By Bonnie Waycott
For many of us, scuba diving offers a chance to relax in beautiful, clear water and marvel at the marine life with family, friends or new dive buddies. But, as I found in Japan, diving can offer a lot more — a chance to help out after a natural disaster and make a difference in a community.
Sanriku Volunteer Divers
In my case, volunteering as a diver came about unexpectedly after the March 11th, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region. As the tsunami had such a devastating impact on the area, I spent some time looking for something I could do to help when I discovered Sanriku Volunteer Divers.
A few months after the tsunami, I boarded a bus from Tokyo and headed to the affected region to work with a group of divers from across Japan who had been helping local fishermen get back on track and pull debris from the water since the earthquake and tsunami struck. Diver Hiroshi Sato comes from Tohoku, and established Sanriku Volunteer Divers upon returning home from Thailand where he was working as a dive guide. The idea of a divers’ volunteer group came to him when it was suggested that as a diver, perhaps he could help recover debris that had been washed out to sea. This led to an underwater clean up and as word spread, more and more people came to help out.
Since then, the divers have been in the water almost every day since the disaster, and volunteers from across Japan continue to get involved. The diving, however, is not recreational — those who wish to help must have a good deal of experience and a rescue certification at the very least. Divers are often underwater alone and must be 100 percent comfortable with their equipment, poor visibility and any possible difficulties or dangers that could arise, such as getting tangled up in ropes or fishing nets. They usually work at a depth of around 20 to 33 feet (6-10 m) and constantly ascend to help lift the rubble or to explain to those on land what lies below, what might be tricky to remove, and whether specialized equipment is required. Constant ascending and descending means that good ear-clearing skills are also a must.
Non-divers need not despair, however, as there’s plenty of work to be done on land, such as sorting the debris that’s brought to shore. Volunteers on land can also pair up with a diver, who descends holding one end of a rope while the volunteer holds the other. The volunteer waits for a signal (usually a few tugs) from below and helps pull out debris, which could be anything from fishing nets to tree branches to plastic bags and car tires. There’s also a chance to help on the boats that are called to the area to remove bigger items, such as tree trunks or cars. Someone is usually needed to make sure the area is clear of anything that might get in the way; the boat’s surfaces might need to be cleaned; and of course the debris must be hauled on board.
It’s been more than four years since the disaster and much progress has been made, although some areas are still hard to access. Fun dives are now available, wherein divers can observe sea squirts, kelp and the general underwater vegetation of a more temperate region of Japan. Sanriku Volunteer Divers is also involved in underwater surveys, the cultivation of sea urchins and scallops, and visits local schools and some of Japan’s bigger cities such as Osaka and Tokyo to spread the word about its activities. In the future, the organization aims to generally expand the scope of its work, helping out in areas further afield.
In 2014 I worked with Hiroshi Sato again, and told me that what’s even more vital than spreading the word about the group’s activities is to show gratitude to those who have given up their time to volunteer. According to the words of one local fisherman, “We have been through so much because of the disaster, but there have been joyous occasions too, in particular the sheer number of people who have come from all across Japan, and indeed abroad. We owe them a great deal of thanks.”
Read more about my time volunteering with the group in 2011 here.
All photos courtesy of Sanriku Volunteer Divers Japan