On Another Planet — Japan: Part 2

Koke-ginpo (blenny), Neoclinus bryope

"You shouldn't be a diver if you're not willing to be blown out from time to time." That's the advice I've been spouting for years, which has come back to haunt me as our traveling troop of five divers stuffs gear into a van double-parked in downtown Tokyo. It has been less than two days since a typhoon chased us off the southern island of Hachijo. And here we go again, running ahead of the weather, this time leaving a prepaid apartment two days early in an attempt to beat a second storm marauding its way toward our next destination, Japan's Izu Peninsula. Did I mention it's not yet dawn and it's beginning to rain?

Four hours later Shingo Suzuki, our dive guide and driver, pulls onto an overlook of Suruga Bay with iconic Mt. Fuji rising in the distance. Shingo points below to the inner bay at Osezaki — the most visited dive park on Izu. Much of the site's popularity is due to Cape Ose, a long finger of land sheltering a beach-lined basin a quarter mile across. In fair weather, experienced divers prefer the rocky slope on the outside of the cape, but with the seas still unsettled from last week's storm, the inner bay is our best bet for getting into the water. Ten minutes later the van disappears inside a warren of multistory hotels, restaurants and dive shops crisscrossed by a maze of walkways, paths and blind alleys cluttered with indecipherable signage. Without Shingo we would have been totally lost; instead he has us underwater within an hour.

Japanese searobin, Lepidotrigla japonica

As expected, much of the bay is a mess. We are 20 feet down the sand slope before the visibility breaks in our favor. By 40 feet it has improved enough for us to concentrate on the animals. Unlike Hachijo's volcanic shoreline that has plenty of hiding holes to attract sea life, open sand bottoms offer few safe havens. But as always, life adapts.

Pinecone fish, Monocentris japonica
Over the ages a thriving community of crustaceans, mollusks and worms has evolved to live beneath the surface. To combat all the burying and burrowing, predators came up with some nifty tricks of their own. The pair of searobins we encounter at 70 feet are a prime example. The delicate rays of their ventral fins have transformed into claws for raking animals out of the bottom, and their pectoral fins have grown into wings flared to exaggerate their size.

While swimming back up the slope we run into an assortment of boat hulls and other nautical trash sunk over decades as fish attractors. They have done their job well. Through 10 feet of haze we see fish everywhere inside the sanctuaries. It's a kaleidoscope of species different from the Caribbean or Indonesia or even from the fish we discovered at Hachijo earlier this week. Diving, like Paris, is truly a moveable feast.

Juvenile John dory, Zeus faber

The next morning the weather is worse, but Shingo is upbeat. He has been checking around and believes he has the bearing on a juvenile John dory, a species we have to look up in a field guide to know what he's talking about. In the world of Japanese fish watchers, this is a trophy — a piece of pop art with spines like spears and a big bullseye tattooed on its side. We eventually find our fish at 50 feet. But afterward everyone agrees it's time to move on.

Futo, the only other dive park open, is a two-hour drive east across the mountainous peninsula. On the way, Shingo keeps our minds off the bad weather with tales of pinecone fish and the possibility of finding a baby horn shark. When we arrive, fishermen are hauling boats onto shore, and the few divers around are heading back up the slope. A motorized cart takes us to a staging area where a guide rope leading down a concrete ramp disappears into chest-high rollers. We are able to sneak in three dives before the growing storm surge forces us out of the water the following afternoon.

Cocktail wrasse, Pteragogus flagellifer
By nature we are a happy bunch, but that evening while sitting around a table in our hotel restaurant enjoying a third tokkuri of sake, we're all feeling especially good. Even though the edge of the typhoon howls outside, for the first time in two weeks no one feels obliged to check on or even mention the weather. It's as if all the fretting and anxiety from our dashing about for two weeks went up in smoke with the stroke of a magician's wand. Only good memories remain.

After two more days in Tokyo, I head home with a tailwind and a new adage to spout, à la Yogi Berra: "A trip doesn't have to be perfect to be perfect."

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2016