Tokunoshima: Where Turtles Swim and Whales Sing

By Bonnie Waycott
April 10, 2014
Adventures, Lifestyle

At first glance, Tokunoshima seems to have been left to do its own thing, neglected by tourists seduced by the crystal clear seas of the more well-known Okinawa, just 100 kilometers to the south. But underneath this seemingly unexciting place, Japan's volcanic geology is plain to see, with underwater tunnels, overhangs, drop offs and all manner of other formations that provide a home to a range of marine life. In February whales venture into the surrounding seas, their cries echoing through the water, while turtles are often spotted grazing on the rocks or simply drifting by. Don't forget to keep your eyes and ears open for some beautiful sounds and sights.

Blue striped snappers cropped

Senma Bay cropped

Senma Bay

This is Tokunoshima’s main spot for beach dives. After a slow swim being buffeted by the surges, the fun begins at four meters over a flat bed of rocks and table coral that is home to small groups of fish including blennies, butterfly fish, semi circle angelfish and Moorish Idols. For divers who enjoy tunnels, arches and narrow concealed areas, this point has a lot to offer. Once down below at around 18 meters, the rocky structures seem to rise forever and it’s possible to explore the small openings, cracks and concealed spots that lie within the monoliths. The next nudibranch, lion fish or shrimp could be just around the corner, while large specimens of the endangered green turban shell also live here.

Starfish at Tonbara cropped


Three offshore rocks about 30 minutes from Tokunoshima are collectively known as Tonbara. Because of the strong currents, the site requires a fair amount of experience, preferably a minimum of advanced open-water training, but it remains the island’s most favorite and challenging point, home to large pelagic species such as tuna and giant trevally. It is also said to be a cleaning station where fish can glide slowly by, having parasites picked off by cleaner fish. Divers can reach a maximum of 30 meters depending on the current, cling to the towers of rock, and peer over the edge into the deep blue depths to see what might be lurking below. The sound of the whales, at least 10 kilometers away, is an echo that adds an eerie and exciting touch to this already tense dive. The shallower seas (20 meters) are teeming with tropical residents including starfish, red fusiliers, white tip reef sharks, curious sea snakes and triggerfish to name a few.

Yama-chan cropped


If you want to meet a turtle up close, this is the place to be. Shiotobiya is home to Yama-chan, Tokunoshima’s resident green turtle that has been here for the past 10 years.  Famous for his unusual mountain-like shell, he is tame and friendly and often spotted along the rocks or swimming in the distance. This site is a great boat dive for beginners, as the currents are mild and there are some sandy areas littered with small to medium-sized rocks that are well worth exploring. Keep an eye out for the jaw fish, an entertaining little creature that peers slowly out of his sandy burrow with his huge frog-like eyes and darts out of sight if he gets too scared. Trying to find him is like a game, but with excellent timing, good buoyancy control and a decent camera, it’s possible to get some great underwater shots.

Near Shiotobiya cropped

Dive School Kamui can arrange all dives and accommodation on Tokunoshima, as well as return flights from Tokyo. The owner of the school, Ryuji Suzuki, speaks English. For more information, give him a call on 0997-82-1514 between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Life on Tokunoshima's rocks cropped

The Deets

Getting There: Flights are available with JAL and take about three hours from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. This travel time includes a transfer at Kagoshima airport.

Getting Around: Kamui offers pick-ups and drop-offs before and after dives, but if you have some free time and wish to explore further, hiring a car is the best option. A full circle around the island takes about two hours. One outlet is about two minutes away from the airport will send staff to meet you at arrivals, or alternatively car rental can be arranged at your accommodation. There are very few, if any, buses on Tokunoshima.

Where to Stay and Eat: Hotel Lexton Tokunoshima is a Western-style business hotel located in Kametsu in the southeast part of the island. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the price includes breakfast at the Joyfull Restaurant next door, where guests can choose between a Japanese or Western-style meal and take advantage of the drink bar. Restaurants and a couple of supermarkets are about five minutes’ walk away, although the Kametsu district is fairly quiet at night. For those wanting a more Western-style early dinner, Leaf is open until 6:30 p.m. and sells hamburgers, curry and fried chicken in a cozy cafe setting. For Japanese cuisine and local sake, Shimao (島王) is a local izakaya with private rooms and counter seats, serving fresh sashimi, chicken and other meat skewers, with a range of salad and rice dishes.

More Information: For further details on diving around Tokunoshima and the options available, contact Kamui Dive School by calling 0997-82-1514 between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., or visit the school’s official website.

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