It’s hardly possible to mention Okinawa without thinking of the ocean, with its clear waters, beautiful coral reefs, and almost all-year dive-friendly climate. Even though I was there on a general vacation with two non-diver friends, it was impossible (even for them) to resist spending some of our time there out among the teeming reefs. One of them rarely even swam, but that didn’t stop her from setting her mind on diving with sea turtles and colourful fish.
While some of Okinawa’s most famous and pristine dive spots were out around the more distant islands such as Yonaguni and Ishigaki island, since this was a regular vacation and not a dive trip, we decided to remain based in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture. The Kerama Islands(慶良間諸島), west of the main island, were just 45 minutes away by boat, and boasted some stunning reefs and wildlife of their own. Our plan was to take two day trips out to the Kerama Islands for diving and/or snorkelling, and return each evening to Naha.
The advantage of this was that we had the best of both worlds, being able to spend our evenings enjoying the lively but quaint bustle of the city, as well as all the culinary and cultural experiences it has to offer. For example, on one evening we had dinner at an izakaya along Kokusaidori, where we were treated to live traditional Okinawan music while we munched on Okinawan soba and, of course, Okinawa’s famous ‘sea grapes’. It’s basically like fish roe for vegetarians. Dope stuff.
The band was really good at engaging the audience and involving us in the performance with call-and-answer segments and even a bit of traditional dance near the end. The dance part pretty much ended up how you would expect it to with a room full of tipsy people—hilarious but weirdly adorable. Not pictured here because it seemed exploitative to take videos of happy drunk people letting their guard down and having fun. Instead, have a picture of the evil masterminds who had us all embarrassing ourselves: Getting back to the diving, we did this across two days, with a different dive shop each day. The first day was with Paradise Club Okinawa, while the second was with Joy Create Okinawa Tea-Da. Paradise Club, despite sounding like some kind of hostess club, was actually the more ‘premium’ of the two, with a significantly higher price point and a smaller group per trip. Their boat had a slightly fancier cabin and a cleaner toilet. It also offered freediving (called skin diving in Japan) as an ‘official’ activity. Tea-Da (I don’t come up with these names) was more affordable, but only offered scuba and snorkelling, and the boat was pretty crowded. Otherwise, in terms of boat size, equipment, and professionalism of the guides/instructors, the two were pretty much comparable. We went for a freediving tour with Paradise Club, and a turtle-focused scuba + snorkelling tour with Tea-Da.
On the first day, the people from Paradise Club picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the pier. The first order of the day was, of course, the long-ish boat ride out to the Kerama Islands. It wasn’t that far compared to many of the other islands that constitute Okinawa, but there was still some pretty respectable open sea-crossing involved, and at one point the waves were pretty big! At times the boat jumped high enough that our butts left the seat for a couple of seconds. Luckily, we didn’t get seasick, and so it was a bit like getting a free thrill ride as part of the dive package.
When we arrived at our first dive spot, the water was very calm, in stark contrast to the rough patch of ocean we had crossed to get there. We were given 5mm full-length wetsuits to wear, as the water was a bit chilly. Around late June, the water temperature around Kerama Islands was supposed to be about 26°C, but because it had been raining quite a lot the past few days, when we were there it dropped to around 22-24°C according to the guides. When I actually got in, it was really chilly at first but manageable once I got over the initial shock. The water was also noticeably less salty than most other places I’ve been too, which made water getting into my snorkel a lot less unpleasant.
Since the first day was dedicated to freediving, the majority of my wildlife footage was taken on this day, as I had a lot more mobility and my hands were totally free to wield a camera. And boy, was the wildlife spectacular. Snorkelling at the surface and looking down, the entire reef was teeming with colour and life, and I often had trouble deciding which fish to go after for a closer shot, because there were just so many and they were all so beautiful.
Among the more memorable fish that I encountered was this peacock hind. At least in my experience, slightly larger fish tend to be the most skittish (compared to the tiny ones who literally do not care if you swim right into them), but it remained still until I was fairly close before taking off, flashing its striking blue fins and white stripes at me.
Another somewhat uncommon fish I spotted was this adorable white-spotted boxfish.
Moon wrasses were all over the place in both the blue and green/yellow varieties, but this one was particularly bold and swam right up to my camera instead of fleeing like most of its kind.
Most of the triggerfish I saw were pink-tailed triggerfish, but at some point I also saw (what I think was) a couple of red-toothed triggerfish. These are really fast and agile, so I couldn’t really get close enough to see the red mouth, but here’s a picture that shows its distinctive blue lyre-shaped tail with the long trailing bits.
And of course, clownfish! The orange one pictured here was a bit more nonchalant about me approaching, compared to a couple of black ones I had seen earlier who glowered belligerently (I swear I could sense the hostility) out at me from between the tendrils of their anemone.
Besides the above, I also saw many other lovely creatures, and thoroughly enjoyed my time swimming among them (okay, more like finning desperately after them trying to get a good shot before my breath hold runs out). The sheer quantity and diversity of life on the reefs around Zamami and Tokashiki Islands really blew me away.
The highlight of the day was no doubt my surprise discovery that lionfish can cling to and hang off rocks! I’d never seen one in the wild before, and had no idea they did anything other than swim around like regular fish.
So the story begins with me following a particularly large pink-tailed triggerfish, which swam under this rocky overhang that formed a sort of mini-cave.
As I dived down and swam under the overhang, the triggerfish slipped into a crevice and eluded me. While I was searching for it, out of the corner of my eye I saw a strange frilly shape sticking out of the rocks above me. It took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing, but it was actually lionfish nestled in a little hollow in the rock, hanging diagonally upside-down! I got super excited, and naturally that cut my breath hold short, so I went up for air and then came back to take a better shot of my discovery. At least lionfish don’t run away like most of the other fish!
After spending our morning and afternoon in two different dive spots, we headed back to Naha and were driven back to our hotel, after which we headed out for dinner (Motobu beef steak!) and to explore the city. The next morning, we headed out to sea once again with the other dive shop, Tea-Da.
None of us had a scuba license (one of my friends and I had only completed one confined water session), so we signed up for a ‘discover scuba’ type thing. At the first dive spot, we received a short theory lesson, after which we did some snorkelling while waiting for the licensed divers to get back from their dives. At least, it was supposed to be snorkelling, but I managed to convince them to let me use weights and do some light freediving (they had a PADI skin diving certified instructor who agreed to be my safety) by flexing my Wave 2 certification. See, taking a course is useful, guys.
At the next dive spot, we switched to scuba mode. The instructor guided us to do some safety drills and equipment handling practice at the surface, made sure that we all could equalize, and then brought us down to look for interesting wildlife.
We were in luck! Insanely lucky, in fact. We got the chance to see a hawksbill turtle up close! This one was clearly used to all the dive tourists coming here, as it wasn’t afraid of us at all, and lingered curiously to stare back at all the humans gawking at it. It even swam close enough to touch some of us with its flippers. There was also a fish that kept hanging around it, almost like a sidekick! Super adorable.
On this trip, I got to do both freediving and a bit of scuba. On the boat ride back to Naha after our final dive, I had some thoughts about these two different types of diving and how I felt about them in the context of fun dives. For me, I think each has a different trade-off. With scuba, I liked being able to stay down much longer and really observe the behaviour of wildlife over an extended period. The more gradual descent and slower movements also mean that fish are less likely to flee. On the other hand, I really enjoy the freedom and mobility that freediving affords, unencumbered by equipment and able to freely twist and flip to look at things from every angle.
Overall, while scuba was definitely more comfortable and conducive for watching wildlife up close, when freediving I felt more like a part of the natural environment rather than an alien visitor, and there was also a greater sense of discovery. There’s something really satisfying about surveying the reef from a bird’s eye view on the surface, spotting something interesting and then making a quick dive down to get a closer look, often discovering something new or surprising as you dive deeper.
For example, there was this isolated rock among plain white sand that looked like just a regular lifeless rock from the surface. However, when I dove down to get close, I found that it was actually an oasis of life amidst the bare sand, with a cloud of tiny fish swarming around it. I even caught a brief glimpse of a colourful spotted fish swimming through its crevices. The fact that my visit is brief, fleeting, and a departure from the comfort zone of the surface somehow makes the moment of discovery even more impactful.
Similarly, there was another instance when I spotted a sea snake pretty far off, and made a quick descent to follow it. I didn’t manage to get very close before my contractions kicked in due to swimming really hard to try to catch up to it, but once again I felt the thrill of leaving my comfort zone behind.
All in all, I really enjoyed all my dives, if sometimes for different reasons. I fell in love with Okinawa’s ocean on this trip, and while the rest of the week was spent mostly on land sightseeing, I’d definitely want to come back again for a dive trip, perhaps to some of the other islands that I haven’t yet seen.