TOKASHIKI, Okinawa - At a depth of 4.5 meters, I struggled in a state of weightlessness, which I hadn't experienced for some time. When my soles finally touched the seafloor, I regained my composure sufficiently to take a look around.
The water seemed to be a deeper shade of blue the farther out I looked. In that world of total silence, I was mesmerized by the vivid red and yellow fish darting around rocks and in and out of coral reefs. Occasionally, sunlight would reach the white sand on the bottom of the ocean. It was like being inside a painting of natural colors.
Spellbound by the beautiful landscape, I found myself forgetting about the earache I experienced because of the water pressure.
I was at a diving spot off the Tokashiku Beach on Tokashiki Island, one of Kerama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Though I'm no die-hard outdoor type, I've been drawn to the mysterious, overwhelming power of nature since I was young.
In March, the islands were designated as Japan's 31st national park, the first designation of its kind in 27 years. To see the park's blue ocean for myself, I signed up for a diving session for the first time in several years, this one aimed at unlicensed divers.
I left Tokyo for Naha early in the morning. From Naha's Tomari Port, a high-speed boat service to the island runs only twice a day, in the morning and the late afternoon. When I arrived at my inn on the island, the sun was setting.
The next morning, I headed to the beach for the diving session.
It was late March. The water was a bit cold, but I gasped when I saw how clear it was. When I glanced over at the ocean from the beach, its color seemed to be slowly alternating between shades of green and blue, probably because of changing sunlight conditions.
I traveled to the diving spot with Masatoshi Akiyama, 44, my diving instructor. I strapped on an oxygen tank and began my dive, gripping a mooring cable as I went. With Akiyama leading the way, I crept forward on the ocean floor.
Akiyama told me the names of fish we saw there by drawing each of them on a whiteboard-spangled emperor, clown anemone fish, yellowstripe goatfish and more. Time passed very quickly.
On our way home aboard the boat with the sea breeze in my face, I happily reflected back on my diving session.
Akiyama, who has been a diving instructor on the island for 14 years, said: "I don't know much about oceans elsewhere outside of Japan, but I often hear foreign tourists who have gone diving in oceans across the world say, 'This is amazing!' [when diving here]. Whenever that happens, I feel like our ocean is just as great as I thought." He looked proud.
I had another reason to come to the island at this time of year: It's the season for whale watching. A boat tour is available to observe humpback whales.
I'd heard that humpback whales come to the ocean around the Kerama Islands between January and March every year to raise their offspring in the warm water. After April, they head north, it seems.
I boarded a whale-watching boat with about 10 other passengers. I'd heard that during the peak period, whales could be spotted only a few minutes after setting out on the tour. However, it seemed the whale-watching season was almost over. I was unlucky at first.
After traveling for nearly an hour, our guide Yuko Asaya, 29, pointed out into the ocean. We looked in that direction and saw spouts of water shooting up from the waves.
Eventually, we caught sight of three whales, including a baby, swimming gracefully.
"This place is surrounded by islands, so they have no natural enemies," Asaya said.
Their tails dramatically hit the surface of the water before they dived deep into the ocean, then they resurfaced several minutes later. Although I could only see them partially from the boat, I felt warm inside as I imagined a baby whale nestling up with its parent in the water.
After the tour, I returned to my inn for a moment, before setting out to travel around the island by rental car.
The sun was setting over the edge of the horizon, and the night sky was filled with stars. The dark navy curtain of night gradually gave way to white in the morning glow. These sights were all very refreshing. But the beautiful "Kerama blue" ocean was the most memorable of them all. I heard it is particularly beautiful in midsummer, when the sunlight is intense.
I'll come back in summer, once I get my diving license, to see the special colors I've never seen before.
It takes two hours and 40 minutes to fly from Haneda Airport to Naha Airport. A 35-minute trip by high-speed boat (twice a day usually) or 70 minutes by ferry (once a day) will take you from Naha's Tomari Port to Tokashiki Port.
For details, call Tokashiki's commerce and tourism department at (098) 987-2333 or Tokashiku Marine Village at (098) 987-2426.