First photo shoot at Iriomote Island since 2012. The theme five years ago was “Diving Freely to Expose the Charm of Iriomote Brand Diving Spot, Ogan!”
“Ogan”, nickname for Nakanoka mishima, is located approximately 15km southwest of Iriomote Island. Ogan is a remote, uninhabited island surrounded by rock reef that serves as a nesting site for seabirds such as brown boobies and common terns. The waters here are considered a mecca for divers visiting Iriomote Island because the influence of the Kuroshio Current hitting this rock reef habitat makes it an oasis for large migratory fish. It is a difficult point to dive in without the expertise of a guide.
San No Ne (Three Roots) is a diving spot 10km west of Ogan that is made up of numerous hidden roots. The most popular diving point in Ogan, the chance to come across schools of large tuna, barracuda, rainbow runner, and bluefin trevally are high. Even though schools of dogtooth tuna can be seen, seeing a school of Bluefin trevally close is extremely difficult, becoming a stuff of legends between San No Ne fans.
Previously I believe I dove about 15 times just at Ogan. This time, however, we did not limit ourselves just to Ogan and dove in the inland bay, where the diving shop dives frequently, as well as in the open sea to shoot a variety of subjects from schools of fish to corals using both wide-angle and macro lenses.
Still, as long as Ogan is included in the options I had to capture the underwater landforms and fish of Ogan in the limited diving time we have there.
The most memorable part of the previous photo shoot was being able to photograph the school of bluefin trevally to my heart’s desire
As you can tell from my previous articles, it’s possible to see them from afar but very difficult to see them up close. “Do you know of any other places where you can see schools of bluefin trevally like this?” asks Yoshibo, owner of the diving shop. A couple places come to mind, like atop the shelf at the corner of Peleliu Island in Palau and Maratua Island in Indonesia.
I've searched for images of schooling bluefin trevally on Yahoo but the only search results were either photos I took at Iriomote during my previous visit or ones from Peleliu Island. This shows just how rare it is to photograph them.
'We used to see them a lot 10 years ago but recently we haven't seen any nearby,' says serious repeat diver Kasahara-san, who has over 200 dives at San No Ne under his belt.
Other repeat divers also mentioned, 'we only saw them from afar, never as close as you have, Ochi-san.' Being surrounded by a school of bluefin trevally at San No Ne has become a stuff of legends.
'It's incredibly rare to be able to capture a schooling bluefin trevally during a photo shoot,' adds our guide, Junichi. For these reasons, the photo of the schooling bluefin trevally that I took 5 years ago made a strong impression with the diving shop staff.
This time we only had one day to attempt to shoot bluefin trevally. As confirmed by the stories from the guides and repeat divers, aside from capturing dogtooth tuna, photographing the enormous wall of the legendary school of bluefin trevally in one dive is extremely difficult.
Whether we can capture them or not, or even come across them in the first place, is all dependent on luck.
I had to have that attitude especially since I was under the weather with a fever, congestion and a sore throat since the day before the San No Ne dive, most likely triggered by the fatigue from diving at Kumejima Island, Ishigaki Island and Iriomote Island for long periods of time prior to this dive.
Normally I wouldn't be able to dive in this condition. However, this day is the only chance I have. Luckily, the worse of my illness had peaked earlier. Before the dive I disclosed my poor physical condition to our guide only. 'Sorry in advance if I cause any trouble,' I told him.
First dive at San No Ne
The tide was rising calmly. The current was probably the calmest I've ever dove there.
Usually the best area that guides take guests to see schools of dogtooth tuna is an area called 'Tamari' where they accumulate when the tide is ebbing. When the tide is rising, dogtooth tuna are found swimming in an area between 'Asai Ne' and an area 200 m west from there called 'Genkai'.
While we did not see any dogtooth tuna around the Asai Ne area we entered for the first dive, we came across a school of approximately 100 dogtooth tuna as we drifted toward “Genkai”, just as we expected. I started shooting right away. And just like that, I was able to capture photos of a school of dogtooth tuna, which was a must for the photo shoot. My nose was congested but I was able to clear my ears.The peak of my fever passed the evening before so I wasn't as sluggish.
The second dive was also during a calm rising tide. Our goal is to shoot bluefin trevally. From Asai Ne, we would have to swim south against the current to get to the area called “Kasumigaseki” where bluefin trevally are found. Distance was approximately 150 meter. We were moving forward with low expectations, when our guide looked our way and point forward.
When I looked toward where he was pointing, the bluefin trevally appeared in my sight!
We nod and move forward along the seafloor. Our guide once again signaled by tapping on the air-filled plastic bottle as the fish came near. The bluefin trevally reacted to the sound and started to swarm around us.
There were more fish five years ago when it was during a new moon; however, we were lucky to be able to come across and photograph a school of bluefin trevally on our second photo shoot trip. Maybe the connection between our guide and I had something to do with it as well.
Our third dive of the day was also at San No Ne.
Sensing a small window of opportunity, our guide made a bold suggestion: 'Let’s aim for the bluefin trevally from Asai Ne, then drift toward Genkai and capture both bluefin trevally and dogtooth tuna!'. This diving course is usually unthinkable but I agreed to take part in it.
The current was slightly stronger compared to the previous two dives. It was pretty difficult to swim against the current toward Kamigaseki but we came across a school of Bluefin trevally as soon as we left Asai Ne.
If we're able to shoot quickly, we would be able to drift to Genkai with time to spare. That thought motivated us to get right to shooting. That plan backfired, however. We approached the school too quickly and the fish became cautious and swam away, leaving us without being able to photograph them.
We gave up on shooting bluefin trevally and decided to drift toward Genkai. We traversed across the current. We already wasted a lot of air tracking bluefin trevally. At the very least I wanted to photograph dogtooth tuna so we headed toward Genkai... then, the school of bluefin trevally appeared again.
I made eye contact with our guide and approached the school carefully yet swiftly so they will not escape again. our guide once again tapped on the plastic bottle when the opportunity arose. At that moment, the leading group of bluefin trevally that was moving away turned around and came right at us.
There were even less fish but we were surrounded by a school of bluefin trevally again.
The fish swam away soon after but I was ecstatic to have been able to photograph bluefin trevally again. Unfortunately my scuba tank reached a limit right before arriving to Genkai.
Even though the school of dogtooth tuna was within eyesight, we couldn’t reach them and had to resurface. If we had been able to photograph the bluefin trevally on the first approach, we most likely would have been able to reach Genkai to capture the dogtooth tuna as well. We didn’t succeed in photographing both but we gained valuable insight for the next time we attempt it.
Same as the previous trip, our guide passed out on the boat ride back to Iriomote after giving his all to guide us. Thank you for a memorable day.
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