Check out Gakuranman's amazing photo essay on his adventure to Deserted Dolphin Island Ruins in Okinawa.
Published 18th Oct, 2011
Far across the seas in southern Japan lie the Ryukyu Islands, a subtropical archipelago that offers an experience quite unlike that you’ll find on mainland Japan.
My recent travels took me there, to Okinawa, touring and diving around a few of the beautiful beaches and into the gorgeous, warm blue seas. But a holiday wouldn’t be complete without a trip to sample the local ruins! So I found time to explore a suitably sunshiny haikyo called Dolphin Island. Here’s the story. Enjoy.
Driving along the many Okinawan coastal roads, you’ll see many small islands dotting the shoreline. Some little more than rocks jutting out of the sea, and others, distant paradises known only to scuba divers and fisherman. Dolphin Island is one such curiosity that catches many an eye while cruising along. Also known as ‘Hiituu Island’, the Okinawan word for dolphin, it’s a tiny islet just off the mainland. Tucked in neatly among the foliage is a gleaming white veneer, standing in stark contrast to the craggy rocks anchoring it. Jutting out just above the greenery, one can also glimpse the edge of a roof.
A structure of some kind. I wonder what..? And why, on such a small rock..?
Most folk would be content to leave it at that. Vacation time is short. The sun is warm. And more importantly, there are still empty beach chairs to be claimed!
But we take a left and drive around the back of a large warehouse. It’s packing one of Okinawa’s delicacies – the caviar of the sea, Umi Budo (sea grapes), to be shipped all over Japan. There are a few fisherman here, and also a few dive groups boarding vessels to bluer seas. We stop the car and get out for a walk.
Yep, there’s a haikyo there alright. Poking out of weathered rock, the unmistakable sign of ruins – broken windows and worn walls, graffiti and an eerie silence. I am already getting my gear together and making plans for my buddy to pick me up later. It looked to be a fairly small location and quite open. A walk-in entry but with just one, rather large, problem. I’d have to cross the sea to get there.
An atypical entry
Not a problem. Slipping on my swimming trunks and dive shoves, I pace towards the water’s edge. We’d planned the arrival to coincide with the low tide of the day. It was 20 minutes before the peak, which meant crossing should be quite easy. Hoisting my rucksack and tripod up on my back, I begin to tread carefully down the rocky bank and into the blueish-green Okinawan waters. It looks to be a metre or so deep, and sure enough, I find my stomach becoming nicely wet as I wade through the weeds and broken coral to the edge of the island. I grab some shots with the waterproof camera as I go.
Okay, I made it! Now let’s get this show on the road. Camera out and back into the water.
I leave my rucksack on the island’s shore and begin to explore the perimeter of the island. It’s full of small caves and hidey-holes, sparkling yellow patches of sand and lush greens warning me of deeper patches of water. Small blue tropical fish dart in and out of underwater crevices and large crabs bigger than my hand scatter away clicking furiously at me as I splish-splosh onwards. To my surprise, one large tropical fish is flapping around frantically on its side in a small pool of water, obviously caught by the receding tide. I chase it out to sea, and in doing so find a bridge, stretching above me to another tiny rock. A viewing platform of some sort?
Dubious clouds roll overhead breaking up the brilliant blue skies and bringing with them quick bursts of drizzle. I find myself watching my steps very carefully. Slipping here would be costly indeed with an expensive camera and ultra-wide angle lens on the front. Not to mention that low tide has passed. I realise the water is splashing against the rock.
What an idiot! I should have arrived with plenty of time prior to the low tide peak! Now the water is coming back in…
I continue around the back of the island, nearly making a full circle, but soon come to an area of water that looks deep. I dip into it for a while and try to keep going, but it’s at chest height already, so I abandon the idea and head back to the main entrance, ready to explore inside of the ruins.
On Hiituu Island
The bold white front of Dolphin Island must have been quite striking when the place was still new. I imagine the island must have been connected to the mainland via a bridge that guests could cross. Now, it has fallen foul to the graffiti artists. A distinctive pink cat swirls up the front and the welcoming platform of old lies shattered below the doorway. The best way in is to duck under the structure itself and climb up through the floor. I’ve been to a fair few haikyo, but approaching from the sea and sneaking in through the floor is a definite first!
Dripping wet and scrambling around under the building, my hands find a few neat items. A crab claw, the leftovers from a seagull’s dinner, and a hermit crab, hastily trying to outpace me. With more time I would get my macro lens out, but I’m mindful of keeping my friend waiting too long, so I press on. Hauling myself up onto the first floor, I snap a quick picture of the colouful entrance and begin to walk up the concrete steps. It’s pretty overgrown up here, with only a small opening to cut my way through. Spiders block my way, but fortunately I spot their webs before I get slapped in the face. I’ve also noticed something disturbing. Red ants are everywhere. I’ve already had to brush more than a few off my legs, and I’m pretty sure that red swelling on my ankle isn’t from a mosquito. Best be light on my toes…
I reach an open doorway and step inside the room. It opens out into a large space with a set of toilets, a reception counter and kitchen area tucked away. Apparently it used to be a restaurant, with quite pleasant views too. Cut back some of that overgrown greenery and you’d have perfect views of Okinawa’s bright blue oceans, or warm orange sunsets. I note the door leading out to the viewing platform – or could that have been a private balcony reserved for very special guests? Either way, now it’s completely blocked by plants, and I don’t fancy getting scratched anymore than I have been, so I give it a miss.
Most of the decor inside has been stripped and worn away by the harsh, salty sea air. All the windows are broken. Whether by nature’s hand or a vandal’s is unknown, but the effect is the same now. All that remains is a shell of what once was, with a few tufts of red carpet and luxurious wall coverings to remind us of the splendour that existed in the past. But in place of the man-made beauty, another sort of otherworldly beauty is beginning to take hold. A fascinating slither of green mould lines the wall to a broken light switch, and a door clings to its last furnishings as nature rips it apart. For me, this is the stuff that makes haikyo, far more than some dubious graffiti or broken floors. It’s dilapidation, in its most natural form.
Into the bowels of the rock
Exiting the room, I realise my time is ever more limited. I head down another set of stairs leading underneath the restaurant. Several doors invite me towards them, and a couple of dank pools filled with water of a rusty tint hint at the island’s other purpose. It seems as though there was a small aquarium here at one point. Sticking my head inside one of the darkened rooms, I notice a heavy coolness to the air. There are rows of small openings cut into the wall and some writing.
“Please do not touch the tanks”.
I set up my tripod to capture a long exposure and wonder what sort of creatures would have been kept in such a small aquarium. The minimal light here is really testing me. I’ve gotta move. Not much time left.
Heading down another flight of steps, I draw my breath in sharply.
Why am I only just finding this now..?? I breathe, excitedly.
Before me was the mouth of a cave, cut into the spiky rock that made up Dolphin Island. Just above my head, an old rusty lantern that once illuminated these dark walls. I check the time. I’m already over the limit and give a quick curtesy call.
“Not much longer now! I’m just grabbing a few more photos. I found an awesome cave!”
Out comes my trusty headlamp. I find it to be much better than a standard torch in most situations. It allows me to keep my hands free for the camera, and clambering around. I can also light long exposure shots by looking around the room to light up each spot. I head inside, quivering with anticipation.
There’s a much larger tank in here, but it’s almost pitch black. I set up my tripod again, eyeing the clock and hit the shutter.
1 second… 3 seconds… 10 seconds…
I wait as the camera records the image. I’ve mostly dried off now, but being inside this cave is making me a little chilly. It seems to consist of the main aquarium and also a small shrine. The surrounding walls are all carved straight out of the rock itself, but with so many shadows I can’t quite make out all the edges. I start to feel a tingling sensation too, but not down my spine. It’s creepy in here, but what is that..?
That…feeling. It almost, itches…
I let out a scream as I glance down at my right foot, coloured red with dozens of fire ants.
“Dammit, you bastards!”
I frantically brush them off, but I’ve already suffered a few bites. I must have stood on part of the nest or something, but there’s no time to really check. I diligently set up my tripod once more to capture the shrine before leaving. I make sure that I’m not standing still too long either, eyeing the frisky red ants wandering around.
There are several unusual artefacts here that I failed to notice when I took the picture as I was rushing. In addition to the main shrine, there are many different shells and objects of the sea. Various corals and what looks to be a sea urchin in the centre.
Off to the right we find a handsome dragon-adorned ceramic jug, as well as a giant clam and also a shrine marker.
A narrow escape
I’m now out of time though. Fortunately I’ve peaked in pretty much every corner of the small island, so I dash back outside and around to the front again. It’s not a welcoming sight. I’d been there just a couple of hours. How high could the tide rise in that amount of time, anyway? With high tide being many hours later in the day, I figured 2 hours would be nothing. It was quite obvious, however, that the shallow waters I’d paddled through when landing on the island were now much deeper.
I realise that I’m not going to be able to shoulder my rucksack back as normal and heave it, my tripod and many yen’s worth of camera equipment above my head. Nothing to do but walk and see, I guess.
At first, it’s nothing too surprising. The water quickly reaches my knees and then my waist as before. I spot my friend waiting on the banks across the water. Not too far away, a couple looks on with puzzled looks as I begin my crossing. The rucksack and tripod sway above my head in the wind and I struggle to keep my balance as my feet get entangled in the weeds. The water is above my stomach now, and I can still feel the ground sloping downwards. A few more paces, and the water is up to my chest.
What should I do here if it gets any deeper? I wonder. Perhaps I should throw my bags the remaining distance? I suppose even if my head goes under, there’s still plenty of length above my arms to keep the bags out of the water…
I’m fortunate. The water seems to have only risen to just under my chin, and I get away with a dry head and dry camera equipment. That was close though. Another hour and I probably would have been swimming back…
Back on land, it was a quick towel off, a grin for the camera and on to the famous Churaumi aquarium in the north. Another successful explore complete, and one that was truly unique of Okinawa.