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A Dive to Remember

A Dive to Remember: Shark Scramble in Japan

Japan might not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of shark diving; but it’s where I recently discovered one of my favorite finned encounters, thanks to a little-known ecotourism project located just a few hours outside Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture's Ito, Tateyama.

Aptly named Shark City or Shark Scramble, intrepid divers are enveloped in a maelstrom—or sharknado, if you will—of 50-100 banded houndsharks churning around a box filled with mackerel. While baiting sharks can be a controversial topic, in this case, it’s a conservation win. 

Alexandra diving with houndsharks in Japan Credit: Tatsuya Iida

Ten years ago, these abundant coastal sharks habitually swam into fishermen’s chambered nets, or teichi-ami, destroyed the trapped fish, and often ended up as bycatch themselves. Because the sharks were worthless for human consumption, fetching as little as 50 yen per kilo, the managing director of the local fisheries worked with dive instructor Kan Shiota of Bommie Dive to come up with a mutually beneficial plan: Feed the sharks and lure them away from the nets while creating a new dive site for tourists. Shiota says it took about five years for the houndsharks to catch on (whoever coined the phrase “herding cats” clearly never never went diving), but now Shark Scramble has become one of Japan’s most popular dive sites.One early morning this past October, I left my Tokyo hotel room before daybreak to drive out to Ito with Tatsuya Iida of World Tour Planners, a diving travel agency in Japan. (Many dive instructors in Japan’s small coastal towns don’t speak English and hand signals can only take you so far, so it’s recommended to bring a personal guide who does). Upon arrival, we gear up in hoods and gloves to protect us from being accidentally bitten; the sharks’ tiny teeth are so small they can’t pierce neoprene. 

Fighting a fierce current, we descend down the line to the ocean floor. From above, the site does look a bit like its namesake, Shibuya Scramble, Tokyo’s notoriously busy pedestrian crossing. Banded houndsharks, red stingrays, and schools of various fish are too numerous to count, veering away from each other at the last minute to avoid collision. 

Houndsharks Credit: Tatsuya Iida

Shortly after we settle on the bottom, the feeding begins and chaos ensues. No animals display any signs of aggression, but they’re not exactly well-mannered, either. We’re bumped and occasionally nibbled as the elasmobranchs push their way excitedly to their meal. Shiota—who leads the dive—wears a hard hat to protect himself from a stray tail thwack. (All divers must be advanced and have a minimum of 30 dives; sharks and rays commonly knock masks and regulators here, so you should be prepared to replace them calmly). If it all feels like a bit much, divers also have the option of staying outside the fray, or even searching for endemic Japanese bullhead sharks in the nearby rocks. 

Houndsharks Credit: Tatsuya Iida

I had a hard time pulling myself away from the action and the sheer fun of being engulfed in wriggling, relatively harmless sharks that seemed indifferent to my presence. So often we feel lucky to see one shark on a dive—at Shark Scramble, it seems your luck will never run out.

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