The crystal-clear waters surrounding the subtropical Okinawa archipelego have long drawn divers throughout Japan, and the secret is out: dive enthusiasts now come from around the world to explore the underwater marvels of Japan's Southwest Islands.
There are enough opportunities off the coastline of Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa prefecture's main island) to keep you occupied, but lesser-known island groups and individual isles also have seascapes worth exploring. Wherever you go, ocean lovers of all skill levels will enjoy the warm, pristine water, whether they're wading in from the beach to snorkel around the shallow reefs or taking a boat dive with hammerhead sharks and manta rays.
Read on to learn about six islands (and island groups) that are great for diving adventures. For more, check out our Ultimate Guide to Okinawa.
Okinawa: The Big Island
The main island of Okinawa prefecture is the most developed part of the island chain, with the longtime presence of US military bases resulting in better tourism infrastructure, especially for English speakers. This means that diving and snorkeling trips can be easily arranged on the main island, as well as the nearby Keramas (more on those below). On Okinawa-hontō, you'll find everything from beginner-friendly beach dives to more advanced spots which include a wreck dive site and deep caves.
For beginners, the Sunabe Seawall near Chatan (on the southern part of the island) is an easily accessed seawall with plenty of soft corals and very little current. Divers will have the opportunity to see garden eels, striped lionfish, and crustaceans. The most popular spot for novice divers and snorkelers is Cape Maeda, where you'll get a peek at lots of colorful tropical specimens, like clownfish. Snorkelers can also explore the turquoise waters of the lovely Blue Cave, but keep in mind that the famous underwater spot—a guide-book staple—gets crowded.
For more advanced divers, the USS Emmons, a WWII-era US battleship sunk by kamikaze fire, lies offshore of Kouri Island at the northern end of Okinawa-hontō. There's also the cool, blue Manza Dream Hole, a cave with a dark, 75-foot vertical drop, which leads through a horizontal tunnel. You'll find it near the town of Onna-son on the central section of the island.
Just off the southwestern tip of Okinawa-hontō lies the Kerama island group, several of which are a short ferry ride from the city of Naha. These tiny, low-key islands are a popular destination for divers. They're also a great spot for whale-watching, or just relaxing on the idyllic beaches.
If pressed for time, it's possible to do a day trip from Okinawa-hontō, although dive aficionados will probably want more time to relax and enjoy the underwater scenery. Zamami and Tokashiki Islands are the best bases for visitors, with a couple of guesthouses catering to divers, scenic villages, and places to stop and recharge when not in the water.
In the Keramas, famous in Japan for its bright, clear "Kerama blue" water, you'll be able to spot garden and moray eels, grazing sea turtles, clownfish, and fan corals. There are a variety of appealing on-site features to explore, like natural and artificial reefs, underwater caves, and vertical rock formations.
Kume Island is further west from the Keramas, about 90 miles from Okinawa-hontō. The extra distance means that it has an even slower pace and remoter feel. The white-sand shores and turquoise waters might draw beach lovers, but it's the underwater wildlife that attracts the most divers: hammerheads, manta rays, and barracudas. If you time your trip from January to March, you might even be lucky enough to spot a humpback whale.
But beginners beware, the somewhat challenging island is best suited to intermediate and experienced divers. To hit the main dive site, head to the offshore Tonbara Rock, a sharp, uninhabited slab of stone protruding from the surface of the water.
One hundred and ninety miles south of Okinawa's main prefecture, the magical islands of Miyako are home to Yabiji, Japan's largest coral reef group, located off Miyako's northern island of Ikema. Snorkelers can spot over 100 diverse coral reefs submerged in shallow water, and also enjoy the colorful fish that roam the shores of Yoshino Beach, which runs along the eastern side of Miyako Island.
But Miyako Island is most notable for its caves, grottos, seawalls, and arches, which you can explore mostly along the northwestern coastline of Irabu Island, connected to Miyako via a 2-mile bridge. One favorite dive spot is an underwater shelf called Mao no Kyuden, meaning "Devil's Palace," named after its palatial set of limestone caves. But local dive operators know plenty of other spectacular sites, so you'll have your fill of underwater scenery to explore.
Ishigaki is part of the Yaeyamas, Japan's southernmost island group. The island is best known for Manta Scramble, a local dive spot whose star attractions—as you might have already guessed—are its manta rays. Sightings are pretty much guaranteed between July and September, when you're sure to catch them gliding along in groups. But even travelers who come outside of the main months for sightings still stand a pretty good chance of spotting one.
Novice divers can explore Osaki Hanagoi, home to coral reefs and brightly colored schools of reef fish. Other shallow, mellow reefs well-suited for beginners are the uniquely named Mash I and Mash II, known for their mushroom-shaped coral topography. If you're more into snorkeling, head to the dreamy, white sand beach of Yonehara, on Ishigaki's northern shoreline, where you'll find another fabulous spot for getting a peek at colorful sea life.
Remote, windswept Yonaguni is Japan's westernmost inhabited island. Its first-rate dive sites draw visitors from all over the world, but advanced technical skills are required to navigate the ocean's strong currents. Experienced divers can head to the beguiling ruins of Kaitei Iseki, Japan's own possible Atlantis. Discovered by a dive tour operator in 1985, experts can't seem to agree if the underwater rock formations are the result of natural geological phenomena or evidence of a submerged civilization. You can weigh in on the mystery with a first-hand look at the controversy-courting site. As an added bonus, you'll get to glide past wintertime schools of hammerheads, moray eels, and sea turtles.
If your underwater skills aren't advanced enough to chance a dive, then no need to worry. Yonaguni is teeming with curiosities for non-divers alike. Many of the island's rock formations jut out from the ocean, so you'll have a chance to check out the dramatic scenery while staying dry and keeping your head above water. Animal-lovers will appreciate the island's resident population of shaggy, wild horses. And you can also get a fresh taste of awamori, a tasty indigenous Okinawan liquor distilled from rice.