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Diving for Kanrin Maru

From 7 to 9 September 2018, the Maritime Programme and Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology conducted a dive survey at Kikonai, Hokkaido (Japan), in an effort to locate the shipwreck of the Kanrin Maru. Leon Derksen participated on behalf of the Maritime Programme.

Day 1: A first effort to locate the wreckage material

Nature’s schedule, Nature’s rules

This year alone, Japan has been hit by multiple natural disasters, including a murdering heat and a record number of typhoons. When my trip to Japan began, typhoon ‘Jebi’ was also underway. While Jebi didn’t reach the area where I was staying at, an earthquake did hit Hokkaido just the night before we were to go to Kikonai. Sadly enough, the earthquake robbed quite a number of people from their homes, and even some from their lives.

At first we had our hopes that the earthquake would not upset our schedule, but it did slightly affect our plans. Much of Hokkaido suffered a power outage due the quake, including the town of Kikonai. The result was that the shinkansen (bullet train) did not go beyond the north end of Japan’s main island Honshu, so we had to take a ferry to make it across.

A formal morning to you, sir

Due to the delays in travel, our first full day at Kikonai was Friday. First, we met with Ōmori-san, mayor of Kikonai, with whom we discussed our schedule. We owe much to the municipality, as they arranged a research vessel and temporary funding, for which we expressed our sincerest thanks. We went on to visit the head of the Kamiiso Fishermen’s Association. Politically, the head of the local fishermen’s association has quite a lot of influence. Even though it was a short visit, it was a most important one. I’m sure the Bols ‘Oude Genever’ brought over from the Netherlands will emphasise just that.

Plunging in

In the afternoon, we made our way to the harbour of Izumisawa, the little village near Cape Saraki, where the Kanrin Maru shipwrecked in 1871. In front of it lies our area of interest, marked last year through the eyewitness account of the earlier mentioned professional diver, Yoshida-san. Waiting in the harbour, we found our research vessel, the Dai San Ebisu Maru (lit. ‘the third Ebisu boat’, Ebisu being a deity of fishermen, according to Japan’s traditional belief). Niida-san, a local fisherman whom we also met last year through our inquiries, is our local captain-for-hire.

We sailed out to approximately 500 metres from the harbour. Shortly after, Yoshida-san jumped in ahead, in an effort to try and locate the location of the wreckage material he last saw in 2007. Later, Takahashi-san joined him, and together they scoured the seabed for anything manmade. They circle-searched the area around a yellow buoy, using a rope of up to 30 metres – and they even went beyond that. Despite their efforts, however, our divers came up empty handed. As it so happens, the conditions underwater unfortunately weren’t good. Visibility was up to 5 or 6 metres, which is bad for Japanese standards, while a top and bottom current pulled in opposite directions, making the dive a tiresome expedition. With 21°C at surface level the temperature was fine though.

Frankly, not-so-ideal sea conditions are just part of the job. This is only our first real endeavour in trying to solve the mystery of the Kanrin Maru shipwreck. We didn’t expect it to be easy, so we won’t give up that easily either. Read the next blog to find out what our next efforts will establish.

Dive day 2: A seagrass jungle and... a tiny piece of evidence?

On the second day of the survey, we had a chance to do two dives; one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The morning dive picked up where we left yesterday, only now with three divers instead of two (Mr. Yoshida, Mr. Takahashi and Mr. Hayashibara). Like yesterday, the idea was to circle-search in a radius of approximately 30 metres, now with all three divers on the line, separated from each other by 2 metres. Rods were brought along to prick the sandy seabed to see if there’s anything underneath soft enough to be penetrated, such as wood. Unfortunately, time and time again, after penetrating about 30 centimetres of sand, we hit rock. Visibility this time was even worse, being approximately 2 to 3 metres. To make things even more difficult, the area now searched was riddled with patches of tall eelgrass (Zostera caulescens most likely), some reaching as high as 5 metres (!). It occasionally turned the seabed in a downright jungle. The rope attached to the central buoy to make the circle, got tangled up multiple times. Though at the end of the dive, Takahashi-san did bring back a tiny piece of wood from the area that should be close to the location described by Yoshida-san last year. Naturally we need more than just one tiny piece of wood to even have the start of inkling that we’ve found wreckage material, but at least it's something.

Shore support

After lunch we came back to the harbour for the second dive. We were welcomed by a group of enthusiastic supporters. Among them was Ms. Munakata of the Society of Kanrin-maru Crew Descendants. She is actually the descendant of the head of the Nagasaki Naval Training Centre, whose name was Admiral Kimura Settsu-no-Kami. The centre itself was established around 1855 with the aid of Dutch naval officer G.C.C. Pels Rijcken, who was leading the detachment of Dutch navy officers stationed at Nagasaki. Pels Rijcken and other Dutch officers provided the Japanese with the latest in Dutch naval training until they were relieved from their duty by the men who brought the Kanrin Maru to Japan in 1857. Other supporters that day were Kubo-san of the Society for Dreaming About The Kanrin Maru and Wajima-san, special member of the Kaiyo Maru descendants. The Kaiyo Maru was a ship built by the C. Gips & Zonen in Dordrecht in 1865, it wrecked in nearby Esashi in 1868. Its shipwreck was already partly researched and excavated in the late 1980s, but there is still shipwreck material in the harbour of Esashi, Hokkaido. The area is now a nationally protected site and there are plans to re-evaluate the current condition of the material, to see whether or not further protection is required.

Needles to say

The second dive of the day, rather unfortunately, yielded no significant breakthroughs. Each dive however, brought us new insights into where not to look, while it also gave us a proper and up-to-date understanding of the conditions of the seabed, seeing as it was mostly sand and pebbles covering the area that we searched. This is also a crucial part in research. All in all, it remains a search for the good ole’ needle in the haystack.

Tomorrow is our last day of diving. With only one dive to go, all effort is focussed in our least endeavour. Let’s hope for the best.

Dive day 3: stopped in our tracks by the eelgrass jungle

Setting out to sea

In the previous blog, I mentioned that although the survey hadn’t brought to the wreckage material, we did manage to narrow down the search area for our last day of diving. And on our last day, 9th September, we were ready to give it our all.

The alarm clock went off early that day, since we had to check out of the hotel early before going out to sea. Soon after breakfast, Niida-san carried us out to sea on his vessel, where we were met with such small waves that you’d almost think the Tsugaru Strait overnight had turned into a lake. We knew the drill, we knew our target, but we only had one full dive left. After a quick briefing, our crew of divers (Yoshida-san, Hayashibara-san and Takahashi-san) let no time go to waste and jumped in – leaving the others and me behind on the boat, thinking of only one thing: ‘Will they find the wreckage material on this final day?’.

Follow that bubble

Although I wanted to dive in myself as well, it was decided that, like on the other days, I was to stay on the boat, as substantial diving experience was required due to the harsh underwater conditions and the laborious character of the underwater search. So, after about fifty minutes of anxiously waiting and frantically following the occasional air bubbles that popped up to the surface, our divers popped up as well. ‘Well? Did you find anything?’ … ‘Nai desu’ was the answer, meaning ‘there’s nothing’, unfortunately. From Yoshida-san's description, we were looking for a trench stretching along a rocky feature, in which he said he found the wreckage material years back. However, as the divers were digging and pricking the seabed over the past few days, they kept hitting rock bottom already after 30 cm, while later they hit the rocky bottom after 50 cm. But on this final day, on the borders of the eelgrass jungle, they reached a point where they could get as deep as 80 cm. This sparked the idea that underneath the flat sandy bottom, the rocky substrata is gently declining to a deeper point.

Whether this thought holds true, and the sand still indeed covers the wreckage material Yoshida-san told us about, couldn't have been tested by our divers. Because, at this point, the place is impossible to reach due to it being covered by a big jungle of our-currently-not-so-beloved eelgrass. So while on other days, the currents and visibility mostly hampered the work, the eelgrass now really stopped us in our tracks. On no occasion would it be wise to dare into that jungle, as our divers would definitely run the risk of getting tangled up.

Keeping an eye out

With that dive, our survey has now come to an end. The fact that we were defeated again by the eelgrass-jungle is, well… excruciating. However, Yoshida-san, our local diver, has said to keep an eye out whilst looking for new catches of sea urchins (which were omnipresent, I might add), and promised to inform us when the area is cleared from the eelgrass. As it so happens, the eelgrass dies in the winter cold, so if that is indeed the place where he remembered seeing wreckage material, he'll have a better chance of finding out. Despite not finding the wreckage material, it was inspiring to see such a work effort displayed by our always-enthusiastic crew. Furthermore, it was heart-warming to see the frequent supporters anxiously waiting for us in the harbour, revelling for some good news. While as of yet there hasn't been found a wreck of any kind, the Kanrin Maru project did gain an enthusiastic following on the surface.