Safety First: Be smart when enjoying Okinawa's beautiful water world
In October, two service members died in separate incidents while enjoying water activities off the coast of Okinawa. A sailor died Oct. 10 while diving at Mermaid Grotto off Cape Manzamo near Torii Station. On Oct. 29, a Marine was pronounced dead after apparently drowning off Maeda Point.
Although the cause of the accidents are under investigation, the two cases point to the fact that dangers we face at sea should not be dismissed. In fact, there have been an average of 61 water accidents leaving 36 dead or missing in Okinawa per year in the last 10 years, according to the Okinawa Marine Leisure Safety Bureau.
This year, Okinawa Prefecture Police officials say five individuals from the U.S. military community have been involved in diving/snorkeling accidents. Three of those individuals died.
The amazing marine life in Okinawa may be calling adventurous minds to come and join, but first thing s first – water safety.
Know your own limit
“The most common mistake is overconfidence,” said Gary Joyce, the scuba program manager of Tsunami scuba of MCCS Okinawa, who has more than 30 years of experience as a diver.
“The most important thing to stay safe while diving is to know your own limits and use good sound judgment within those limits. And those limits are internal to your own comfort level, but there are also limits based upon the amount of training you received and hearing to the information you’ve learned in your course to stay within the limits of the confines of the course.”
Dave Burrows, a scuba diving coordinator with Destiny Charters, an off-base diving shop noted the importance of diving with a reasonably small group and also with an experienced person.
“If you have five people, a good thing to do is to break it into two groups of three and two. This way, you can put the most inexperienced person with the most experienced person,” said the veteran diver with more than 30 years of experience.
Earlier this year, Tsunami Scuba, Kadena Marina, and Torii Beach Scuba Locker came together with the Naval Hospital to put together a brochure of safety tips, one portion of which is dedicated to decompression sickness.
“Decompression sickness is one of the things that can go wrong,” said Petersen, citing the brochure.
“The reason why you are learning how to dive, you are being taught how to do this rather than just being allowed to go and just do it yourself, one of the key reasons is decompression sickness. Air is made up of oxygen and nitrogen. When we are breathing the air at depth, there’s all the extra nitrogen that we are not using. It gets absorbed into our bodies. And we can only absorb so much before it becomes dangerous. So that’s why we have time limit on how long we can stay at certain depth.”
Here on Okinawa, rip currents are often referred to as “reef currents,” as they run almost always through breaks in reefs.
“Rip currents here in Okinawa pretty much do not move,” Kelly said. “They are at pretty much the same places day in and day out. It is because reef don’t move. On sandy beach, beach entirely on sand, rip currents will move.
Rip currents may be something that can be avoided if you are well informed with each dive site in Okinawa. But what if you get caught by one?
“You are not going to be able to swim against it. If you get caught by one, you are going to have to ride it out. Once it dissipates, and you swim perpendicular to it to get out of it. Then you transition back to shore,” said Joyce.
It’s not just the current you need to watch out. Petersen said, “The coral reef all on the western side of Okinawa can be really close-in and fallout. And there’s also some areas lot deeper like Cape Mazamo.”
"Dangerous" marine life
In Okinawa, there is a long list of marine lives that can possibly pose danger. Creatures such as box jelly fish, lion fish, moray eels and sea snakes may discourage some people from sea. But experienced dive instructors have a different view.
“The biggest problem with dangerous animals in the water, is typically caused by divers themselves - either inadvertently or on purpose,” Joyce said. “Most sea creatures will avoid competition. Fight or flight syndrome. Most of them are going to take off. If they come to you, they are basically there to check you out. If you just ignore it, it is going to be aware of (you), but ignores (you). It will go away.”
“A Good rule is what we call the 10-second rule. Before you take anything out of the car, look at the water. If it takes longer than 10 seconds to decide “Yes, this is a good time to dive,” you should not dive that day,” said Mark Kelly, who is an assistant to Joyce at MCCS Tsunami Scuba.
Laura Petersen, a dive instructor with Kadena Marina said, “You should be able to decide within a short amount of time, whether you feel comfortable diving at that location. If you have any doubts, you should not go. A small amount of water can carry so much power. I think a lot of people underestimate that.”
Sometimes, being cautious may require the gut to say no.
Needless to say, sea conditions and cautions are important. And there are useful resources to check on sea conditions. Some places have live webcams that show diving locations. They use flags to show what the sea conditions currently are – blue means there are no problems, yellow means you should take precautions and red means do not dive.
Okinawa is a good place for beginner divers
The expert divers also agreed on the fact that Okinawa is a wonderful place to enjoy diving.
“Okinawa is one of the most phenomenal places to snorkel or dive – it has one of the greatest diversity of animal species in certain area,” Petersen said. “It’s something you don’t want to miss out on because it’s an amazing resource, and it’s easily accessible - much more easily than many other places.”
“Diving has afforded me the opportunity to visit six out of the seven continents and enjoy the culture of lands I visited.” Joyce said. “It allowed me to be an ambassador to the ocean to protect it, but in reality, diving in Okinawa is probably one of the best all-around places I have been able to visit.”
On-base dive shops:
Kadena DSN: 966-7345
Torii Beach Scuba Locker
Off-base dive shop:
Divers Alert Network: www.diversalertnetwork.org
Sea conditions by Shogun Weather: www.shogunweather.com/seaconditions/
MCCS Dive site list: www.mccsokinawa.com/dive_sites/?withurl=1
Cape Maeda: www.maedamisaki.jp/en/