Rhinobatos at Hatsushima

We arrived at the ferry dock early in Atami (熱海) early the morning of 25 June for a quick 25-minute ride over to Hatsushima (初島).

It was my first visit, and it was an uncharacteristically beautiful day given that we were in the midst of rainy season (梅雨). In fact, the days preceding had been characterised by dark clouds, strong winds, dense fog and lots of rain. On this day, however, the ocean waters were as placid as the surface of a lake, the sky was a soothing baby blue, and the Pacific breeze was fresh and invigorating.

yellow guitarfish

Hatsushima is small. Only 41 families live on the island, comprising something on the order of 125 people. There are another 100 or so workers that come and go, so all told, less than 250 people spend time on Hatsushima on a regular basis.

One of those people is Shinohara-san, who runs the only dive operation on Hatsushima. He's been doing it for the past 12 years, though he divides his time between his business on this island and his shop on the mainland, both called Seafront.

Once we reached our destination, I got off the ferry and walked a few hundred metres to the dive shop. Shinohara-san had come over on an earlier ferry and was already in the water scouting for the particular fish I was hoping to see...a yellow guitarfish (Rhinobatos schlegelii), known as sakata-zame (サカタザメ) in Japanese.

Most of the time, I research marine animals in advance of going to look for them...paying particular attention to favoured habitat, feeding preferences, mating patterns and the like.

In this case, however, it was more of a "Hey, that looks cool. Can you show me one?" one day while I was flipping through a marine-life guidebook with Shinohara-san and the guys at Seafront.

I was a bit surprised when they said: "Sure, they're almost always at Hatsushima."

yellow guitarfish

Surprised, because the type of response I'm more accustomed to hearing in places I visit is: "You should have been here last week"; or "We see them sometimes, but they're very difficult to find."; or "We passed a whole bunch of them on our last dive. You should've told me you wanted to see one!".

In any case, later in the morning, I found myself in the water scanning the sandy bottom for this odd-looking cartilaginous fish. It wasn't difficult to find one. In fact, we found a total of five...all in buried in the sand at around 12 to 15 metres.

They're actually somewhat elusive if you don't know what you're looking for; guitarfish are really good at concealing themselves and blending into their surroundings. But with a veteran guitarfish-spotter like Shinohara-san showing me the area, finding the cryptic bottom-dwellers wasn't a problem.

I still don't know very much about these fish, but I do know that I can't get enough of their unique, dorky appearance.

If you'd like to see one (or five for that matter) of these...now you know where to go.

View Hatsushima in a larger map