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Miyakojima — dolphins to the port side!

by Amy Chavez

After four days of sightseeing on Okinawa Island, we set sail for Miyakojima, the next major island to the south in the Okinawan chain. Having just visited Okinawa’s Churaumi Aquarium, I was more aware of the beautiful sea life underneath our sailboat such as manta rays, sea turtles and maybe even dugong. In addition, at the aquarium we had seen a dolphin show, never imagining it was a foreshadowing of what we would see in the open sea.

Furthermore, the aquarium had introduced us to the fish and other sea animals living among shallow reefs. We hadn’t seen any reefs while sailing thus far, but as we left Ginowan port, the Coast Guard advised us to give a wide berth to Yabiji Reef, located north of Miyakojima. This large coral colony is made up of 100 different large and small reefs that extend 17 km north and south and 7 km from east to west. On March 3 of the lunar calendar, during the lowest tide of the year, the coral can be seen above the surface of the water creating a “phantom island.” Yabiji is also called the “land of illusions,” so take your pick! At this time each year, hundreds of people walk out on Yabiji to observe the coral.

The sail to Miyakojima was among the quietest waters we had yet sailed since we left the Seto Inland Sea in Okayama on Oct. 3. Our boat ambled along at 3 to 4 knots drifting southward in light breezes along with the swell.

At around 1 p.m., the captain suddenly shouted, “Dolphins off to port!” and we all ran out on deck. A pod of at least six dolphins had joined us, swimming alongside the boat. They jumped out of the water, perfectly arching their backs, and dove back down under, only to show up on the other side of the boat, where they would leap out of the water again. Back and forth they swam, crossing under the keel and other times under the bow, playing their own little game with us.

They’d leap again, each time with a snort as they expelled air through their dolphin nostril, that blow hole on top of their heads. Each time we’d get sprayed with the salty mist. This is all very romantic until you realize that mixed with the salt water is also mucus and nitrogen. I’ve never been so honored.

Other times they’d swim up alongside the boat, turn on their side and look up at us with one eye. We could hear their squeaking language even while they were under water. I noticed one pair was always swimming together. Upon closer look I could see it was a mother and her baby.

We were sorry when our cetacean experience ended and the dolphins swam off in a different direction, perhaps deciding we weren’t that interesting after all. But their short visit was a highlight of our trip. Nothing could beat our own personal dolphin show in the open sea — a spontaneous display of the innocence, playfulness and the brilliance of nature.

Later that evening we arrived on Miyakojima. Although we had been spared Typhoon No. 21 on Amami Oshima last week, this island, about 550 km to the south, had been hit hard. Because it is a flat island there was no fear of landslides, but without any resistance in its way, the typhoon swept across the island like a flying saucer, turning over parked cars and anything else in its path.

Miyakojima is a land of white sand beaches and turquoise waters — a scuba diving and snorkeling paradise. Or so they say. You can dive with sea turtles, and manta rays, and you can smile at the camera in full snorkel gear and give the peace sign! Or so they say. Don’t miss seeing the beautiful Sunayama beach. Uh-huh. This is all true as long as it is not raining or typhooning, both of which we seemed to have plenty of. I believe it is this seasonal foul weather that must be responsible for the Okinawan custom of otoori: drinking to oblivion. This is usually done with awamori, the local liquor.

Before you know it, drinking awamori turns into otoori, which is almost always followed by odori (dancing). Someone will surely be playing the sanshin (Okinawan stringed instrument) while another teaches you how to use a sanbatake (clacking together pieces of bamboo with your fingers).

After eight days on Miyakojima we had drank awamori with the local fishermen, become friends with the Coast Guard and their mascot “seals,” and had met Mamoru-kun, a dummy policeman who can be seen all over Miyokojima overseeing intersections and reminding people to be safe.

We even befriended a guy who had lived in Hawaii for 10 years before coming back to his home island. “Miyako islanders are hairy people,” he told us in perfect, unaccented English. “When I go to Tokyo, people stare at my hairy arms.”

He also told us that houses on Miyakojima have only a shower, because the people here don’t have the Japanese o-furo bath culture of the mainland. Another local woman told us that Miyakojima people are not as polite as those on the mainland, and while this may be true, I found that those who were polite were just as polite as those on mainland Japan.

Before sailing for Ishigaki, the next and last island on our sailing trip through Japan, we picked up a new crew member, “Pannu,” a young Japanese riding his bicycle around Japan. He collects letters from the locals he meets and delivers them to their friends at his next destination, thus earning the nickname “the postman.” He’s been at it for one and a half years.

Our trip to Miyakojima didn’t include snorkeling or diving in the turquoise waters, nor experiencing great weather and beautiful beaches, but then again, how often to you get to swim with dolphins?