Visit Okinawa: swim with sea turtles at Zamami Island

Okinawa is a true paradise, rich in history, culture and beautiful beaches.
Ater several holidays exploring cities, we finally decided to take a break and explore Okinawa. So after a tour of the main Okinawa island, on the footsteps of the Second World War and the terrible Battle of Okinawa, we opted to spend a few days in Zamami, in the Kerama Islands and realise one of my dreams: swimming with sea turtles.
The Kerama Islands were already on the list of things to visit on this trip, as they can be easily reached by ferry from Naha, without the need to take a plane, as is the case for visiting the Ishigaki island, but the choice to stay on Zamami Island was dictated in large part by the presence of the sea turtles.
Zamami is an island with a perimeter of only 24 km, mostly uninhabited and covered by tropical jungle. It is a slow-paced island that empties out after the last ferry in the late afternoon.
In Zamami everyone knows each other, and it happens that on a festive day, everyone gathers at the harbour, to watch a kind of regatta in traditional dress, and in the evening they all dine together at the Shinto temple, with a sign restricting access to residents only. Zamami is like this, a small island that welcomes the passing traveller, but keeps its traditions intact, a strong community proud of its history as a quiet harbour, a vital stop for the ancient ships of Chinese merchants on stormy days.
Isola di Zamami Okinawa

Kerama Islands and the amazing beach of Okinawa

The Kerama Islands are a complex of islands that can be reached in at least an hour by ferry from Okinawa.
White sand, crystal-clear water and a vast amount of fish and coral make these islands a true paradise for those who love diving and snorkelling, but they are also a perfect destination for those seeking unspoilt nature where they can spend relaxing days swimming in a splendid sea and watching myriads of stars in the clear night sky far from the light pollution of the cities on the Okinawa coast.

The largest inhabited island in Kerama is Zamami, also famous for the sea turtles that inhabit the stretch of sea at Ama Beach, and is often a destination for day trips from Naha, the capital of Okinawa.
The village of Zamami is a small town near the main harbour, where a narrow street is the main street of the village, leading from the harbour to the school, past the Town Hall and the two small supermarkets. A side street leads to the Post Office and the Doctor and it is along these two streets that most of the guest houses and restaurants are located.
Smaller streets lead to the guest houses and diving centres, then dissolve into the dense tropical forest that envelops the island….
Two wider roads lead out of the village, one that climbs up the hill to magnificent viewpoints, one of which is particularly popular in winter for observing the colonies of humpback whales that pass through the northern bay of Zamami, the other that runs along the sea towards the two beaches, Ama Beach and Furanzami Beach, and is the busiest road on the island, on which the few dozen people, rented bicycles and the rare cars of the inhabitants who travel to carry out their daily tasks pass by during the day.
In front of Zamami Island are three uninhabited islands: Gahi Island, Agenashiku Island and Amuro Island, whose waters are rich in peach trees (especially the first two) and can only be reached by boat tours.
This area is part of Keramashoto National Park along with neighbouring Aka and Geruma, which can be reached in 10 minutes by ferry. Unfortunately, however, as we had to leave Zamami early due to the arrival of the typhoon, we were unable to visit these two beautiful islands, which are also inhabited by wild deer that can easily be encountered.

Where to stay on Zamami Island

On the island of Zamami there are several guesthouses, generally rather simple and spartan, a mood perfectly in harmony with the place: a lush little island in the middle of the ocean!
There is enough accommodation for the size of the island, but we are not talking about an exaggerated number of beds, so it is advisable to move well in advance if you want to be sure of finding accommodation.
We opted for a private room at Guesthouse Iyonchi, simple but very clean and with very friendly staff. The space on the terrace is very pleasant for a game of cards or a little slow life breathing that typical holiday afternoon atmosphere…
Other accommodations I recommend are  Shima Stay holoholo and Yenn’s Marina Inn Zamami Condominium.

Swimming with sea turtles at Zamami Island

Zamami has two beaches, Ama Beach and Furuzamami Beach (there is actually a third, just at the end of the road leading to the eastern tip of the island, but it is a beach not marked on tourist maps).
Furunzamami Beach is a beautiful beach, with two Michelin Green Guide Japan stars, equipped with parasol and deckchairs and several small restaurants. We only passed by it in passing, unfortunately, again the typhoon and a sudden afternoon downpour disrupted our plans, cutting our days on the island practically in half.
However, I am not complaining, Ama Beach is a marvel and the only beach on the island where you can swim with sea turtles in a natural environment.
There you are, swimming with your mask and snorkel, observing the myriad of fish swimming around you, some of them even following you, and if you hold out your hand they come closer to nibble your fingers (and one bold little fish even nibbles on my butt -.-“), and at a certain point, you see it there, grazing on the seaweed on the seabed.
Placid, silent, slow. It glides forward, unconcerned about being observed, until it starts swimming, graceful, towards the surface. Its legs move in a hypnotic dance, sometimes it makes turns, comes closer, turns, moves away, and then up, a deep breath, for air. Once, twice, three times…each turtle chooses its breath.
And you stand there, spellbound, watching this magic.
Then, still floating lightly in the water, it comes back down, and resumes its snack.
The smaller ones are a bit shy, allowing themselves to be observed by a few intimates, at a proper distance, moving away when they need to breathe.
The larger ones, on the other hand, are more daring, they let you approach them, without making any sudden movements, being careful not to stir up the sand, they follow you curiously with their eyes, sometimes they approach spontaneously, or perhaps they simply want to go in that direction and don’t care that you are in the way!

Swimming with sea turtles, useful information:

● You can see sea turtles at Ama Beach at high tide. Generally in all guest houses and restaurants the high tide times are indicated day by day, so you won’t go wrong! We were very lucky, the high tide was around 6.30/7.00 so there were very few people on the beach as the ferries from the main island don’t arrive until 10.00.
The turtles do arrive at high tide but then stay for at least a couple of hours, even on the last day, at 10.30 am there were still several swimming close to shore, but they were probably in the shallower water also because the sea was starting to get rough due to the imminent arrival of the typhoon.

● Do not frighten the turtles. Always pay attention to their movements, do not make any sudden move that might frighten them and do not get too close, but let them get used to your presence and approach you first. Especially if there are many people near a single tortoise.
Especially when they come up to the surface to breathe, and move away slightly, they feel more vulnerable with their head above water and if you are too close, they will tend to swim further away from you to the surface.
Don’t chase them when they stray out to sea, not only because crossing the buoys can be dangerous (both because of possible currents, but especially because boats pass by), but also because the turtles will probably want to swim back to the wide ocean in peace…

Don’t stir the water and don’t stir up the sand at the bottom against the turtles, you will annoy them a lot and they may run away and never want to return to this beach. You will probably be wearing flippers, so be very careful when ‘flipping’ to stay upright, the water is shallow, a quick movement of the legs will shake them a lot!

The seabed is full of corals, be careful not to touch them, bump into them or rest your feet on them! They are living creatures and you risk killing them. This is why it is recommended to wear a life jacket, especially if you are not a great swimmer and are not trained to stay afloat for long.
In any case, always be careful not to bump into corals even with your fins, and if you need to touch them with your feet, make sure you find a sandy clearing.

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