Swimming With Dolphins In Tokyo (Miyakejima)

 

It’s possible to swim with the dolphins in Tokyo. (photo from Tokyo Diving Center)

 

How many of you have ‘swimming with dolphins’ on your bucket list? Well, I am one who have always wanted to do that ever since I saw a dolphin show in a Sea World as a child. Dolphins are very friendly and smart mammals and I have been fascinated by them for a long time. I imagined that swimming with them would be so fun like the Little Mermaid swimming with her ocean friends. Fortunately, I finally got the chance to do that and it was in Tokyo.

On the route to Dolphin Land 

Boat ride to Miyakejima

My friend invited me to go on a dolphin swimming trip in Miyakejima (三宅島 Miyake island), which is a remote island in the Philippine Sea with a massive active volcano in the middle. It is located approximately 180 kilometers southeast of Honshu, Japan from but surprisingly, it is part of Tokyo. The trip took three days and two nights. We had around one and a half days on the island, of which includes dolphin swimming practice (snorkeling), the real adventure, and still some free time to explore the island. The tour was arranged by Tokyo Diving Center.

At 10:30 pm on Friday night, we departed Takeshiba pier, located near Hamamatsucho station. It was a direct route from Tokyo to Miyakejima without any stops in between. The trip took six hours and we arrived in Miyakejima at 4:30 in the morning. For it was a great boat ride I did nothing but slept all the way through. As soon as we got out, I felt the fresh air, breathed the slightly salty smell of the sea and was hit by the immensely strong summer heat.

Kenji Kasuya, the tour leader picked us up at the port and dropped us off at the hotel. The hotel was simple and humble, nothing like the ‘mainland Tokyo’ (本島) which is the what the islanders call Tokyo-to. We had delicious breakfast with fresh island fish and slept in till 7:30 before meeting with Kenji and other tour members at 8 am. Kenji gave us a brief instruction of the event of the day and asked us to put on a wetsuit, shoes and we grabbed some goggles and fins. Kenji then drove us to a small port for dolphin swimming practice. At first, I wondered why snorkeling required
practice but later, I would find out why.

The water was very still at the port. We started practicing step-by-step, from the ways to put on our equipment, swimming, and learned the basics of doing a free dive.

Diving practice

At first, was hard for me because I had problems with my snorkel making it hard to breath since the water would keep seeping in, but Kenji was a great instructor. He was very patient with me even though we both agreed that snorkeling is probably not one of my talents. Since the wetsuit makes us buoyant, we also practiced with two kilogram weight belts which allows us to do free diving. This means, if we do it right and with a bit of luck, we can dive in and swim beside the dolphins. The morning session ended around 10:15am. We got out of the water and had some hot tea which felt really good. We then went back to the hotel, rested, had our tasty lunch boxes, and then we all gathered again at 12:30pm. This time is for the real thing.

The heat was even stronger in the afternoon. We went on a small boat with a total 15 members including the crews. It took around an hour until we got close to an island called Mikurajima (御蔵島), another remote island in ‘Tokyo’. Apparently, dolphins like to play around the island in the shallow water area. Now, it was time for dolphin spotting! The water was pretty wavy and the color was dark blue/greenish.

I still can’t figure out how the crews can actually spot anything in the choppy water. But soon, they spotted some dolphins and asked us to prepare. To prepare means staying at the side of the boat with one of our legs above the boat walls ready to jump. As soon as they told us to jump, we jumped off and swam as fast as we could to try to spot the dolphins under the water. It was much harder than I expected with the heavy-duty waves and the shock of being released in the real ocean where our feet can’t touch the ground. The boat stayed behind us and the crew shouted for us to get back on board once the dolphins they spotted were gone.

My first try did not go very well.

Day Of The Dolphins: First Contact 

I choked on the water and forgot how to swim as soon as I jumped and was asked to pass on the first round. Luckily, it got better after the second try. On my third try, I saw three dolphins swimming right under me. There was one big grey dolphin in the middle and two smaller dolphins swimming alongside. They were as cute as I imagined and I was very awestruck I almost forgot to breathe. That lasted only a few seconds before they escaped from our sight and we were asked to get back on the boat. It seemed like the dolphins were trying to escape from us. Then, it took quite some time speeding around the island trying to spot other dolphins before we got to jump off again. By the sixth try, we all saw some dolphins. I felt like the trip was already worth it for me even though the dolphins were so fast and it was hard to get close. It was a big challenge trying to follow them and keep them in sight for more than a few seconds. To me, this was more than snorkeling; it was also a mix of open water swimming and free diving as well, which a longer training is needed in order to do it well. Kenji apparently teaches a free diving course, too and he claimed that everyone can dive as deep as 15 meters after 2 days of training. I never imagined that snorkeling could take up so much energy. I did take my underwater camera with me but it was incredibly hard to take pictures while doing all the swimming and snorkeling in the wavy water.

 

It was great swimming next to the dolphin!

Soon, the crew told us they were going to let us jump off one last time. This time, we went so close to the shore. And suddenly, I saw around ten to fifteen fins and dolphin tails above the water as they were playing together in groups. We hadn’t seen so many of them until now. We were all very excited to make this last jump the best. As soon as I jumped, I saw so many dolphins and they weren’t running away. A lot of them were swimming together, some separately, and I did see one staying under water in a vertical way — I imagined that he was probably resting. Some dolphins were even playing with their stomachs upside down. This was spectacular! I swam as fast as I could trying to catch the dolphins. However, since we were so close to the shore, the waves were very strong which made it more dangerous. The nature of the waves would wash us into the island where the boat can’t retrieve us. So the crews shouted for us to get back after 12 minutes of us enjoying the dolphins. This time, I struggled as I lost a lot of energy swimming and the waves were very strong. Swimming against the waves felt scary all of a sudden. Finally, Kenji helped me get back on the boat. We were all exhausted but happy to have had that experience seeing the dolphins closely. Then, we all fell asleep on the way back to Miyakejima. On the way, I also saw a few silver flying fish — I wonder what they are called.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dolphins 

Kenji Kasuya, diving instructor explains the secret world of dolphins.

The tour didn’t just end there. We visited a hot spring right after and we had another delicious meal waiting for us in the evening.

Over dinner, Kenji explained what he knows about the dolphins, their habits, and his experience. What fascinated me was how well Kenji can interact with the dolphins, practically Aquaman. He mentioned that he threw a ball into the water and the dolphins would retrieve it and throw it back. However, once he stopped doing it, the dolphins got annoyed so he dived 5 meters under and showed it to the dolphins. Then, he threw it again and this time, one dolphin quickly took it in a flash and never returned. He also said that they like scuba divers since the oxygen tanks create bubbles and the dolphins love playing with that. They would come close and in a vertical position, make their ring of bubbles under water, too.

He also explained about how the dolphins were born from their tails which prevents them from choking under the shallow water. The parents would bring the baby dolphin above the water to breathe once before bringing it back down. He then further explained about dolphins in aquariums. Not unexpectedly, they get depressed swimming in circles in the tight space. Also, according to him, the real reason why dolphins shows begun being performed in aquariums or Sea World is because dolphins lack exercise from being in that tight space. A lot of information he told us that day made us think upon just how much dolphins are intelligent and friendly mammals. Many studies have shown that even dolphins know that mirrors show the image of themselves. That’s how smart they are. As I was smiling with the thought, I also got chills as the thought of Japan eating and hunting dolphins popped up. I know that most of us eat mammals including pigs, cows, and other creatures but it just seems terrible to kill such friendly creatures.

Starrry Starry Island Nights 

After the day ended, my friends and I went out for a walk at night hoping to see stars. And with the lack of lighting on the island, it was almost pitch dark. And so we did see a whole sky full of stars, red lights from the airplanes, and the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life — the milky way. It was clearly visible. It looked like a foggy group of stars formed in a shape of a long bridge. It was wonderful. I also saw a shooting star which went by like a streak of yellow light, even before I could make a wish. (I made a post shooting star wish anyway!).

After the sun sets on the island, the lack of night pollution means you can see the stars and the milky way.
Nights on Miyakejima. Photo from Miyakejima Tourism Association webpage

 

The next morning we had free time before we boarded a ferry back to Tokyo in the afternoon. We called a taxi to pick us up. We were lucky to have had such a kind and helpful taxi driver. He told us many stories of the natural places there were once there but had disappeared from volcanic activities and about a time when Oyama (大山), the active volcano in the middle of the island , erupted a couple of decades ago and everyone had to evacuate. There were around 3,000 people on the island then, but now only a bit more than 1,000 people have returned. That morning we visited Tairo pond (大路池)and a volcanic area called Nippanashinzan (新鼻新山). It was all caused by volcanic activities of Oyama. The soil there was black and red. We walked all the way to the top of the cliff. I don’t think I have seen any place that reminds me of other planets more than this place.

The Martian of Miyakejima

The island has many other places to visit and I’m sure they’re all worth visiting. The whole island to me was so calm and relaxing. Most of all, the island people were friendly and warm. I felt like this was a true getaway from city life in Tokyo or in this case the Tokyo mainland.

Swim With The Dolphins! 

I could say that this was a wonderful trip. I got to experience swimming with the dolphins and life on a remote island of Japan. The tour was very well  arranged and I’d recommend our readers to give this a try if dolphin swimming is one thing on your bucket list, as well. Of course, as I explained, there are risks in doing this but for me, it was worth it. For details on the tour with Tokyo Diving Center and Miyakejima please follow the links below.

For instruction and the tour, here’s where I went: Tokyo Diving Center

For more information on the life on the island, please see the  The Miyake Tourism Association.

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