Underwater Treasure Hunting in Okinawa

Few things that compare to being 60 feet underwater watching a world that almost looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie. As you float through the water, fish are dashing all around you with a mix of curiosity and fear. Most of what you’re seeing is harmless, but you’ve been warned that, somewhere out there, are a few things that could, if you did the wrong thing, kill you.

But none of that matters right now. You’re on a mission.

While you’re exploring the nooks and crannies of the coral reef a flash of bright pink catches your eye. Your heart starts pounding a little faster. You’ve found it. Tucked under a piece of coral is a tiny creature, about as long as your finger, fluorescent pink with yellow frills on top. It’s a nudibranch, a beautiful, yet tiny slug-like sea creature that, while hard to find at times, is abundant in the waters around Okinawa.

Getting to know Okinawa and Kadena

Located about 400 miles south of Japan, Okinawa is the perfect destination for those looking to experience one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Okinawa prefecture is an island chain that is made up of the lower 11 islands of the Ryukyu islands. Along with having a long and diverse history going back as far as the stone age, Okinawa played a role in modern events like WW2. Its role in the war led to the founding of Kadena Air Base in 1945.

Okinawa is located at the crossroads of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, creating an amazing, vibrant underwater playground for those who enjoy exploring the ocean.

Not surprisingly, the ocean is exactly what brings people to the island. “We’ve got six full months of go out and enjoy the water weather,” said Emily Rary, Director of Outdoor Recreation at Kadena.

An underwater paradise

The Outdoor Recreation Program at Kadena Air Base offers people the opportunity to explore the incredible underwater sites that surround Okinawa. How you do it, though, is entirely up to you. The beautiful thing about Okinawa is that you’re not limited to a single experience. And, regardless of what you do, you’re in for a dive that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

One of the first things that you’ll notice when you start diving is the visibility. To say it’s good would be an understatement. “When I first dove here I thought, ‘I can see all the way across the ocean’,” said Rary. On a bad day, you can still see 30 feet all around you. There are no bad dives on Okinawa.

It just doesn’t stop with just good vis, though. The diving options themselves are incredible. Those looking for easy dives or new divers can get started right from shore. These dives make it possible to quickly get in the water and start exploring the reefs and because the dives are shallower, you can spend more time at depth.

The aquatic life that can be found around the island takes an already memorable experience and makes it that much better. On any given dive, you’ll see the kinds of animals you’d normally only expect to see in a book. Clownfish dart in and out of their sea anemones, looking for food from the safety of their homes. Frogfish spend their days darting around the bottom.

Keen-eyed divers can even spot a handful of (potentially) deadly sea creatures, like the blue ringed octopus and sea snakes. If you’re lucky enough to spot these creatures, be safe, but enjoy. The sea snake is particularly curious and will follow you around as you dive (these snakes, while deadly, rarely bite).

You should also keep your eyes open for reef sharks, the pacific giant octopus, and the tiny seahorses that like to live around the piers. Of course, there are also nudibranchs, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

Looking for something a bit more technical?

If you’re an experienced diver looking for something a little more challenging, the USS Emmons offers just the thing. The USS Emmons was a WW2 minesweeper that was scuttled after being hit by 5 kamikaze pilots in 1945.

After the war, the Emmons was lost until being rediscovered just 15 minutes off the Okinawa coast in 2001. It’s now one of the most popular dives in Okinawa.

The Emmons sits in about 140 feet of water, making this the perfect dive for those with their technical certifications. Ropes guide you down from the surface (mostly to protect divers from the strong current) and, as you get closer, the largely in-tact USS Emmons waits on the bottom. “It’s amazing,” says Rary. “It’s a very intact ship and you can get really close to it.”

You can’t go inside the Emmons itself, but there is enough outside the boat to satisfy even the most curious diver, like the propellor, the engine of one of the planes that flew into the Emmons, and a plaque placed by the Navy to honor both the Emmons and those who lost their lives on the ship.

What you need to know before heading out

Getting to Okinawa and Kadena is easy. There are regular flights out of Tokyo’s Narita airport. They take about 3 hours and are the most direct way to get there. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, however, you can take a ferry out of Kagoshima. The ferry takes about 26 hours but is worth it if you’re not in a hurry.

Divers have a few options when it comes to gear. They can bring their, rent, or even purchase what they need from the dive shop at Kadena. If you’re not certified, don’t worry. Kadena also has a 5-star PADI dive center located on-site. Visitors can get certified when they get there and start diving in no time (it’s worth noting that you should do the classroom portion before you get there, to avoid having to spend 16 in a classroom while in Okinawa).

Finding the treasure

If you’re looking for something to really round out the Okinawa experience, you must keep your eyes peeled for nudibranchs. They spend their time crawling around the bottom and are a treat to see. These brightly colored sea creatures are worth the effort it takes to find them. “We have so many here and they are absolutely gorgeous,” says Rary. “It’s like a treasure hunt trying to find them because they’re so little.”

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