DFS Destinations: Okinawan Adventures

Our picks of how to get your kicks

The Okinawan islands are ringed by beautiful coral reefs and clear azure waters. Clownfish peek out from amongst the tentacles of anemones, shoals of herring form shimmering balls, and pink pygmy seahorses cling to the delicate branches of gorgonian sea fans. Divers should be on the lookout for larger creatures too, including several species of sea turtle, manta rays, and the occasional reef shark.



In Okinawa, it’s possible to explore the coral reefs by boat, or simply wade out from the shore. And there are numerous dive shops, with several catering to international visitors. It’s best to be accompanied by a guide on your dives, as they’ll be aware of the best places to find marine life, local sea conditions such as strong currents, and any hazardous wildlife such as lionfish, spiny urchins, or sea snakes. You can test the waters with a half-day diving experience, or if you have more time consider a four-day open-water certification class. The subtropical climate means that unless there’s a typhoon, diving, and snorkeling are possible all year. On Okinawa main island, the most popular spots are Cape Maeda, Sunabe seawall, and Gorilla Chop. Ishigaki Island is famous for manta rays in the summer months and for its idyllic Kabira Bay. Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost inhabited island, is home to the underwater “ruins” that some believe were an ancient civilization, and in the winter months you may spot schools of hammerhead sharks.



Okinawan river estuaries are lined with lush mangroves. These stubby trees with their entangled roots host a variety of plants and animals that are adapted to the brackish waters. In this fascinating ecosystem, a kayak is the perfect way to get around — you’ll see mudskippers, crabs, and long-legged egrets wading in the shallow water. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the endangered dugongs that live in the seagrass beds.



Each year, from January to March, Okinawa has some very special marine visitors. Humpback whales that have spent the summer feeding off the coast of Russia migrate southward to Okinawa to breed and to rear their young. The shallow, calm waters around the Kerama Islands, and off the Motobu Peninsula are particularly popular with mothers and their calves. With a pair of binoculars, it’s possible to spot whales from the coastline, but whale watching boats allow visitors to see these gentle giants up close. Sometimes the whales slap one of their long white pectoral fins on the surface or breach out of the water. And just as humans have unique fingerprints, humpback whales have unique patterns on their flukes. This means that whale watching crews and local scientists are now able to recognize individual whales that return year after year.



If you don’t fancy getting wet, or if you need an activity the entire family can enjoy rain or shine, then visit the Churaumi Aquarium. Situated in Ocean Expo Park in Motobu, the aquarium’s main tank is one of the biggest in the world. It’s so large that the resident 8.8-meter whale shark can feed vertically, while manta rays and schools of smaller fish circle the colossal tank. But the aquarium is famous for more than just its size: Seawater in the various tanks circulates with the ocean, which means that the water varies in temperature and micronutrients during the year. As the various species in the tanks are all creatures that are found naturally in Okinawan waters, this has led to a successful breeding program and conservation efforts. The ideal conditions also mean that mass spawning occurs on the aquarium’s coral reefs each year.

Outside of the main aquarium building is a separate dolphin area, as well as pools in which staff breed endangered sea turtles for release into the wild. In other sections of Ocean Expo Park you can find the Oceanic Culture Museum and Planetarium and the Tropical Dream Center, which is home to a vast array of orchids.

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