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Choosing a Safe Dive Site on Okinawa

By: John Chandler

Date Posted: 2001-02-16

Each week I have written to you about dive sites I enjoy throughout Okinawa. This week let's consider what makes a dive site both safe and enjoyable.

What is a good dive site? A good dive site is where you are confident that you will have fun, dive within the limits of your training, and be able to safely enter and exit the water. Your considerations should then go below the surface of your choice.

First, consider what is the underwater geography (hydrography) like? Then consider what are the tides like at this site? These two items when considered together will allow you to predict the visibility. While hydrography and tides are safety considerations visibility is an enjoyment factor. Dive sites that have a white sandy bottom will have low visibility in the presence of a surge that will stir up the bottom. Beaches like Malibu, Sunabe, and Kadena all have sandy bottoms. On days with moderate to heavy surge you may want to find a sight like Onna Point that has a limestone shelf supporting its coral reef that drops off down sheer walls that moderate the surge and keeps visibility high.

You may also want to consider if there any phones, bathrooms, or other shore side support at or near this dive site? These are all items that you should consider before you even leave for the dive site. If you have never dove there then it would be wise to quiz your fellow divers with more experience. Don't be afraid to ask since most divers truly enjoy exchanging their opinions and freely offer you their suggestions and guidance.

Dive site readiness. To be a safe diver and a better dive buddy you must establish what are your parameters for safe diving. Some divers on Okinawa only want to shore dive when the water is as flat as a lake. A good dive buddy accepts this and seeks to find a dive site that will accommodate his buddy (or he finds a different buddy) but wave height is not the only consideration.

What do you know about the terrain where you are about to dive? At two dive sites on Okinawa, Onna Point and Channel Crevices, there are cuts in the reef that starts at the shoreline and descends to 35-40 feet (10-12 meters). These cuts were made years ago so that small boats would be able to approach and land on the shoreline. But now these "channels" cut in the reef can create rip tides that rapidly move water away from the shore when the tide is falling. Divers need to be aware of this rapid movement of water. Being swept out into an outgoing current, even if for only 100 yards or so, can cause some unexpected excitement and lead to panic. We don't go diving so that we can panic. Knowledge of the underwater terrain comes from experience and reference to a good dive map. So while you study the terrain consider what five feet of water will do when falling through a 30-foot deep channel. This is big step toward dive site safety. Plan ahead by researching your dive sites. Ask dive buddies, more experienced than you, to sketch the site before you dive. Consider the terrain and be sure to log your findings in your dive log so you will have the information for future personal use and sharing with other dive buddies.

But what about shore break? Surfers are an excellent indicator of a shore break. On really rough days go out to your favorite dive sites and examine the shore break. Shore break is where the depth of the water is less than the height of the wave which causes the wave to crest and then fall (break) onto the shore. This is an important consideration for divers at Sunabe, Kadena, and especially at Onna. If you enter the water when the tide is high there may not be any shore break at all. While you are enjoying the mysteries of the underwater world the outgoing tide lessens the depth of the water and waves begin breaking right where you went in. Your exit may be more exciting than you expected. Good planning can prevent the loss of even one flashlight or camera. Know where you are going , expect the unexpected and plan for it. Plan for an alternate exit if winds pick up and waves are greeting you at the surface. Please remember to include the most current information about weather, tides, and wind direction. All this information is available and waiting for you at H2Okinawa

In summary you must be as ready as your buddy. If there is a difference then you should then you should stop, think, and get better prepared before entering the water. A bad dive plan does not get better once you enter the water. Diving on Okinawa can be as safe as it is fun. Preparation, like what we have discussed here, will not take any of the fun, or excitement out of your diving experience. With thorough teamwork you will truly enjoy yourself more and minimize the risks that are inherent to the sport we all enjoy.

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