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Into the Ryukyu Blue

Okinawa is an amazing chain of islands for divers, and the Kerama Islands are on every diver’s Okinawa “bucket list.” The beautiful islands are among the easiest to check off, since they lie just an hour south of Naha on the main island, yet it’s a world away in terms of nature and simplicity.

As soon as you step off the ferry, you can feel the transformation. Visitors often are escaping the frenetic pace of major Japanese or Asian cities, even the lively Okinawa capital of Naha. Yet, in the Keramas, surrounded by emerald and sapphire waters, beautiful beaches and majestic overlooks, it’s easy to settle into the lazy island life.

Only four of the Kerama Islands have human residents: Tokashiki, Zamami, Aka and Geruma. The Islands are diveable year ’round. However, in the summer months when the water warms up, ribbons of silvery sardines explode in columns.

Golden clouds of juvenile rabbit fish also move from the open ocean to the inner reef. Cardinal fish gather in huge shoals like copper clouds smothering the coral heads. The ocean is being reborn and is alive. It’s not uncommon to find sea turtles and seamounts frequented by blue water pelagics.

In calm seas, the Zamami Queen ferry jets you over to Zamami from Naha in just 50 minutes. Soon after leaving bustling Naha, you motor past sandy islets and submerged reefs, then cruise over a deep trench to the inner bay of Tokashiki Island. Here daytrip dive boats from Naha drop off divers and students in the water along protected bays.

We then moved up the channel and into the Zamami harbor where humpback whale sculptures greet visitors, a reminder of the area’s main winter attraction. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are regular visitors in January to April and use the Kerama Islands as their breeding ground. Seeing spouting kujira is unforgettable and something every sea lover should experience.

Passengers get on and off the ferry during a quick stop in Zamami before heading toward our destination – Aka-jima. The scenic 10-minute ride between islands passes beautiful sandy beaches, such as Ama (a great place for snorkeling with sea turtles), the Zamami Marine Park, a stunning protected marine area that includes Gahi and Agenashiku sand islands and then continues along Aka-jima coast to the popular Nishibama Beach.

We floated under the arching bridge that connects Aka-jima with Geruma-jima; the small airport visible from our boat, as well as the rocky outcrops and rock formations of coral reef-laden uninhabited islands to the southwest. These islands are part of a chain of 22 islands that hold more than 70 dive sites within easy reach of Zamami or Aka islands.

The waters around Aka are normally protected. Calm seas and sheltered bays make for easy diving and snorkeling. Visibility often exceeds 30 meters (100 feet), a real plus for marine photographers. The variety of dive sites means there is something for all levels with reasonably shallow coral-rich sites for beginners, superb drift diving and some caves and pinnacles for the more adventurous.

Once in port, we were greeted by the friendly staff from Seasir, the pioneering dive operation started by the Jacques Cousteau of the Keramas, Hideshi Inai. We were staying at the Seasir Marine House, a well-run dive-oriented pension, along Main Beach. Stand-up paddleboards lined the sandy beach and people snorkeled just offshore.

There are maybe 250 full-time residents on Aka, so getting to just about anywhere takes only minutes. We passed by some small minshuku before arriving at the Marine House, nestled back in a cool, tree-shaded dead-end street leading to a garden and some green hills.

Seasir’s senior dive guide, the highly energetic Shouji Aya, met us and asked what we wanted to see. The air con and Wi-Fi in the rooms was appealing, but we grabbed our dive gear and headed back to the dock.

Seasir has a couple of roomy, seaworthy ships ideal for cruising to the local dive sites. The water surrounding Aka-jima is fed by the all-important Kuroshio (Black Current). Healthy coral reefs have a rich diversity of sea life, making the area a treasure trove for marine scientists, divers and snorkelers.

About 360 fish species and 1,640 invertebrate species (including hermatypic corals) are found in the Kerama Islands. At the top of our “to-see” list was sea turtles. Luckily, Aka-jima has a nice variety of marine reptiles including green turtles, loggerheads and hawksbills. The protected sandy beaches are where they come every summer to lay eggs and mate.

Our first dive did not disappoint. We spotted at least five green sea turtles and three hawksbills. Some were resting and some sleeping. One swam to the surface for a breath and came back to join us. The site was covered in coral heads separated by sandy channels.

Bubble sea anemones held clownfish, clouds of small copper sweepers covered some corals and filled reef cuts while sea snakes wove in and out of reef cracks and crevices. The dive staff was knowledgeable and had a good sense of humor, and we were looking forward to the dives ahead.

For the next two days, we explored coral reefs. South of Geruma-jima in the East China Sea, we found some of the healthiest coral in the South Pacific. One site had a mass of sweepers, in a current-fed area, where red gorgonian sea fans and lush soft corals thrived. It was a natural work of art.

We were led to an open bay near Ojima to dive a special seamount called Shimozone, home to endemic butterfly fish. Fusiliers made the deep blue canvas come alive with color and movement as we watched maguro and Spanish mackerel cruise the depths. Soft corals, sea fans and ubiquitous regal blue tangs completed the picture.

We took many strolls and a few short car trips to see the jungle paths, overlooks and isolated beaches on Aka-jima. Aka is noted for its terrestrial wildlife, especially the birds, butterflies and a spider called the golden silk orb-weaver spider that makes a beautiful web.

I was also hoping to see Kerama deer. It is an introduced subspecies of the Japanese deer unique to the Keramas. Herds are seen swimming between the islands. These deer have been designated a national protected species of Japan.

The summer sun sets late in Okinawa, and after dinner I was working off a bit of Seasir’s generous buffet by following a trail I hoped would go to a beach. Right in front of me a Kerama doe jumped across the trail. She stopped not far into the jungle, and I was able to watch her before she made her way deeper into the foliage.

On our final dive day, we went to some macro sites looking for small, rare creatures. Most are found around Zamami Marine Park and in the shallow bays along Zamami’s shores where pearl farms now flourish. Our quest was to find sand gobies on the flowing rippled sand floor of the marine park.

With a refreshing current whisking along the open spaces, we found some rare and beautifully colored gobies working with their bulldozer shrimp. Jawfish also love this environment, as did mantis shrimps.

In the silty bay shallows we found sea snakes, yellow blennies, mat anemones with feisty clownfish and beautifully colored delicate hard corals. It is a mucky environment that consistently produces the odd and unusual.

The beauty of the Kerama Islands is that it has a huge range of diversity in its dive sites and in the creatures you find there. That evening we watched clouds backlit by the setting sun. The clouds looked exactly like those on Okinawa’s main island and made a fitting end to a great week exploring the Keramas.

We returned on a larger, slower ferry said to be more fun than the fast one. We went up top to a large open deck to soak up the warm afternoon sun. Modern-day hippies and vagabonds scattered across the ship’s roof playing the mouth harp, doing yoga and tuning out and turning on to music on their iPods.

The sublime atmosphere illustrated the fact everyone who makes the trip to the Keramas has a good time.

PRACTICALITIES

Getting to Naha: International travelers usually fly to Tokyo or Osaka. From these hubs there are numerous daily flights to Naha on national carriers, and recently low cost carriers such as JetStar Japan have made it easier than ever to get to the islands. There are also direct flights from Taiwan to Naha.

Naha to the Keramas: There are two ferries that service Zamami and Aka from Naha: the Queen Zamami 3 and Ferry Zamami. Both leave from Tomari Port on Highway 58 in western Naha. Mitsu-shima is a small passenger speedboat that runs between Aka and Zamami four times daily.

Note you will want to make a reservation if you are taking the ferries during busy times (Golden Week, Obon, summer weekends). Tel: (098) 868-4567.

Getting Around: Zamami and Aka islands have a limited number of taxis, but rental bicycles, scooters and cars are available. For motor-powered vehicles, a valid international driver’s license is required.

Money: Bring cash (yen). The only place to get cash on Zamami and Aka is the ATM at the post office.

SCUBA DIVING

The water temperature in Okinawa and surrounding islands is very mild. Water temperatures in the summer are warm, around 29 C (84 F), which allows divers to use 3-mm. wetsuits or even dive without a wetsuit. However, it can be cool below 10 meters (30 feet) even in summer, so a 2-3-mm. wetsuit is best. In winter, water temperatures rarely drop below 19 C (66 F) and most divers are comfortable using 5-mm. wetsuits.

Aka Dive Shops

Seasir Naha offers daily trips for Kerama scuba diving and snorkeling, mostly to sites near Tokashiki. Seasir also runs a nice pension on Aka Island and offers scuba diving, snorkeling, sea kayak and stand-up paddleboard. Tel: 0120-10-2743 (Toll-Free: Japanese Line); Tel: 090-8668-6544 (English Line).

Zamami Dive Shops

Marine Shop Heartland offers daily dives. Momo, their English-speaking dive guide, uses a tablet underwater to communicate.

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