Goal 35 – Thar she blows!

I flew back from Yonaguni via Ishigaki once again, and was picked up at the airport in Naha by Miho, Doug’s diving shop business partner. We went past the dive shop to say a quick hello to Jim, the business photographer, and then Miho dropped me off at Doug’s apartment, the spare bedroom of which Doug had kindly offered for my visit. I got myself organised, and wrote up my hammerheads blog and went for a wander around, and to see if I could find an internet connection.

Doug lives pretty close to the ocean in an area to the north of Naha called Sunabe. He is also close to one of the US airforce bases here, and I was amazed by the amount of aircraft flying in to land and taking off from the base. It is pretty much non-stop. Apparently rents are cheaper the nearer you get to the base. No wonder, the noise from the fighters taking off is pretty loud.

Down at the seafront I saw quite a few people with cameras with huge lenses on. Doug later explained that the relatively new F-22 fighter plane was flying in and out of the base, and there was a high demand for pictures of it for military enthusiast publications. “Of course, there’s also the Korean and Chinese spies down there taking snaps too!” he told me.

Doug runs Reef Encounters, and I had contacted him after an email tip from Philip in December about the hammerhead sharks in Yonaguni. Doug arranged the trip down to Yonaguni for me, then said on the way back through Naha, if I wanted to try to swim with whales, he would try to help, as it is currently humpback season in Okinawa.

The next morning we were up early, geared out with full diving equipment, and headed down to the harbour. Once aboard Reef Encounter’s boat Doug steered us out offshore, and Miho suggested we should gear up in our snorkel equipment, as we were approaching a popular whale spot. On deck, Casey was already prepared, and Mike and I put our gear on as Jim fiddled with his camera. Jim would be trying to get pictures of any or all of us with a whale if at all possible.

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Doug soon spotted a whale, and brought us onto what we hoped was it’s course, and we dropped into the water, and finned like mad to where we hoped we might see it.

I ran into problems immediately, as when I cleared my snorkel and took a breath in I got a huge mouthful of seawater. I tried clearing it again, and the same thing happened again. I was a bit more careful to avoid taking too big a breath the third time I tried, and it was pretty clear the snorkel was broken, taking in water at it’s base.

Nobody saw the whale, and we all climbed back aboard for another try. The second time the whale surfaced not far in front of the boat, and kitted out with a fresh snorkel I jumped in again, and we all finned like mad, but only Casey reported seeing the tail in the distance. I was starting to think this was going to be a tough, exhausting day.

Back aboard the boat we trolled along slowly, and suddenly there was the whale again, about twenty yards away from the back corner of the boat. We all dropped over the side, and I turned around in the water waiting for the bubbles to disappear, and I imagine my eyes opened wide in utter disbelief.

The whale was right there! It was right in front of us, no more than ten yards away! It was incredible! And she had a calf with her too! We swam towards them slowly, and I could see Jim just in front of me taking pictures. I swam around him, getting closer to the whales, and watched astonished as the mother rolled onto her side, putting herself between me and the calf, and looked right at me. I could see her huge eye, and could actually see it flicking from me to Mike beside me, then back again.

They swam in a lazy circle around us, seeming to be as interested in us as we were in them, and I managed to get within three or four metres of them. Every now and then, as I got a bit too close, the mother would curve her huge tail towards us, in what I took as a fairly obvious warning, and I backed away a bit. She kept the calf shielded from us most of the time, either keeping herself between us and the youngster, or keeping it down below her.

At one point I was so close that with a couple of fin kicks I could have probably touched the tip of her pectoral fin, but heeded Jim’s earlier warning that mothers with a calf tend to be very defensive, and therefore potentially dangerous, and so I kept at a sensible distance.

We watched for a few minutes, as we all went around and around. I reckon the baby would have been about nine feet long, the mother maybe twenty to twenty-five feet long. She had barnacles on the fins and tail, and quite a group of remora sucker fish with her. She was so impressive to see.

It was one of the most incredible moments of my life, and I tried to take it all in. Eventually mum had seen enough of us, and took a straight course, and with a bigger sweep of her tail picked up some speed. I finned hard to try to keep up, but they soon disappeared into the blue distance.

I climbed aboard the boat absolutely speechless, and Miho said, “Let me get a picture – look at your face!” We were all very excited, and Jim took a look at the pictures on his camera, and looked very satisfied.

The awesome pictures below are all credited to Jim. That’s me in the right-hand picture, right there with the whales – amazing!!

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We tried again, but I think she had had enough of us, and proved to be very elusive, and so completely satisfied that we could not possibly have a better encounter, we headed off to go diving.

The dive site we went to was fascinating too. Okinawa saw a lot of action during WWII, and we moored just above a reef off one of the main beaches where the US troops had made a first landing. The previous day the military had just detonated a WWII mine that Doug and his team had found not long before on the seabed. Doug and Jim were keen to take a look at the site where the mine had just been detonated and along with us was Take, to document the damage done to marine life for a TV show.

We descended to the reef, which sadly was littered with dead fish, unfortunate victims of a left-over from sixty-five years ago. Very early on Take found a piece of the body of the mine, all ripped and twisted out of shape by the blast. Remnants from the war littered the seabed, and Jim had warned me not to touch anything at all, as there could still be live munitions down there. One interesting find was a group of four Coke bottles, date stamped 1944, presumably tossed off the back of some US battleship, last handled by a wartime sailor all those years ago.

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That evening we celebrated with a big Japanese meal, and a lot of Japanese beer! The next day, with the goal completed, we took things pretty easy in the morning, and after a very late breakfast/early lunch, we headed off to meet Mike again, who had arranged an interesting meeting for us.

Mike and Doug are always keen to promote Okinawa as a tourist destination, as it has so much to offer, and one of Mike’s contacts feels the same way. Mike mentioned me to this guy, and he knew of my story, and was very interested in meeting me. This turned out to be Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who is incredibly well known in Japan, as he was the Japan national soccer coach for the 2002 World Cup, and now works as coach for the Okinawa team, FC Ryukyu.

We met Philippe at the football team store, along with his French/Japanese interpreter Davide, and chatted for a while before filming a short informal interview/chat. Philippe also wanted to help with my goal of learning conversational French, so we had a bit of a chat in French too, and he seemed pretty impressed, along with the others there. I still feel that I struggle quite a bit, but was pretty pleased with my performance. I think progress is being made.

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We drove out to the soccer training facility, and Philippe chatted a lot about some of the challenges he faced working with Japanese soccer players. They are all far too polite, he complained, and just follow orders, rarely showing individual flair or ability to think outside the box. He tried, he explained, to introduce the team to as much international influence as possible, and was keen to tell my story to them.

Later on we went for a few beers at Philippe’s hotel, which is a very posh 5-star place, with a piano and double-bass playing quietly in the background. There it became apparent how well known and revered Philippe is in Japan, as our table got many nods and pointed fingers, and whispers behind hands, as practically everybody who saw him recognised him.

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But my Okinawa diving trip is now at an end, and it is time to move onwards again. The shorts and flip-flops will be packed away for the next few days, as I fly north to the other end of Japan in the morning, where the temperatures will be below

Thanks to everyone that I met in Okinawa for showing me an amazing time, and huge thanks to Doug for making all of this possible, and helping me to achieve two goals that were always going to be tricky. If you are ever in Japan, and want to do some awesome diving, Doug is your man!

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