Swim with Sea Turtles, and experience Okinawa diving at the same time!
17 July 2015
Swim with Sea Turtles in Miyakojima
Have you ever wanted to swim alongside a gentle sea turtle in pristine waters? If so, you should try snorkeling or diving in Okinawa. There are seven species of sea turtles in the world; of these, three nest in Okinawa and two more pass through Okinawan waters during their migrations. Furthermore, the water visibility in Okinawa is excellent, and there are many easy entry points for beginning snorkelers. These features, combined with shallow, temperate waters, make Okinawa one of the best places in the world for a chance to swim with sea turtles.


Types of Sea Turtles in Okinawa and Miyakojima

Sea turtles are not only peaceful and graceful creatures; they are also some of the planet’s most ancient species. In fact, the very same species of sea turtles that can be seen today have existed for 110 million years. This means that the sea turtles once lived alongside dinosaurs! Okinawa is inhabited by three species of sea turtles, the loggerhead turtle (Aka umigame), the green turtle (Ao umigame), and the hawksbill turtle (Taimai). Loggerhead sea turtles are carnivorous creatures that nest in the Nansei (Okinawan) Islands. With their strong beak, they feast on mollusks and crustaceans as well as fish. Green sea turtles, which are an endangered species, are the most commonly seen turtles in the Nansei islands. Green sea turtles are actually named for the greenish color underneath their shells rather than the shells themselves.  These turtles can live up to 100 years, but their lives are not the only thing that is long—both loggerheads and green turtles can grow to lengths of 1.3 meters. 

Hawksbill sea turtles are smaller, with blackish-brown or yellow-brown coloring. They have unique scales in front of their eyes, with heads that taper into the pointed beak-like mouth for which they are named. Sadly, Hawksbill turtles are a critically endangered species. However, with luck you can still catch them swimming in the shallow lagoons or coral reefs of Okinawa. The leatherback (the largest sea turtles in the world) and olive ridley turtles can also occasionally be seen in Okinawan waters, but they do not come to shore to lay eggs. 

the baby turtle, shigira beach

Nesting of Sea Turtles on the Okinawa Beach

Sea turtles generally spend their lives in the ocean, only emerging every 2-4 years when the females come ashore to lay eggs. They lay about 100 eggs at a time, and then swim back out to sea. After 45 to 75 days, the eggs hatch and the baby turtles then crawl onto the sand and out to sea. The young turtles join up with the Kuroshio Current, which flows out to the western United States before circulating back around to Asia. After about 20-30 years, the mature turtles generally return to Japan, completing the natural cycle by laying their own eggs. The nesting season in Japan takes place between May and August. The loggerhead, green sea turtle, and hawksbill turtles all can be found nesting on the Okinawa beach and surrounding islands. Seeing the baby turtles struggle valiantly to make their way out into the ocean is a moving experience, so don’t miss it if you have the chance!


Where to Swim with Sea Turtles in Okinawa and Miyakojima

The Kerama Islands, not too far off the coast of the main Okinawan Island, offer good opportunities to encounter sea turtles. Tokashiku Beach on Tokashiki Island is one of the best places in Okinawa to swim with wild sea turtles, so much so that it is also known as Turtle Beach. Tokashiki Island can be easily reached from Tomari Port in Naha by either a 70 minute regular ferry or a 35 minute express ferry. The water is shallow and there are many sea turtles inhabiting the waters, making your chances of seeing one very high! Sea turtles can hold their breath underwater for several hours when resting but much less when they are active; they will even occasionally swim up to the surface for air. The water off Tokashiki Island is exceptionally clear with great visibility and pleasantly warm temperatures. The turtles here are acclimated to humans, so if you are careful not to startle them you may be able to swim alongside them peacefully for several minutes.

Sea turtles can also be seen in the waters off of Miyakojima and the surrounding islands. At the stunning Shigira Resort on Miyakojima, you may be able to catch sight of sea turtles by joining in a hotel-sponsored snorkeling tour. The Shigira Resort Beach House offers year-round short snorkeling tours to people of all ages and skill levels. It’s easy enough to rent gear and go snorkeling on your own, but the tour guides will know the best places to look for sea turtles. If you are staying at the Pool Villa Lagoon Suite, you may even spot them in the lagoon from inside your room! Ikemajima, an island connected to Miyakojima by a scenic bridge, is home to several popular snorkeling tour companies and boat tours. The island not only features breathtaking crystal blue waters and vibrant coral reefs but is also an ideal spot for turtle watching. 

Where to Swim with Sea Turtles in Okinawa and Miyakojima

Tips on Swimming with Sea Turtles

Turtles are generally shy creatures, startled by sudden movements or loud splashing. For the best sea turtle experience, try to swim smoothly without moving your flippers too much. You may want to practice your snorkeling first in a swimming pool. Keep in mind that all the sea turtles found in Okinawa are considered endangered, so don’t harass them or scare them by getting too close. If you approach the sea turtles with a calm and respectful attitude, you will be privileged to enjoy the peaceful and inspiring experience of swimming with some of the world’s most ancient creatures.


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