When one thinks of Japan, world-class shark diving may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but beyond Japan’s terrestrial treasures, a fascinating underwater ecosystem awaits. Intrepid divers are often surprised by the diversity of marine-life, abundant corals, and unique assortment of endemic sharks and rays that are found nowhere else on the planet.
Although sharks can be seen virtually anywhere around Japan, there are a handful of locations that should not be missed by visiting big animal enthusiasts. For example, at a dive spot called ‘Shark City’ near Tateyama in southern Chiba, hundreds of sharks gather each day to enjoy a free lunch, compliments of Bommie Dive Centre. Unlike other shark feeds around the globe, this one is attended by banded houndsharks; a locally common but extremely elusive species that is virtually impossible to encounter elsewhere. The sharks are roughly a meter long, greyish-tan above, pearlescent below, and beautifully patterned with small black flecks scattered over almost indiscernible dusky saddles.
The shark feed takes place in 20m of water, just a few minutes boat ride from shore. Before the dive, participants receive a thorough briefing by dive shop owner Kan Shiota; a friendly, English speaking dive instructor, and the visionary who turned a regular reef dive into a bucket-list destination for shark lovers.
Upon decending, divers are immediately greeted by a layer of sharks, milling around on the dark volcanic sand while they await the arrival of the shark feeder. Kan brings down a basket of frozen fish, which he tethers to a rock. As if on queue, the closest sharks switch gears and bolt towards him. Unfazed by their enthusiasm, he cracks open the crate and offers a handful of fish to the nearest pint-sized predators. As he doles out his fishy treats, more sharks arrive, wriggling and tumbling over each other in an effort to consume their share.
Occasionally, Kan completely disappears in the centre of the swarm. Clearly not claustrophobic, he continues to guard the bait crate, even though by now, there are more sharks than water.
Kan eventually rises out of the centre of the maelstrom, leading the swirling mass of sharks upwards as he does so. The result is a twister of sharks; a real Sharknado!
Among the houndsharks, visiting divers can also see at least one hundred red stingrays; another species endemic to this part of the world. The rays are just as eager as the sharks; pushing their way into the centre of the feed.
The spectacle generally lasts about 30 minutes. While it unfolds, divers have plenty of opportunities to take hundreds of images or simply look on entranced, until their dive computers force them back to the surface.
Before Kan built Shark City, the banded houndsharks were a nuisance to local fishermen, causing damage to their nets. Kan hoped he could draw the sharks away by feeding them, but initially, the banded houndsharks were as timid as they were beautiful. They would not come anywhere near him, even if he carried bait. Unperturbed, he tried attaching the bait to a rock and moving away to see if they would feed. When that failed, he left the bait on the seafloor and returned to land until they consumed it. By repeating the process over and over, the sharks finally got used to him, and eventually to groups of divers too.
It took five long years for Kan to completely habituate the sharks. Now Shark City attracts hundreds of animals each day and is a big hit with local aquanauts.
Banded houndsharks are not the only cartilaginous predators to call Tateyama home. If Shark City seems too busy, the adjacent reef is a great place to search for Japanese horn sharks; another beautiful species with zebra-like vertical stripes and two large dorsal fins equipped with menacing-looking fin spines. Unlike their banded cousins, horn sharks are bottom dwellers that hide within crevices in the reef. Once located, they generally stay put, allowing divers to get a very close look at them.
While exploring the reef structure, it is a good idea to keep one eye on the sand, where endemic Japanese angel sharks and exquisitely patterned butterfly rays sometimes hide in plain site.
Although Shark City is a year-round destination, it is best to dive some of southern Honshu’s shark diving spots in-season. During September and October, schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks congregate around tiny Mikomoto Island at the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula.
Touted as Japan’s mini-Galapagos, Mikomoto is an exposed, barren islet, topped by a lonely lighthouse. What it lacks in terrestrial charm, it makes up for in big animal activity. Its remoteness, relatively strong currents, and proximity to deep water make it a magnet for pelagic sharks including hammerheads, grey reef sharks and numerous other large species.
If you’ve already ticked those species off your life-list, consider visiting Mikomoto during the winter when Japanese angelsharks and cloudy angelsharks are more common, and another of Japan’s endemic shark species is in residence; the exceptionally exotic Japanese Wobbegong Shark.
It is strange to find a wobbegong this far north because all other members of the family live in the southern hemisphere, but local divers that brave Honshu’s cooler winter temperatures often see dozens of these odd looking sharks lounging on Mikomoto’s colourful reefs.
Cryptically patterned and adorned with facial skin flaps that obscure their mouths, Japanese wobbegongs are masters of camouflage and expert ambush predators. They are capable of remaining motionless for hours, blending into the reefscape. When an unsuspecting small fish swims within striking distance of their powerful jaws, they lunge forward, mouth agape and clamp down on their victim with needle-sharp, snake-like fangs. There is no escape from the jaws of a Japanese wobbegong!
Wobbegongs can be especially rewarding to dive with because they are very tolerant of divers and will remain still, even enduring camera flashes from a close distance.
Tateyama and Mikomoto are both within easy driving distance of Tokyo. Getting there on public transport can be a challenge for foreigners but it is surprisingly easy to rent a car installed with an English language GPS. If you have an adventurous nature and a love of sharks, Honshu’s unique shark dives are not to be missed!