Magical … this was my first thought as I stepped out into the open air on deck this morning. Overnight, the Ogasawara-maru had transported us from the frenetic hustle and bustle of Takashiba-shinbashi, our departure point in Tokyo, to the first few island outposts in the Ogasawara archipelago. Maku-jima slid by our port side on a glass sea … a sea so blue and so calm that the only movement seemed to be the ever-expanding concentric circles of wavelets left by the flying fish as they lifted off and escaped from our ship’s path.
Our arrival at Chichi-jima a few hours later was punctuated by a seven-person band, reminiscent of the steel drums of the Caribbean. We were immediately greeted by our hosts and in true Japanese style and form, they seemed to know exactly who we were. This may also have been because we were the only western faces exiting the ship at a decidedly Japanese destination.
The Pension Cabbage Beach Inn was to be our home for the next few days … a sort of westernized lodging facility just across from Futami Bay. In just a few short hours, 25 to be exact, the Asian air of mainland Japan was left behind and the cool breezes combined with a “sand-in-the-toes” feel of the pacific islands came into focus.
This trip was really a recon mission for my friend James and me. We had been trying to get to the Bonin Islands (another name for Ogasawara) for the past two years: I always had to bail out because of one pressing deadline or another. But, persistence finally paid off and here we are. Palm trees and white sand beaches – a sharp contrast to the steep rocky cliffs of Mikura-jima, where I had been two days prior. Yet, the same thing had brought me to both places … Dolphins!
Since our arrival was in the early afternoon, we made a brief stop at the inn to offload gear and took the balance of the day to do some legwork, explore the town, and have a bite to eat. A roadside café looked like the perfect place to quench our thirst and fill our bellies. A cold asai and a hawaiianized bowl of sashimi did the trick. Fresh Bonita over a bed of rice garnished with shredded dicon and chives was liberally coated in sesame oil and salt. I have eaten a lot of fish in my life, much of it raw as I always try to eat like a native when I travel, but I just have to say that this bowl of rice and raw fish was outta this world! Whatever they did turned these simple ingredients into a taste bud extravaganza!
We had just enough time to finish our walk-about and say hello to our dive guides at the “Escort”dive operation before James, an avid soccer fan, had to settle in for the World Cup quarter finals between Germany and Argentina. Much to the chagrin of soccer fans everywhere, Germany’s winning kick came in the last round of the penalty period, not in proper competition as it should have.
One of the unique features about summertime in Japan is the rising of the sun just after 4 AM. While the residents of Chichi-Jima do roll up the town early and this is conducive to an early rising, I recommend just getting up when you see the sun and forgetting about looking at your watch. We didn’t have to meet our boat for another four hours so this left plenty of time to prep gear, have breakfast … do all the morning stuff and even get in a walk.
TheDolphin Dance, a 34 foot modern fiberglass boat was to be our ride for the day; vehicle to take us on our dolphin adventure. And, once on the water, we hadn’t much time to wait. After a short briefing while motoring from port, we soon encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins socializing near the mouth of the harbor. We observed from a distance for a while: the eco-tour operators here have adopted guidelines that limit the number of boats that can be near the dolphins at one time to four. Each boat can make five entries into the water with their snorkelers and then they must wait their turn again. This simple set of rules, combined with the inherent politeness of the Japanese culture, made for smooth sailing, especially with respect to a pleasant, and moderately uncrowded by humans, dolphin encounter.
I was very impressed with the concern that our guides showed for the dolphins. After every few jumps, we would depart from our current group and find a new group. This was never a long process as bottlenose dolphins were in abundant supply and seemingly always willing to at least take a passing glance at the ungainly split fins.
Large and somewhat brutish came to mind when I glimpsed the first individuals of this population of bottlenose dolphins: very different when juxtaposed with the Mikura-jima dolphins who seem less scarred and beat up. Comparing both populations to the elegant and comparatively slight-of-build spinner dolphin might be analogous to comparing beauty and the beast. For the most part, the bottlenose seemed less social and curious to us. We only saw the spinner dolphins under water on two occasions. They really wanted nothing to do with us. They would, however, never miss the opportunity for a bit of fun by bow-riding our boat as we were changing locations. This part always awes me – dolphins have the ability to effortlessly ride the underwater pressure wave created by a forward moving ship. While I know that the dolphin smile is a product of their evolved body shape and not their facial muscles. I can not help but think that this highly intelligent, highly social creature must feel the same sort of amusement that we as humans do when we ski that perfect slope or surf that perfect wave.
Seeing the slender grey and comparatively un-scarred forms of the spinner dolphins against the vivid blue of a glassy ocean was a delight to all the guests. While I would say that there is no typical day in the tropics, I would also say that we were fortunate to encounter one of the best days that the tropics has to offer. Brilliant blue sky set the backdrop. Puffy white clouds topped the green islands like a dollop of whip cream. And, the sea was teaming with dolphins.
For more that a decade I have filmed dolphins, swum with dolphins, shot pictures of dolphins, and seen their many moods, quirks and foibles. So, not much surprises me any more about dolphins but after seeing one particularly large female dive to the bottom and upon beginning her ascent, exhale a large amount of air from her left eye socket, I was dumbfounded! I explained what I had seen to James, who had not seen it, and we pondered the subject for a while. When I later told my wife, Kathleen, she asked if I was sure. I was now beginning to doubt myself but I knew what I’d seen. I had filmed the entire sequence on video and hoped the proof would be “in-the-pudding”. Examination of the video clip in the camera’s monitor proved inconclusive because the monitor is too small and the shot was fairly wide. Doubt crept into my mind for the rest of the trip on this exhalation that I was sure I’d seen. It wasn’t until we viewed the footage on a larger monitor, days later back in Tokyo, that we could clearly see the bubbles streaming from the left eye. As luck would have it, further proof was available from the transparencies that James had shot; he had unknowingly captured this bizarre event on slide film. My video and James’ slide were proof that I wasn’t crazy. Additional conversation with colleagues who study dolphins in Japan yielded the hypothesis that there must be a hole in the skull connecting the eye socket and the sinus. It really didn’t seem to phase the dolphin. I think I gave it more thought than she did.
As one of the highlights and the final event of that first day at sea, we visited Minami-jima, a park reserve set aside by the local government that you must swim ashore to visit. The boat cannot make land on the island. The entrance is an arch-way in the sea cliffs that protects a small white sand beach. Yo, our guide, led a nature hike through the park while answering questions and explaining the natural history of the area. Even though this verbal tour was in Japanese, I was able to catch enough of the presentation to know that he was discussing the indigenous plants, the sea turtle tracks, and the abundance of seashells on the beach. It was quite beautiful and had a very remote feeling to it. I wanted to spend more time here but, daylight was ebbing away, we had to go.
Our first full day on the water was coming to a close. The late afternoon sun was still warm, giving us plenty of time for clean up followed by some land based R & R. Dinner gave way to the second evening of our new routine … sipping Suntori, a grapefruit beverage, slightly alcoholic and infinitely tasty, on the sea steps that descend into Futami Bay while enjoying the setting sun. I might add, too, that this group of small islands in the middle of no where is nothome to a host of flying, biting and stinging insects, making the evenings all the more pleasant.
Sleep came easily, as it usually does after a long day on the water, and images of yet another soccer game filled my dreams, or so I thought. It was actually that James had watched an early morning game on TV and in my semi-comatose state, it was somehow incorporated into that non-descript place located between sleep and awake.
Thoughts of soccer quickly faded and day number two became devoted to scuba diving. Ane-jima, a small island 10 kilometers to the south, was our destination. A little more that an hour later we coasted up to the first rocky sentinal guarding the northern most sector of our dive site. Immediately, we were greeted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Donning snorkeling gear instead of scuba, we slipped into the water. Deep ocean water surrounds the island and thus I had high hopes for this encounter from a photographic standpoint. I was not disappointed! Ocean water in its truest form appears to the human eye as a liquid sapphire. The morning sun penetrates deep into this gem creating alternating shafts of light that terminate in a pinpoint as far down as the eye can see. Since I was a boy visiting the ocean with my father, this image has always been fodder for my imagination. Later in my life, this image became the backdrop for some of my best photographs.
Experience has taught me that situations like this typically yield between zero and one usable photograph per entry. True to form, these dolphins made one pass by us without stopping or giving us a second thought. But, I was prepared: my camera was ready and rolling, dome port clean of bubbles, line of site cleared of other passengers. And yes, this time the dolphins, undeterred by my presence and large camera, swam right into my field of view – beautifully lit by the sun at my back, framed by the sapphire blue of the open ocean. We all quickly re-boarded the boat, the captain repositioned us for a second jump. Everything was the same on my part,; however, this entry yielded drastically different results. The dolphins dove deep, wanting nothing more to do with us, thus exemplifying aforementioned “Zero” part of the wildlife cameraman’s equation.
Always energized by encounters in any form with dolphins, I eagerly listened to our dive master’s pre-dive briefing. While his native language is Japanese, one needn’t always share the same language, or any language for that matter, to communicate (but that is the subject for another time). Even though my Japanese is limited to a few words and pleasantries such as Biru, onagaishimasu, I was still able to get the gist of the briefing with the help of James, who isfluent in Japanese. A scuba dive in Japan is more like a brief underwater tour: follow the dive guide while he/she points out interesting critters. We all entered a cut in the rocks that turned into a huge grotto full of curious batfish and skittish sharks, among others. A wonderfully gentle current carried us the distance to the other side in about 30 minutes, all the while treating us to a visual feast of sea critters and clear water.
My camera was glued to my face and rolling for most of the time, though I did take a few minutes to float in the current and enjoy the sights. As a photographer, just observing is one of the abilities that I seem to have lost or misplaced, although from time to time it briefly resurfaces. Once through, and positioned at our safety stop a few feet beneath the surface, I had time to reflect a bit on the dive. I had thoroughly enjoyed it and hoped to have a similar experience on our next dive, but this was not to be …
After a Japanese-style lunch break anchored in a quiet cove under the tropical sun, we motored back to the first rocky arch that we had seen upon approaching Ane-jima. Upon entering the water, a strong current gripped us again and started to pull us towards the underwater arch. After about ten minutes of exceptionally uneventful photography, I expected to float right on through and end up in the same spot that we had seen the dolphins. Our guide had other plans! He turned us all around and had us fight our way against the current for the next 30 minutes to get to the point where it was safe to exit to the boat. Amazingly dangerous move given that the five divers in addition to James and me were new to the sport and all that we had to do was float through the arch and the boat could have picked us up on the other side. Again, I think back to the wildlife cameraman’sequation to realize that external factors can often outweigh even the most prepared photographer. Fortunately, there were no mishaps, only tired divers with sore legs.
The last bit of our day on the water was spent observing a large pod of spinner dolphins waking up and preparing to head out to sea and forage. I say waking, as the spinners are nocturnal feeders and spend the days resting in shallow protected bays. Only in the late afternoon do they become active, making short runs towards the sea, then returning. Leaping in cork screw fashion and throwing off droplets of seawater, colored golden by the late afternoon sun. This was a couple of hours well spent.
Later that evening, our last on ChiChi-jima, James and I had our usual (second time actually) after-dinner drink of Suntori down at the bay while watching the sunset. A friendly black cat joined our new magic hour tradition and offered to stay as long as we were generous with back scratches and head pats. No communication problem here, she new exactly how to tell us what she liked and what she didn’t.
Day came early again and even though we had to board the Ogasawara -maru for Tokyo later this afternoon, we still had plenty of time to explore the town and surrounding hills. An after-breakfast hike yielded plenty of new photo subjects and locations. High up in the hills overlooking Futami Bay are plenty of nature trails that lead to lookout points, picnic tables, and small island caves. While idyllic now, these trails and small caves are the remnants of World War II gun batteries that were used to fortify and defend the island against western intruders. Concrete bunkers and huge fortified wood and iron doors are still in place today. In reflection, I realize that only a short lifetime ago, had I visited this island, my memories likely would have been very different ….
In what seemed like the blink of an eye our adventure was quickly coming to a close. Another memorable experience logged into the timeline of my life. Aboard ship now, I recall that dolphin riding our bow wave, effortlessly rolling onto his side to take a gander at the silly creatures who need a ship to live at sea, I looked into that great eye wondering what was going on beyond the lens, and couldn’t help but wonder if maybe, just maybe there might be a hint of a smile there. And then, just as quickly and easily as he appeared, he was gone.