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Asia travel

Dive with hammerhead sharks in the crystal-clear waters of Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island

  • The waters around Yonaguni are exceptionally clear and are home to amazing rock formations
  • Large schools of hammerhead sharks pass the island between January and May
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 7:19pm

The turbulence does not dampen our excitement as we peer out of the aeroplane window. Below us, like an emerald in the deep blue sea, the small and windswept island of Yonaguni appears.

My wife and I have picked this unusual spot on the westernmost edge of Japan – a mere three hours flight from Hong Kong – for a last minute weekend family trip.

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While it is also known for hiking and birdwatching, Yonaguni is most famous for its underwater world. In 1987 Kihachiro Aratake found a mysterious rock formation while searching for a good place to observe sharks. Strangely polished rock surfaces and the round openings in the rock made it look like an underwater temple – remnants of an old civilisation.

The endless clarity of the water – visibility of over 30 metres is not uncommon here – gives it an even more magical feel.

Soon after our arrival, I have a chance to explore this underwater world with the help of Yonaguni Diving Service. While outside temperatures are in the single digits, the water is still surprisingly warm. As our dive group of four glides slowly along what resembles a fortress wall, I cannot stop wondering: is it man-made? Natural?

For several decades, scientists have been debating the origin of these rock formations, and there are arguments supporting both sides. While the multitude of rectangular shaped formations strongly suggest human influence, geologists have argued that the strong currents and surface cracks through earthquake make natural origins more plausible.

We dive through a small opening the entrance, pass by a formation that resembles a disused staircase, and arrive at a structure called the sundial. It features two discs with triangular shaped cut ins. I float around it, mesmerised. “This has been made by hand,” says our dive guide, Yuki, convinced. The rest of us can’t help but agree.

Our discussion continues over dinner back at our hotel – which, at four storeys is probably the tallest building on the island. The food here is closely linked to Okinawan cuisine, with fresh fish, delicious tempura and a sea grape salad. The waiter Tamiko, whose family has lived on the island for centuries, brings out the sanshin, a local string instrument with similarities to the banjo and entertains us with local tunes.

The embracing hospitality and our underwater adventures help us forget the rain and wind that is pouring outside our hotel.

Since our morning arrival, the sky, hidden behind dark clouds, has barely shown itself. This is typical of the island, I am assured by the locals. Strong gusts rattle the windows, and it is so wet that even the Yonaguni horses – a small breed, native to the island – seek shelter where they can.

However it’s not these petite horses that we have come to see. It is an ancient species of shark that has been known to roam these waters – the hammerhead. Large schools of these distinct looking creatures have been spotted passing the island from January to May, with people reporting seeing up to 100 in one dive.

It has always been on my bucket list. We head out for a few more dives. “It’s blue water diving, so be careful,” says Yuki, warning us not to get lost. Jumping into the open ocean, with no bottom, landmarks or reference points in view, is an eerie experience.

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Once underwater, we stare into the deep, deep blue. There is something meditative about floating in these clear waters with nothing around us. Sadly, there are no hammerheads, and so we return.

Given we are only a short trip from shore, I take a second dive, hoping to be more lucky this time. The big swell is making even the 10-minute boat ride uncomfortable. It is a relief to get into the water, though once again all we can see is clear blue. Frustrated, I check my remaining air, which is running low. Just before we are about to give up on any sighting, Yuki signals us to ascend, and three of the creatures appear out of nowhere.

The sharks venture close to us, allowing us to admire their unusually shaped heads. Excited, I follow them into the endless blue, completely losing orientation in my distraction. Thankfully, I catch myself and force myself to return before making a potentially lethal mistake.

Back on the boat everybody is smiling and even the Japanese dive guides seem relieved. Still radiant from the unexpected sighting I decide to skip the last dive, and instead take our young daughter on an exploratory island hike while my wife gets her chance to see the sharks.

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Yonaguni has only 1,700 inhabitants in three villages. On first impression it looks somewhat deserted, but we are lucky, and find a local cafe. Tucked away in a small side street of Sonai, Yonaguni’s largest village, is the tiny DaiDai Caf. The waiter greets us with a big smile and – before I have a chance to contemplate the menu – serves us two generous slices of apple tart.

The tart is delicious. Refreshed by our teatime stop, we head to the cliffs overlooking the village. A nice path has been cut into the steep rock with great vistas all along. Beneath us, the lush green of the island is dotted with small houses, a sleepy port and deserted beaches. Further out the coastline on the horizon I see a dive boat chugging in the sea. Have they been lucky?

When we reunite my wife’s smile says it all. They saw not just one of the famous sea creatures, but hundreds. Happy and fulfilled, we say goodbye to this special place – an island at the end of the world.

How to get there

Yonaguni is served with several short flights daily (45 minutes) from Ishigaki by Ryukyu Air from Ishigaki. Ishigaki has twice weekly direct flight from Hong Kong by Hong Kong Express. Connections through Okinawa are also available. There is also a ferry service between Ishigaki and Yonaguni.

Where to stay

Unlike Ishigaki, the small island of Yonaguni features only a few accommodation options. Ailand Hotel (ailand-resort.co.jp) is the only hotel, however there are several small bed and breakfasts on the island (for more information: yona-shoko.com). Divers can also arrange accommodation through the dive schools.

Dive schools: 

There are two dive schools in the village of Kubura on the western tip of the island: Yonaguni Diving Service (yonaguniyds.com) and Sou Wes Diving (yonaguni.jp). Although both centres cater mostly to Japanese clients, English speaking dive guides are available.