watch divers intently and remain on guard.
Mash 1 and 2 are home to large, complex mushroom-like structures that begin at around 6 – 10m of water and extend down to a sand bottom. In the shallow portions, the fish life is especially dense with trumpet fish, reef-top pipefish and box cleaner fish, as well as many different butterfly and angelfish.
The nutrient-rich waters feed a spectacular array of hard and soft corals, and the dives expose blennies, arrow crabs and shrimps occupying every nook and cranny. The resplendent Coral Bridge is a huge amphitheatre of vast coral gardens. The marine life that has already taken up refuge in and around the area is a sight to behold — most notable are the numerous forms of macrolife from nudibranchs to sea slugs and coral crabs.
Fans of the small stuff will enjoy leisurely cruising over the coral, hovering up close and peering into the gaps in search of anything tiny and vibrant, before heading up and resting in the bright sunlight at the surface.
Winter in Ishigaki is also not to be overlooked. Although the water is cold, it’s worth visiting for a show of courtship, competition and mating when cuttlefish in the area begin to spawn.
Care and Conservation
As well as being a diving mecca, this destination also plays a key role in protecting endangered coral reefs and encouraging local communities to play their part in sustainability.
Central to this work is Shiraho village, which is working closely with a 12km-stretch of fringing coral reef, one of the world’s largest areas of blue coral. Here, an initiative has been launched to plant shell flower or getto, a species of ginger (Alpina speciosa) to stop the runoff of red soil from the fields and the influx of household effluents, while local residents, farmers, fishermen and the tourism industry are coming together to share information and facilitate conservation efforts by testing water samples, investigating species diversity and developing a fragrant room spray from getto to sell at a regular Sunday market, with part of the proceeds going towards coral conservation. However, since the revelation in a 2016 survey that 80 – 90% of coral near Ishigaki had been bleached, a crucial time has begun for the island to further accelerate its conservation efforts.
With so many islands in Okinawa, Ishigaki could be overlooked for some of Japan’s other dive options, but its opalescent sapphire water, sandy beaches and tourism infrastructure have helped make it one of Japan’s most visited places.
This destination is not just diving; it’s wellness, relaxation and somewhere quiet, far from the blinking lights of the capital, a place to relax and soak up a laid-back friendly atmosphere, quite the contrast after a frenetic Tokyo.
* Dive shop Umicoza also offers English-speaking guides. The school opened in 1985 and is owned by Makoto Sonoda who has been diving in Ishigaki for more than 30 years. Check out their website for more information.