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Dive Photo Guide


Shark Diving in Japan
By Andy Murch, June 12, 2023 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Banded houndsharks are one of the highlights of shark diving in Japan for obvious reasons!

You aren’t likely to find Japan on a list of the world’s greatest shark diving destinations, but it definitely should be. The Land of the Rising Sun has it all: dynamic shark feeds, natural encounters with schooling pelagic sharks, and an incredible diversity of endemic shark species that you won’t see anywhere else on the planet.

Banded Houndsharks

Off the coast of Chiba, banded houndsharks gather in their hundreds to gorge themselves on free sardines. Elsewhere, houndsharks are notoriously shy, but after many years of baited interactions, the sharks in Chiba have overcome their bashfulness, giving divers a unique opportunity to photograph them at extremely close quarters—so close, in fact, that the biggest challenge is maintaining enough distance for your strobes to be effective. At the height of the feed, the frenzied houndsharks form what can only be described as a “sharknado”—spiraling towards the surface in such a dense swarm that they actually block out the sun.

Photographers couldn’t ask for a more accommodating subject, but if the thought of finding yourself trapped under a writhing ball of sharks gives you pause, have no fear. Banded houndsharks are completely harmless to humans. The most perilous part of this encounter is remembering to drag yourself back to the surface before you run out of bottom time.

Banded houndsharks line up to be photographed during a dive in Chiba

Hundreds of sharks attend the shark feed in Chiba, making it a special shark dive unlike any other

So many sharks can be hard to fit into the frame, Chiba


Japanese Bullhead Sharks

Although you won’t see them on the baited dives, Chiba is also a great place to look for Japanese bullhead sharks, aka Japanese horn sharks. A quick search under a few of the hard coral ledges near the shark feed usually turns up one or two animals, which are easily recognizable by their blocky heads, spined dorsal fins, and beautiful zebra-like vertical stripes. Juveniles tend to be the most photogenic, as they are more brightly colored and have disproportionately long fins.

Japanese bullhead sharks are another highlight of diving in Chiba


Japanese Angelsharks

Traveling west from Chiba, the Izu Peninsula is home to numerous exotic Japanese shark species, including the Japanese angelshark, an ambush predator that lies in wait under a fine covering of sand until a hapless fish swims within range of its fang-like teeth. Although angelsharks can be seen at numerous locations around Honshu—the country’s largest island—one of the best places to encounter them is at Hatsushima Island.

Initially, you may find them hard to spot because they are so good at disappearing under the sand, but their moon-shaped spiracles are always exposed. Keen-eyed divers should be able to find at least a handful on a single dive if they pay attention. Japanese angelsharks head into deep water during the summer, so if you’d like to encounter this species, it is important to join a winter trip.

Japanese angelsharks provide excellent photo opportunities—if you can find them hiding in the sand


Japanese Wobbegong Sharks

Another species that is easier to see when the ocean is cooler is the Japanese wobbegong. There are presently 12 described species of wobbegongs, but the Japanese wobby is the only one that occurs in the Northern Hemisphere. They can show up randomly throughout the archipelago, but the most reliable spot to find them is at Mikomoto Island in southern Izu. Even in the summer, you may run into one or two, but during the Japanese winter, its pretty easy to spot them lounging on shallow coral ledges, patiently waiting to snap up a meal.

Wobbegong sharks have the perfect camouflage for an ambush hunter that lies in wait for prey on the reef


Scalloped Hammerheads

During the summer, Mikomoto Island is also a great site to encounter schooling hammerheads, but there are other spots in Japan where scalloped hammerheads are even more common. Probably the best hammer watching location is at Yonaguni, a remote volcanic island that is closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Unlike in the Eastern Pacific where divers wait near cleaning stations to encounter hammerheads, in Japan you simply drop into the blue at the right spot and float along until you run into the school in mid-water. At Yonaguni, it is not uncommon for scalloped hammerheads to be uncharacteristically curious, approaching close enough for blue water, full-frame portraits.

Scalloped hammerhead encounters in blue water are another highlight of diving in Japan


Whitespotted Bamboo Sharks

You might see whitespotted bamboo sharks in a few spots in Southeast Asia, but they can be hard to find, let alone photograph, as they prefer to secret themselves away, deep within the confines of the reef. From late March until early June on the Japanese island of Shikoku, whitespotted bamboo sharks lose all of their inhibitions. During the day, the sharks rest under ledges, but in the late afternoon, the males begin to emerge from their hiding places and swim around the reef looking for females to mate with. It’s rare to catch a male and female actually sealing the deal, but in the early evening, you are likely to see 20 or more bamboo sharks perched on shallow coral heads, looking for a good time.

A whitespotted bamboo shark rests on a ledge waiting for a potential mate to appear


Rare Japanese Sharks

Japan’s volcanic shoreline is generally quite steep, plummeting into the abyss a mere stone’s throw from the coast. This means that deep-water shark species are never far away, so it’s not uncommon to run into quite rare species, especially if you push the limits a bit. There are a couple of Japanese catsharks that live within the 130-to-200-feet range, and blotchy swell sharks regularly make appearances, even on relatively shallow dives. Although encounters are impossible to predict, the colder months offer the best chance of seeing deep-water sharks.

Blotchy swell sharks are another rare and unusual species of shark you can encounter in Japan


Flat Sharks

No Japanese shark diving exposé would be complete without mentioning the country’s fantastic ray diversity. At the shark feed in Chiba, divers are guaranteed to see scores of red stingrays weaving among the houndsharks. At other sites, you might spot all sorts of unusual species like yellowspotted fanrays, sepia stingrays, bottlenose guitarfish, Japanese sleeper rays, and a host of other uniquely Japanese species that live nowhere else on Earth. There are even hotspots for specific ray species such as “Butterfly Ray Bay” in Ainan, where dozens of resident Japanese butterfly rays can be seen resting in the shallows year-round.

A Japanese butterfly ray glides over the reef in Ainan

Bottlenose guitarfish are another unique species exclusive to diving in Japan


Diving Logistics

If you’re feeling adventurous, it is possible to drive-and-dive your way around Japan, but most dive shops are off the mainstream tourist track where few people speak English, so at the very least, bring a good translator app. Generally speaking, Japanese people are extremely polite and go out of their way to help foreigners. Being patient, smiling a lot, and learning a few basic Japanese terms will get you a long way. If independent travel sounds a bit daunting, Big Fish Expeditions runs a yearly Japanese shark safari targeting all of the iconic species that make Japan a truly world-class shark diving destination.

In Chiba, red stingrays also appear on baited shark dives alongside the hundreds of banded houndsharks

If you’re interested in seeing more of Andy’s awesome images or joining him on an expedition, check out his Instagram page or contact him via his website, www.bigfishexpeditions.com.



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