On Another Planet — Japan: Part 1

Striped boarfish hanging out beneath a ledge

Anna and I had been talking for a decade about taking a diving trip to Japan, but we couldn't quite muster the gumption to put a package together. Our reluctance had come to a quick end by the time Richard Smith finished showing us images from his recent visit to Japan's Izu Peninsula and the southern island of Hachijo-jima. One after another, fish we had never seen or even imagined popped onto his laptop screen. He saved the best for last: an exquisite seahorse no bigger than a button.

Eleven months later, five of us, including Smith, find ourselves clutching a thick rope as we shuffle backward down a slope toward a lava-lined cove. The water is turbulent from the early effects of a typhoon that's spinning its way up from Micronesia. Once we're underwater and away from shore it's smooth sailing. We disappear into a world of fishes so offbeat it is as if we are on another planet.

Along the edge of a canyon we come face to face with a whiskered, bony-headed boarfish the size of a platter. A pair of equally outrageous morwongs peers out from a ledge. Nearly every fish is new to us — new damselfishes, new butterflyfishes and new blennies. After an hour our guide, Kotaro, rounds us up and herds us back toward the entry point. That's when it dawns on me that I had totally forgotten to look for the pygmy seahorse, the reason we are diving the cove under such testy conditions. Our exit isn't graceful. Before we even catch our breath and sort through the strewn gear, Kotaro is on his phone scheduling a boat for the afternoon.

Dragon moray
Although choppy, the seas in the lee of the island are manageable aboard the traditional Japanese fishing vessel Kotaro arranged. The captain drops us on an underwater arch loaded with fish — including dragon morays, we've been told. I've always wanted to see one. Who wouldn't? They're one of the flashiest eels in the sea; each wears a personalized coat of cartoon colors.

Dragon morays prefer chilly water, and I don't. That's why I have yet to see one. My gauge reads 68°F, but I'm not complaining. I'm handling the temperature fine in a 5mm wetsuit and vest. And besides, who has time to be cold? In the distance I see a male fairy wrasse showing off for his harem, and I'm after him. I slow down a short distance away to consider my options. In a minute I'm onto the Romeo's routine, and I position myself near a group of his egg-laden females. Sure enough, he sails close in a blaze of color, circles twice and streaks away. My eye is still following him off in the distance when Anna comes flying up, waving wildly. I follow her yellow frog-kicking fins to my first dragon moray. It's a beauty.

During the night the typhoon takes a promising turn to the west. The wind is still gusty, but the sky breaks blue, giving us the confidence to sneak back around the island to look for the seahorse. This time we're diving from the boat. I choose a secluded section of the wall and begin what I intend to be a disciplined search. I would not make a good soldier: Within minutes an unfamiliar brown speck of fish peeking out from a crack catches my attention. Squinting, I lean closer and spook the fish back into the shadows. It takes some time to get a clear view of a green-eyed goby accessorized with oversized fins. By the time I remember my mission I'm 50 minutes into the dive. I cast a guilty glance over my shoulder. Not far away the others remain on task, methodically scouring the wall for the fabled seahorse.

Fairy wrasse displaying courtship colors

During the night the storm spirals back in our direction, prompting an early morning powwow. Weighing options, we decide to cut our Hachijo-jima stay short and set off for the airport to reschedule flights. With clerical matters settled, we make a late-morning dive in the harbor and then venture offshore in the afternoon for a final dive on a deepwater slope that connects to a shallow-topped seamount.

We make our drop beneath a blanket of black clouds. Eighty feet below it is as dark as night. Instinctively, everyone moves up the incline in search of light until we find ourselves hunkered down inside a gully on a 30-foot-deep tabletop. "A disappointing last dive on Hachijo-jima," I'm thinking at the very instant I see Kotaro lurch back from the wall with both arms flung to the side. Suddenly there is no typhoon brewing, no early departure, no swells and no dreary sky. In their place is a finely cut, wafer-thin seahorse no bigger than a button bathed in the beam of Kotaro's hand light.

Undescribed Japanese pygmy seahorse

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2016