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The reefs which surround Ishigaki team with life, particularly throughout the warmer months, although there's plenty to be seen during the winter too. Reefs such as those found at Yonehara are packed with tropical fish of various sizes and colours.
The multi-coloured 'irabucha', which often end up being served as sushi on Japanese dinner tables can be seen all year round, and the extremely territorial clown fish can be found on most reefs around the island.
Fugu, or blow fish, are relatively common and will quickly transform themselves into a spiky puffy ball when disturbed. Sea snakes are not uncommon and more exotic creatures like moray eels are frequently spotted in Yaeyama's waters. If you're really lucky you might even come across a sea turtle.
You don't even have to go scuba diving to see manta rays as they often congregate at 'Manta Point' which is situation just off the north coast of Kabira. However, trying to swim out to manta point at Kabira is unlikely to do much for your popularity rating on the island. This is frowned-upon, largely due to the large number of boats which ferry divers to and from the point all day. However, there are various tour operators which offer snorkeling experiences at sites where manta rays can be safely observed.
"Are there any sharks?"
This was one of the first questions which I asked at a local dive shop when I bought my snorkeling equipment. The truth is that some large predators, such as tiger sharks, do inhabit Yaeyama's waters, but the chances of seeing any while snorkeling is extremely low. There are occasional reports of shark sightings, but these are always in deeper water, or along the sides of drop offs. Large sharks never enter Yaeyama's shallow reef waters so if you want to be absolutely sure of avoiding them you should stay within the confines of the reef while snorkeling. In two years I've seen just one shark while snorkeling - a white-tipped reef shark which was patroling the outer edge of Yonehara's reef in deep water.
If you want to have a chance of seeing a shark you should probably take a ferry to Yonaguni island and go scuba diving in its deeper waters where hundreds of hammerhead sharks occasionally congregate.
Ishigaki is surrounded by impressive 'drop-offs' where the edge of reefs meet open water. In such places the depth of the water may suddenly increase from 1 or 2 meters to between 5 and 15 meters within just a few strokes. The feeling of swimming across these natural boundaries while gazing down the side of the reef as it descends into the blue below is something quite special, and the sea life is often quite different to that which can be observed within the reef. This makes drop-offs very popular amongst experienced snorkelers, particularly those who enjoy free-diving. There's plenty to see and they offer a sense of security which is often lacking when swimming further away from the shore in open ocean - if you see something which makes you uncomfortable you can quickly retreat back to the relative shallows of the reef.
However, venturing out as far as drop-offs isn't advised unless you really know what you're doing, and you should preferably go with a guide. Such areas are often pounded with large waves as deep ocean meets shallow and it's surprising how quickly conditions can change. Strong currents including rip tides aren't uncommon, and if you do get into trouble help is going to be far further away than it would be if you were snorkeling near the shore. It's also worth noting that some people can become extremely uncomfortable when they peer beyond the edge of the reef into the blue beyond - concerns about sharks, and a feeling which is vaguely akin to vertigo can kick-in. If you have any doubts at all the key is to join a snorkeling / kayaking tour or refrain from venturing to such points.
The great thing about snorkeling is that it's so cheap with a basic setup costing around 6000 yen. In addition to dive shops many of the larger fishing shops also offer snorkel equipment at very reasonable prices. The kit includes the following:
- Mask.Japanese people have lower-profile noses than most westerners so it's important to make sure that the mask fits comfortably and is well sealed.
- Snorkel. Those with a one-way valve at the bottom near the mouth piece are far superior to those without. This valve makes it far easier to eject water which has entered the snorkel and without it you'll find that you're frequently having to deal with a mouth full of water. Combined snorkel and mask sets with this feature start at around 3000 yen.
- Fins. Fins vastly enhance the quality of the snorkeling experience and improve safety. Without them you'll swim slower, tire quicker, and lose maneuverability in currents. If you don't intend to scuba dive then buy the fitted variety rather than fins which have a strap at the back. Those with the strap on the back only work well with dive boots. A reasonable pair of fitted fins will cost about 3000 yen.
- De-mist spray. This is an invaluable and more affective alternative to using spit. Apply liberally to the inside of the mask then dip in the ocean briefly to rinse. Costs about 800 yen.
- Rash guard / dive skin. These provide great protection from the sun and will keep you warm enough in Ishigaki's waters for most of the year. Some people may even find that a t-shirt is sufficient, however, dive skins provide superior protection during the jellyfish season. Dive skins start at around 5000 yen.
- Swimming shorts. Fine when combined with rash guards for most of the year.
- Wetsuits. These can be useful during Ishigaki's colder months if you plan on snorkeling for extended periods, particularly in deeper, cooler water. A half-sleeve wetsuit represents a popular compromise between a rash guard and a full wetsuit. Full wetsuits naturally provide the best protection from both the sun and jellyfish. Expensive.
- Water-resistant sunblock. The level UV exposure on Ishigaki is truly alarming. Slap it on before you get in the ocean. Apply again as soon as you get out.
- Towel. The most often forgotten part of the kit!
- Waterproof bag. Thefts on Ishigaki's beaches are very rare, but for peace of mind it may be an idea to buy a small waterproof pouch to hold keys / credit cards etc if you don't have a friend on the beach to keep an eye on your belongings.
I've mentioned safety a few times on this site but the dangers associated with snorkeling beyond your abilities can't be overstated. Ishigaki's oceans may look beautiful and harmless but the fact is that there are some very strong currents in certain areas which will carry you out into open water. Indeed, not a year goes buy without swimming / snorkeling deaths being recorded on the island.
Make sure you take notice of 'no swimming' notices (which may not be in English) and any other signs positioned at beaches (such as the one which displays current patterns at Yonehara), however, be aware that the absence of a sign doesn't indicate an absence of danger.
Shallow water blackout. One of the biggest misconceptions amongst inexperienced snorkelers (and surprisingly, some experienced individuals who should know better) is the belief that they are immune to blackouts providing that they can make it back to the surface when they feel the need to breathe. This isn't always the case. Take some time to learn about shallow water blackouts here.
If you do get caught in a strong current which is heading away from the beach (a riptide) resist the temptation of trying to swim against it. Riptides are usually quite narrow and hence can be escaped by swimming perpendicular to the direction of the current. Calmly swim parallel with the beach until the current subsides at which point you should be able to safely make your way back to the shore.
Ishigaki is not only home to habu snakes, but also habu jellyfish. While the snake enjoys greater notoriety it is the jellyfish which probably poses the greatest threat. The habu is semitransparent, making it hard to spot, and a touch from its tentacles will result in severe pain and swelling. While rare, stings can lead to respiratory and circulatory failure and deaths have been reported in Okinawa due to habu jellyfish stings.
A victim of a habu jellyfish sting should refrain from rubbing the wound and get out of the ocean immediately. Dousing the wound with vinegar followed by the careful removal of any tentacles and the application of a cold pack is usually recommended. Irrespective of the first aid kit which you have access to it's imperative that emergency medical assistance is sought without delay.
Respect the reef
Unsurprisingly one of of the main threats which Ishigaki's reefs face is damage caused by humans. If you're snorkeling with a tour guide then you should be briefed about avoiding direct contact with the reef. This is important for both your own safety and the preservation of the reef. On many occasions contact can happen unintentionally when snorkelers end up stranded in low tide when only a few centimeters of water can separate the reef from the surface of the ocean.
This is one of the main reasons that I recommend that individuals seek an experienced tour guide rather than venturing out into the ocean themselves. If you get tired you may be tempted to take a rest on the large, rock-life sections of reef. If you choose to do so please ensure that you only stand / sit on the sections which have a completely level surface.
The clear oceans and quality of light mean that Ishigaki is a great place to do some underwater photography or film making. I particularly like these examples which have been produced by san-ten, a local dive operator. Note that these videos are in high definition by default. If you're having difficulties loading or viewing this video then please click 'HD' to view a lower quality version.
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