Diving Yonaguni : Mission Hammerhead Sharks

After my first trip to Okinawa in June last year, I decided to delay my visit to go diving Yonaguni and Ishigaki to the beginning of this year. Knowing that winter is not the best season for diving Yonaguni because of the winds and currents, why would I do this? The reason I went so early in the season was to see the hammerhead sharks migrating near Yonaguni every year between January and March. I had seen one hammerhead shark 9 years ago on a dive in Cozumel, Mexico, so seeing hammerhead sharks was something I had been eager to for years. I thought seeing schooling hammerhead sharks was something I would only be able to see in the Galapagos or Coco Islands on expensive liveaboards. The perspective of getting a chance of doing this in Japan for a fraction of the cost of these liveaboards was definitely worth the effort!

 

Getting to Yonaguni Island

Ishigaki Yonaguni Ferry

Leaving Ishigaki behind on the ferry to Yonaguni

The Okinawa Prefecture and Archipelago, also called the Ryukyu Islands, stretched over 1000 km from the south of Kyushu Island to Taiwan. The Island of Yonaguni is the westernmost island of Japan, only 111km from the east shore of Taiwan and more than 2,000 km away from Tokyo.

Luckily the island is well connected by 3 flights a day from Ishigaki and one from Naha, and also a ferry twice a week from Ishigaki. RAC (Ryukyu Air Commuter) is the only company flying to Yonaguni. It is part of the Japan Airlines group. You can book tickets on their website. An important thing you need to know is that these flights can’t be booked more than 3 months in advance.

In the case of the ferry, information online was scarce. So it was a bit risky, but I decided to hope for the best with my new skills in Japanese and taking at last 1 week in Ishigaki before going to Yonaguni. The first thing I did was to go to the ferry terminal to check if I needed to book my ticket in advance. The ferry terminal for Yonaguni is a small building on the opposite side of the harbour where the main ferry terminal is (the one where the boats to Taketomi and Iriomote leave). I explained I wanted to take the ferry the following week in Japanese and discovered that the guy at the office could speak a bit of English! The ship leaves every Tuesday and Friday from Ishigaki and returns from Yonaguni every Wednesday and Saturday. You need to come 2 hours before the boat leaves (10.00 am) to buy your ticket by cash.

It was so funny to see how everyone in Japan was shocked that I decided to take the ferry from Ishigaki instead of taking the plane! Anytime I have a good alternative I will avoid flying. For sure, it was much longer than flying, but the pleasure of cruising the Yaeyama Islands and seeing progressively the “Green Fortress” island of Yonaguni appearing on the horizon was priceless. I was stunned at how brand new the ferry looked. For the same price, you can use any space on the boat to relax. It even includes bunk beds which I made good use of for 2 hours of the journey each way. There are hot and cold drinks vending machines on board but no food, so I recommend bringing some food to picnic on board. For peace of mind, I bought seasickness pills before boarding. I got 3 pills for 500 ¥ in a pharmacy in town. Given the size of the waves, after we passed Iriomote Island, I think it was an excellent idea.

Here are the prices to travel to Yonaguni:

  • Ishigaki-Yonaguni ferry: 6,700 ¥ (about £47 / 54€) return ticket, about 4 hours and 15 minutes
  • Ishigaki-Yonaguni flight: 14,800 ¥ (about £103 / 120€) return ticket, about 30 minutes
  • Naha-Yonaguni flight: 35,440 ¥ (about £247 / 287€) return ticket, about 1 hour and 20 minutes

The cheapest way to go to Yonaguni is to fly directly to Ishigaki from mainland Japan and take the ferry. Foreign visitors on a tourist visa who have an international return flight ticket to Japan can get special fares on domestic flights in Japan with the ANA Experience fare or the JAL Explorer Pass for about 80€. If you have enough time, I highly recommend combining diving Ishigaki with diving Yonaguni by taking the ferry.

 

 

Diving Yonaguni: all about schedule & patience

DiveZone Tokyo in Yonaguni

My international dive buddies from Tokyo in Yonaguni: USA / Spain / China / Russia

When talking about Yonaguni Island, I guess most of you directly thought about the famous Yonaguni Monument. While it was obviously on my list, winter is not the best season because of the winds to reach it. Every year, between January and March, the hammerhead sharks migration is highly popular among Japanese divers. Going there directly on my own without booking through a group would have been a huge mistake. This is why when I knew my dive club of Tokyo was organising an expedition there, I directly booked with them about 6 months in advance.

2 days after my arrival with the ferry, my favourite dive buddies from Tokyo arrived by plane at 9 am after an overnight stay in Naha. We directly unpacked our scuba diving gear at Sou Wes Dive Centre and put it on their mini truck. As the harbour where the boat leaves is in Kubura. I understood we would be driving back and forth between Kubura and Sonai every day between dives. It is only 15 minutes driving but still.

The Hammerhead season is a busy season for the dive centres of Yonaguni. We were 3 groups of divers every day with parallel schedules. Team A, B and C rotate every day. Team A starts the earliest in the morning but can enjoy sightseeing in the afternoon, while team C can sleep in a bit in the morning but will go for dinner not long after the last dive. So the schedule is everything and as always in Japan, being on time means being ready 5 minutes before. So while one group is diving, one is on the road coming back, one is at the dive centre resting.

The cost for diving Yonaguni with 3 dives a day, with lunch and insurance included, is 17,000 ¥ (about £119 / 138€). If you need to rent scuba diving gear, there will be an additional 5,000 ¥ (about £35 / 40€) for a full set per day.

Hammerhead shark dive briefing Yonaguni Okinawa Japan

Dive briefing by Instructor Mar of Sou Wes

Each day we went for 3 dives to increase the chances of seeing the sharks. Because, even if the encounter rate is reasonably good, it’s not 100% like always with nature. Note the hammerhead shark dives include no feeding, baiting or any scent trail to attract the sharks.

Dive briefing is essential on these demanding hammerhead shark dives. It involves diving in the blue above a sea bottom at about 70 m deep. The first dive is a check dive above a shallower area. Dive instructors will check if you can maintain your buoyancy properly without another reference than your dive computer (which is mandatory). It is important to note that diving Yonaguni is for experienced divers. Being an advanced diver with at least 100 logged dives is the usual recommendation.

Every dive works the same: We gear up on the boat before leaving the harbour. The boat ride is only 5 minutes. The dive leader checks the current and decides on a starting point. At his signal “Ichi, Ni, San” (1, 2, 3 in Japanese), every diver must back roll into a negative entry. Two instructors of Sou Wes manage the dive: one is staying at 15 m with the group of divers while the other does the spotter at 25m deep. If he sees something, he signals it by making noise with a little hammer on his tank. Then divers can descend to 30 m to see the sharks, a little bit more for those who have a deep diving speciality (max 40 m). The maximum dive time is limited to 30 minutes to allow enough surface intervals between dives in case divers go deep every time.

 

Diving Yonaguni: meeting the hammerhead sharks

Divezone Tokyo in Yonaguni

Picture of our buddy team on our last hammerhead shark dive by Oleg Dyachkin

As expected on the first check dive, we saw nothing. The least experienced of us struggled with the negative entry. To be fair, I had very few opportunities myself to practice if before as only a few locations require to do one. Remember to fully empty your BCD, exhale as your backroll and don’t forget to equalise in the first meter of water as you turn back to your horizontal position.

Then Dive #2, Dive #3, nothing too. Each time in the minibus back to the dive centre I think this is how nature is but the pleasure of finally see them will be even higher. We all go to bed, thinking it was just a warm-up, and tomorrow would be better.

Day 2. Dive #4, Dive #5, still nothing. There I start to feel frustrated. Hours and hours of getting ready, diving for 30 minutes only seeing the blue (even if I love scuba diving only for the pleasure of being underwater), driving back and forth to the dive centre make me sleepy. I realise I may not be as patient as I thought. On that day, I even wondered what was worse: the divers who came back from the previous dive and saw them? Or the two false alarms we got on that day? During Dive #5, I started losing focus and start singing “Baby Shark” in my head as we ascended to 5 m for our safety stop. And this when a massive hammerhead shark came and checked us out. It was only 1 minute or less, but at least we had the satisfaction of knowing they were in the area. Visibility wasn’t great on these 2 days, so maybe we couldn’t see them!

Yonaguni Monument diving Okinawa Japan

Yonaguni Monument, best break ever in our hammerhead shark mission

On Day 3, I am glad we could make a break by getting the right conditions to go to the Yonaguni Monument. This dive is incredible, and I wish I could have dived there again. Unfortunately, the schedule is so tight that it will be my only opportunity. Read all the details about the Yonaguni Monument on the special blog post I wrote about it.

I don’t know if visiting the Yonaguni Monument acted as a special prayer, but every dive after was a hammerhead festival: 12 sharks, 20 sharks, 12 sharks again, and 40 sharks on the last dive! There are so beautiful and gracious, but they swim fast and deep. On each dive we got about 1 minute to see them. It took us time and patience, but the reward nature offered us during these 2 days diving Yonaguni was one of my best moments ever underwater.

 

 

In the end, we got a 50% encounter rate which is considered good for Yonaguni. I asked other divers who dived in Yonaguni this year, and it was a good year with an average encounter rate of about 40%. So here it tells us something: don’t come diving Yonaguni for only a couple of dives. You might be lucky in only one dive but coming all this way and missing it would be a pity.

Here is the dive log of my 10 shark dives while diving Yonaguni (Dive #7 was at the Yonaguni Monument):

  • Dive #1, 21/02/2019: 10.30 am, bottom time 29 minutes, max depth 19m, 0 shark
  • Dive #2, 21/02/2019: 1.20 pm, bottom time 30 minutes, max depth 19m, 0 shark
  • Dive #3, 21/02/2019: 4.30 pm, bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 30m, 0 shark
  • Dive #4, 22/02/2019: 8.30 am, bottom time 31 minutes, max depth 19m, 0 shark
  • Dive #5, 22/02/2019: 11.30 am, bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 20m, 0 shark
  • Dive #6, 22/02/2019: 2.15 pm, bottom time 33 minutes, max depth 24m, 1 shark
  • Dive #8, 23/02/2019: 12.00 pm, bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 20m, 12 sharks
  • Dive #9, 23/02/2019: 2.50 pm, bottom time 31 minutes, max depth 36m, 20 sharks
  • Dive #10, 24/02/2019: 10.00 am, bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 34m, 12 sharks
  • Dive #11, 24/02/2019: 12.20 pm, bottom time 25 minutes, max depth 40m, 40 sharks

 

What to do in Yonaguni?

Westnmost point of Japan Monument Yonaguni

Reaching the westernmost point of Japan

The island isn’t big, and the best thing to do besides diving Yonaguni is to go on a mini road trip. You can make the entire tour by car in less than 2 hours, but I recommend spending at least half a day to enjoy each place and take pictures without rushing. I rented a car at Honda Rentacar for 5,500¥ (about £38 / 44€) for 6 hours in the village of Sonai.

Be careful you want to make sure you have the appropriate international driving licence to rent a car in Japan. In my case, as a French citizen, I had to do an official translation at the Automotive Federation (JAF) in Tokyo for 3000 ¥.

Apart from this mini road trip, I didn’t need a car during my stay as Sou Wes came to pick me up at the ferry terminal at my arrival. During our diving days, we were either diving or staying at the dive centre, and on our last diving day, they gave me a ride to my guesthouse in Kubura. In the evening, we were walking to the hotel and the izakayas of Sonai, so no problem!

Another piece of advice if you make this mini road trip like me during low season, pack lunch before leaving: all the cafes of Yonaguni are closed in low season. Checking all the cafés on the map to see they were closed despite signs saying the contrary wasn’t fun. I could only finally eat that day thanks to the minimart next to my hotel and its bento boxes.

The island of Yonaguni has beautiful green scenery and spectacular craggy seashores to explore. Here is the list of my favourite spots:

  • Agarizaki Cape: my favourite site on the island. If you have limited time on Yonaguni Island, this is where I would recommend you to go. The view of the lighthouse on the high cliffs and the coral reefs below was fantastic. It is the best place to go if you want to take pictures of the adorable Yonaguni horses freely strolling around?
  • Tategami Rock: an impressive standalone rock on the south coast of the island. There are two views points, I missed the second one the first time I took the road, and it was the best one. There is a parking space near each observatory; it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to visit both.
  • Irizaki Cape: this is where you will find the Westernmost point of Japan monument. On a beautiful day, you can hope to see the shores of Taiwan, but you might be already delighted with the view above the harbour of Kubura.
  • Tindabana: the best surprise of my mini-road trip. It seems even locals ignored the beauty of this site! A pleasant nature trail goes along the rock until a spectacular viewpoint of the village of Sonai. You can walk to it from Sonai but the slope is steep, so I’m glad I had the car that day.
  • Dannuhama Beach: a cute little sandy beach between Kubura and the airport, look for a small road on your left once you left Kubura behind.

 

Where to stay in Yonaguni?

Sonai village view from Tindabanna Yonaguni Okinawa Japan

Sonai Village, on the north coast of Yonaguni, view from Tindabana

I stayed at 2 different places during my one week stay in Yonaguni, in Sonai village where Sou Wes dive centre is and in Kubura Village where the Ferry Terminal is.

My scuba diving club had book the hotel operated by Sou Wes, the dive centre we were diving Yonaguni with, the Irifune hotel in Sonai village. We could walk to the dive centre in 5 minutes in the morning; there are a couple of izakayas where you can have dinner in the evening (make sure to get a booking the day before).

The hotel was fully booked after my 4 days of diving, so I moved to a guesthouse in Kubura for the 2 last nights before boarding the ferry back to Ishigaki. During this season, most accommodations are fully booked months in advance by Japanese scuba divers. Make sure you have a booking before arriving in Yonaguni. I met travellers in Ishigaki who couldn’t go to Yonaguni because they never found a place to stay at the last minute.

  • Irifune Hotel: I found the price of the room incredibly expensive considering the poor condition of the hotel. It was 7,000 ¥ per person with breakfast; it means the room is at 14,000¥ (about £98 / 114€) as I was sharing it with one of my dive buddies. Hot water was limited to 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening but in the end, never worked properly (no hot water or no pressure). Wi-Fi didn’t work in the rooms, the paper wall was falling apart, and we even had a piece of toilet paper stuck into the spyhole of the door because the cover was broken. In a nutshell, this hotel was a total disappointment.
  • Mosura Guesthouse: If you are ok with something basic, stay at one of the guesthouse or “minshuku” in Yonaguni and save tremendous amounts of money. For only 3500 ¥ per night (about £24 / 28€), I had my own super clean Japanese style room, with a futon and a coffee table on a hard floor, and breakfast was included. I appreciated the free use of the washing machine and the drying space for my scuba diving gear. I had access to a fully equipped kitchen, and wifi worked really. I met many Japanese people travelling to Yonaguni and could practice my Japanese. Some even invited me to the izakaya of Kubura on my last night in Yonaguni! Even if the ferry terminal wasn’t too far away, the owner gave me a ride on the day I left. They also rent bicycles, bikes and cars.
  • Omoro Minshuku: This is a charming guesthouse in Sonai village, contrary to Mosura Guesthouse, you will have more shops and options to eat out in Sonai. Simple accommodation in Japanese style rooms. They offer a package of 1 night with dinner and breakfast at 6,200 ¥ (about £43 / 50€). Knowing dinner in any izakaya of Sonai will cost around 3,000 ¥, this is a good deal.
  • Ailand Hotel: If money is not an issue then stay at the only proper hotel of the island that you can easily book online in English. The staff of the dive centre picked up a few divers every day on our way to Irizaki harbour. It looked spotless with a large restaurant inside. Prices start from 10,260 ¥ per night (about £72 / 83€).

 

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This article was written in partnership with the tourism and convention bureau of Okinawa. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.


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Posted by Florine

  1. Thanks for such a well written and interesting post!

    You are de-mystifying a part of the world that many travellers steer clear of because it has a reputation for being ‘too difficult’.

    I will be visiting Taiwan in 6 weeks time and you have whetted my appeitite for the trip!. Time to start planning that in detail – Good job it doesn’t require six months preparation!

    Reply

    1. Thank you so much! It’s indeed a good idea to combine Taiwan with the Yaeyama Islands. I met some very nice scuba divers from Taiwan in Yonaguni and they told me they have beautiful dive sites in the south of the island.

      Reply

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