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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009

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Nature's splendor: A view from the shore of Miyake Island some 150 km south of Tokyo

Diving with dolphins in the Izu Islands


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

It's Saturday morning and I'm sitting on the beach, struggling to strap on a pair of oversize flippers. When they are securely in place, I waddle down to the water's edge and gingerly step into the sparkling, crystal ocean lapping Miyake Island.

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March of time: A shrine lies half buried by a lava flow from one of the many volcanic eruptions that occur on Miyake Island.

"Ready to go?" asks Shuichi Taguchi, the owner of Dolphin Club TAG and my instructor for the day. Snorkeling gear in place, he and assistant guide Motomichi Takahashi lead our small group out of the protected shallows of the cove near Miyake's ferry port. We glide over pockets of spongy coral, where electric -blue fish dart in and out of crevices in which occasional spiny sea urchins are to be seen. On the ocean floor, a bloated sea slug makes slow progress toward safety in a forest of leafy seaweed that looks like something I ate at last night's dinner.

Out past the reef, the bottom drops away and the real challenge begins. Taguchi checks out our skills, guiding us through a series of exercises designed to improve our basic snorkeling abilities. We float and dive and practice clearing our breathing tubes, each time venturing further into the depths.

Finally, Taguchi has us rotate slowly while going round in circles, and I contort underwater like an aquatic gymnast. As my head breaks the surface, he gives me a thumbs-up. "Excellent!" he enthuses. "Now, you are ready to swim with the dolphins."

It's hard to fathom being able to dive among dolphins without ever leaving Tokyo, but the Izu Islands have always been one of the capital's best-kept secrets. Located a few hundred kilometers offshore, the islands — whose population would barely fill a city block — fall under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, yet feel worlds apart from the frenzy of the city.

Used as places of exile for criminals and other undesirables during the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867), the islands today are an ideal weekend retreat, boasting fascinating environments both on land and beneath the waves.

Miyake Island, our overnight ferry's first port of call, has long witnessed the complicated relationship between humans and nature. Over the past few decades alone, multiple eruptions of Mount Oyama have changed the topography of this tiny island, and as recently as the year 2000, toxic fumes from its active volcano forced a hurried evacuation of the inhabitants. Residents only began returning in 2005, and the effects of the incident are still evident in the eerie, abandoned properties along the eastern shore.

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Natural wonder: A bottlenose dolphin passes right by your correspondent as it heads like a missile for the surface off Mikura Island. Some 28 km from Miyake Island, Mikura is ringed with steep cliffs that have kept it free of fishermen and frolickers — hence it is home to a large population of these playful and social marine mammals that seem happy to host unwieldy humans who come to briefly share their realm. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

On a tour of the interior, Taguchi leads us along the Volcano Experience Trail, a boardwalk that traces the flow of lava from a devastating eruption in 1983. The expanse of black pumice stone is sobering, but in among the chunks of rock, bright green bushes are struggling to gain a foothold. Like Miyake's residents themselves, the plants are returning to even this barren landscape.

As much as I admire the fortitude of Miyake's residents, it's the locals living under the sea that have attracted me to the island.

From the island's main port, charter boats make the 28-km crossing to Mikura Island, home to a large population of Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins. The island itself, a dormant volcano that looks like a grassy bowl resting gently on the waves, is only accessible with difficulty due to its ring of steep cliffs. As a result, its surrounding waters, free of fishermen and frolickers, have become a haven for these playful marine mammals.

"There are around 150 dolphins living in the area," Taguchi explains on the choppy boat ride to Mikura. "Most of them we can recognize by scars or the shapes of their fins." My guide, as it turns out, is both an animal lover and a passionate conservationist with an informative blog and educational children's book to his credit. He became hooked on Mikura's dolphins after a diving trip in the 1990s with the late Jack Moyer, a leading American marine ecologist and former resident of Miyake who pioneered efforts to protect the fragile ecosystems of the Izu Islands.

"Jack taught me about how dolphins socialize," he says. "Now I try to teach other people what I've learned."

It's a calling the former Tokyo office worker turned scuba instructor takes quite seriously. While it's easy to rhapsodize about the wonders of dolphins — and Taguchi does so unabashedly — his enthusiasm is tempered with a very real desire to protect them from harmful outside influences.

I ask if our presence in the waters today will be detrimental to the dolphins. "Not if we're careful," Taguchi assures me. His concern is more about a new ferry dock proposed for Mikura. "More boat traffic means more disruption of the environment. It could seriously affect the animals' habitat," he laments.

For now, thankfully, the project is stalled and the waters around Mikura are blissfully empty. As we approach the rocky shoals, it's time for me to put my morning lessons to the test. I swing my legs over the bow of the boat and secure my snorkel gear as our captain scans the midnight-blue waters for any sign of dolphins. When a gray dorsal fin slices through the waves off to our right, the call rings out: "Get in! Get in!"

I break the surface with a splash, momentarily disoriented by the churning waters around me. Flailing my arms to clear the bubbles from my vision, I follow the first pair of flippers I see. I swim for what feels like ages in my cumbersome wetsuit before a downward glance reveals a pair of dolphins mere meters from my face, their torpedolike bodies propelling them along with seeming ease at great speed. I'm stunned and awed and belatedly realize that I'm going to have to move if I want to keep up. I readjust my mask and kick my feet, still not quite believing what I have just witnessed.

For the next two hours, we exhaust ourselves in a game of chase with Mikura's tireless dolphins. I fling myself into the ocean seven times, each encounter as memorable and exciting as the last. After the final dip, I sit dripping on the deck, still glued to the antics of the enthusiastic pod as we motor away from the cliffs and head back toward Miyake.

Once there, we end our excursion with a trip to Furusatonoyu Onsen, a justly popular retreat on this island of volcanic activity. From the indoor baths, big picture windows offer extensive ocean views past a group of weathered rocks just offshore that jut out like bony fingers reaching skyward.

Later I learn how that unassuming outcrop — known as Sanbondake — was actually the genesis for Miyake's environmental movement in the 1950s. Back then, U.S. warplanes used the rocks for bombing practice, devastating the colonies of rare seabirds who called them home. Jack Moyer, then a serviceman and budding activist, petitioned Washington directly to stop this immediately, and the letter he sent to then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman resulted in a halt to military activity and the saving of the seabirds.

Today, according to Taguchi, the colony is growing and a pod of six dolphins also frequents the area. The glassy surface betrays no sign of the playful mammals, but it's enough to know that — thanks to the work of dedicated conservationists like Taguchi and Moyer (a former JT Nature page contributor) — they're out there somewhere, riding on and beneath the waves.

Miyake Island can be reached by overnight ferry from Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, departing nightly at 10:40 p.m. and arriving at around 5 a.m. One flight a day — subject to weather conditions — also services the island, leaving Tokyo's Haneda Airport at 11:45 a.m. and arriving at 12:30 p.m. Return flights leave Miyake Island at 1 p.m. An overnight dolphin-tour package through Dolphin Company TAG costs ¥35,000 per person, including meals, accommodation, a guide, a hot-spring visit, a snorkeling lesson and the dolphin swim itself. A dolphin dive and hot-spring visit alone cost around ¥16,500. For more details, call 04994-6-0996 or visit www.dolphin-club-miyakejima.com/eindex.html


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