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Reclaiming the Seas of Sanriku

On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history triggered a massive tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region. Since the disaster, a group of volunteer divers has been collecting debris washed away by the colossal waves and helping fishermen protect and harvest the marine species that have been their livelihood for centuries. Four-and-a-half years after the disaster, Bonnie Waycott returns to the Sanriku Coast and visits Ofunato’s Koishihama Bay in Iwate Prefecture, to take part in the latest volunteer efforts.

In the distance, rising above a vivid backdrop of deep below, removing debris while boats with specialized Swaying weightlessly in the water, these filter feeders blue, a row of ropes emerges, each covered with healthy-looking scallops, sea squirts and bits of kelp and seaweed that sway gently to and fro. Small jellyfish and a few shoals of feeding fish hover close by, lighting up in our torches as we move toward what looks like a giant curtain.

Visiting this underwater scallop farm in Koishihama Bay is just one of many ways volunteer divers from across Japan are involved with the Tohoku undersea recovery process. It all began when Iwate native Hiroshi Sato left his job as a diving instructor in Thailand to return home to the confusion and destruction a few days after March 11.

One day, while involved in the clean-up, some local fishermen asked him to help retrieve some fishing gear and boat parts. This led to a huge underwater cleanup, and a group called Sanriku Volunteer Divers emerged from the debris. They have been diving almost every day since. The divers generally work at about six-to-10 meters below, removing debris while boats with specialized equipment are called in to remove bigger items such as cars or tree trunks. Holding one end of a rope, the divers head underwater in search of anything they can find and tie their rope around.

Meanwhile a volunteer on land holds the other end of the rope and waits for a signal (two or three tugs) before helping the diver haul items out of the water. Those on land can also assist by sorting and cleaning debris brought ashore.

The Sanriku Coast has long been a major fishing ground, employing and supporting the lives of countless locals, but after the disaster everything changed. In Koishihama, the tsunami swept away young scallops and rafts, and only two of the 40 fishing boats in the bay survived.

Today, things are once again up and running; 16 of the 17 scallop-farming families in the area have resumed work. Fishing boats haul in large catches of Koishihama hotate (scallops) each day. The scallops live along fixed ropes stretching down nearly 50 meters to the seabed.

Swaying weightlessly in the water, these filter feeders are thriving, opening and closing in the fresh cool sea. The volunteers regularly monitor them using torches to check whether they look healthy and if any have died and fallen off the ropes.

Working at around 20 meters, they’re also on the lookout for items such as nets, wires or plastic bags that might have become entangled in the ropes.

Using debris they find, volunteers also help create physical structures with seaweed and kept that provide food and shelter for marine communities such as abalone. The divers survey the seabed and take photos and footage as part of efforts to record the latest underwater conditions.

Aqua-farming shelves have been built for sea squirts, and Hiroshi’s efforts to remove debris from a local river have allowed salmon to return. One of the area’s main attractions before the disaster was the Salmon Swim, where visitors don a mask and snorkel to observe salmon running upstream after their four-year oceanic migration.

The fish are slowly coming back, and with the help of a local fishery cooperative, Hiroshi is working with facilities that farm and release the salmon when they are fully grown.

He and his group are also renovating an old house, which will eventually become a dive shop. Next to Koishihama Station on the Sanriku Railway Line is the Koishihama Hotate Deck (Scallop Deck) where Hiroshi plans to create a small office and gallery for underwater photographs.

The group also visits primary and junior high schools to introduce their activities, while adults can find out more through seminars and talks that occasionally take place in cities such as Osaka and Tokyo.

Although the 2011 disaster caused the Sanriku Coastline to subside nearly a meter, rich nursery grounds for fish and other species actually increased as a result.

Eelgrass can now grow and thrive over a wider area, and two currents (Oyashio and Kuroshio) collide along the Sanriku coast, creating ideal conditions for thick, strong seaweed and sea squirts that grow abundantly, thanks to the large amounts of plankton.

Closer to shore, fun dives are also available for volunteers at Namiita Beach, where divers who like macro life can spend time exploring the rocky topography and enjoying the underwater vegetation of this temperate region of Japan.

Approaching five years since the disaster, the Sanriku Volunteer Divers aim to expand their efforts to other disaster-struck areas in Tohoku. They are arranging charity dives and expanding the scope of their work with hopes to create an eco-tourist attraction, where volunteers can educate visitors about the natural environment, history and the future of the area.

Each year, Hiroshi attends Tokyo’s Marine Diving Fair and talks about the latest recovery efforts, sharing tips and advice on photographing the salmon in the river. During last year’s event he said, “It’s vital to continue spreading the word about the group and its activities, but what’s even more important is to thank those who have taken the time to volunteer.”

In the words of one local fisherman, “Although the disaster changed our lives, the fact that so many people have come to help from across Japan and abroad has been extremely encouraging. Having people come to the area is a joyous occasion, and we owe the volunteers a great deal of thanks.”

While the Sanriku Volunteer Divers continue their work, Hiroshi’s hope is not to rebuild the area to how it was before, but to create a new and different Sanriku Coast that emerges from the debris even stronger than before.


Getting There: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shinhanamaki (two-and-a-half to three hours from Tokyo). At Shinhanamaki, change to the JR Kamaishi Line and take an express to Kamaishi (an hour and a half). From there, take the Sanriku Railway Minami-Rias Line toward Sakari and get off at Koishihama Station (35 minutes).

Getting Around: Hiring a car is a good option to explore the area. Taxis also run frequently in Ofunato.

When to Go: The warmest months of the year are July and August when temperatures reach between 23-30C. January and February have the lowest temperatures at around minus 5C.

Water Temperature: Water temps vary between 5C in March and April to around 28-30C in August and 15-20C in October. A 5-mm. wetsuit will suffice in summer, but a dry suit works well from October onward.

Accommodation: The Hotel Tsubaki in Ofunato is a newly refurbished building offering Japanese and Western-style rooms for ¥6,200 a night, including breakfast, and ¥7,500 a night including breakfast and dinner. Towels, showers, hairdryers and other amenities are available, as well as a small public bath on the ground floor. Web: www.hoteltsubaki.com


Learn more about the Sanriku Volunteer Divers.

Read more about Bonnie Waycott’s time volunteering with the group in 2011

The local fishermen don’t speak much English and can only answer basic English e-mail inquiries. If you don’t speak Japanese and want to dive in Ofunato, Bonnie can provide information and travel details. Email bonniewaycott@gmail.com or visit her Facebook page: Rising Bubbles.

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