Diving with Japanese Sharks and Rays 2023
Another great endemic shark and ray diving trip in Japan!
This was a fantastic trip with hundreds of banded houndsharks and red stingrays, and lots of other species including Japanese horn sharks, Japanese wobbegong sharks, Japanese Angelsharks, enormous Japanesese Butterfly Rays, some Bottlenose Guitarfish, Oriental Stingarees, a couple of Blotched Fantail Rays, a Yellowspotted Fanray, and a few scalloped hammerheads; a typically epic week of diving with weird and wonderful Japanese elasmobranchs!
World class shark action right from the start
We began our week in Chiba, southeast of Tokyo. There was no warm up dive or any other preamble. Everyone in the group was experienced around sharks so after a short briefing, we spent five minutes motoring out to the dive site and immediately fell into an ocean swarming with Banded Hound Sharks. From that point on, we enjoyed one sharky dive after another.
In past years we have run our Japanese Shark Safaris in the summer when the water is warmer, but some of the most interesting species (such as Japanese Angelsharks) migrate into deeper water where it is impossible to see them, so this year, we went in January.
I was hoping we might see an angelshark or two over the course of the trip, but in Chiba there were Japanese Angelsharks laying all over the place.
Angelsharks spend most of their time laying under a thin layer of sand, waiting for fish to swim close enough for them to lunge forward and snatch them. During the dives we had ample opportunity to watch them grabbing their lunch.
After Banded Houndsharks, the second most abundant elasmobranchs in the area were Japanese Red Stingrays. Although devoid of sharp teeth, these large rays would muscle their way into the feed, even pushing some of the smaller sharks out of the way to grab sardines.
We conducted three dives each day in Chiba. Sometimes we would stay at the feed for the entire dive, other times we would drop in up current and explore the reef for other sharks and rays. One species in particular that our guests wanted to see was a Japanese Horn Shark; a species that hides under overhangs during the day, but our experienced local guides knew where to look for them.
Enormous Butterfly Rays
The winter water temperature in Chiba also brings in massive Japanese Butterfly Rays. I have seen this species in the summer as well but on this trip they were far more abundant.
On one dive we went looking for Bottlenose Guitarfish; an endemic shark-like ray that was quite easy find out on the sand flats that surround the volcanic rocky reefs. Again, I saw more on this trip than have ever seen in the summer.
Our keen eyed local guides told me they saw quite a few oriental stingarees but they didn’t think we’d be interested in this small ray. They are admittedly kinda plain but still interesting to the elasmo geeks in our group; me included. So on our third day in Chiba, I wandered off to see if I could find some. With the help of a couple of our guests I finally managed to get some shots of this shy little species.
Interestingly, Oriental Stingarees are the only member of their large family to reside in the northern hemisphere. All other species live around the coast of Australia or not far from it.
I should mention that one of our guests also saw a Yellow-spotted Fanray; an elusive species that looks a bit like a guitarfish but is more closely related to torpedo rays. I missed it so I don’t have an image for the trip report.
On our last dive in Chiba, we spent the entire dive shooting the sharknado of Banded Houndsharks. Then, we jumped in our bus and drove around Tokyo Bay to the Izu Peninsula; ending our day in Shimoda where we would be based for our final three nights.
The reason we relocated to Izu was to look for Japanese Wobbegong Sharks. They are occasionally seen in Chiba but Mikomoto is a much better spot for them, especially in the winter.
Following local guides around the reef, we soon found our quarry and set about the business of photographing them.
There are currently thirteen recognized species of wobbegongs and probably a few more that are not documented yet. Like the stingarees mentioned above, all other wobbies live around Australia or not far from there, except the Japanese wobbegong. Why certain species kept wandering north and settled in the Japanese archipelago is a mystery, but it may be something to do with the abundance of food and the right marine climate that is not so different from the temperate coastlines of Australia.
Another reason to visit Mikomoto was to look for Cloudy Angelsharks; a rarely seen species that only shows up when the water is very cold. It was too warm for us to see one on this trip (maybe thats a good thing) but I did see some more Japanese Angelsharks in the deeper spots.
There were also a few scalloped hammerheads swimming around but they were two shy for decent images.
Blotched Fantail Ray
As we drifted along looking for sharks at Mikomoto, we saw a few massive Blotched Rays. This is a wide ranging species that divers see in quite a few locations but it was nice to photograph them here among the red rocks of the Izu Peninsula.
On our final dive, everyone in the group wanted to photograph wobbegongs, but I was keen to try a deep dive in search of those elusive cloudy angelsharks, so I went off with my own divemaster. Ironically, I did not see any angelsharks but I had my best encounters with a very accommodating wobbegong conveniently laying out in the open.
Back to Tokyo with full memory cards!
After two days of diving at Mikomoto Island, it was time to pack up and head back to Tokyo. Everyone seemed extremely happy with their shark and ray images from the trip, partly because all of the species they had photographed were Japanese endemics that no one had seen before, and partly because the viz was great and the sharks were extremely plentiful, leading to many fantastic photo opportunities. Japan had delivered again!
Izu Stingrays on the ‘after-trip’
After many fond farewells with the group in Tokyo, I headed back to Izu alone, for a few more days of diving to look for that pesky angelshark (still fruitlessly) and to try to find another elasmobranch that only lives in Izu. This one is appropriately named the Izu Stingray.
I found the first one at 42m off Mikomoto Island, and then a second one in 2m while shore diving on my last day. Although I was the only one to see the final species, That brought the elasmobranch tally up to 12 species; not bad for a single trip to Japan!
Back to Japan in May 2023
This year, I am leading a second Japanese Shark and Ray Safari in Japan. We will return in May to Chiba and Mikomoto for more endemic shark encounters. May is a transition time when its possible to see both summer and winter species, so it is going to be an excellent trip! If you want to see hundreds of sharks and rays that you have never encountered before, join us there! Japanese Endemic Shark Safari 2023