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Have you ever been curious to peer more closely under a rock, look deeper within a hollowed-out tree branch, or take a few more steps into a deep dark cave? In anticipation of what might lie within those dark and ominous places, your heart races but your curiosity carries you forward. If you, like us, get a thrill from discovering what lies in those hidden spaces, read on for our experience with Japan’s giant salamanders.
For those well-versed in scuba diving, the chance to see everything from delicate corals to odd-looking fish and impressive apex predators, keeps divers coming back for more!
However, sometimes the most exciting diving experiences are the ones you least expect and are often those with an element of the unknown. Like lying face down in the spillway waters of a human-made dam, while a Japanese man in a drysuit stands watch for you.
As we ventured east on a bullet train from Kyoto, Japan, there was not a glimmer of ocean in sight. Exiting at Gifu station, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the nearest coastline, we ventured further inland heading towards a secret location in the direction of the Japanese Alps.
Japan is esteemed for its alpine landscapes and powder snow. But in the blazing summer sun, any local would have been forgiven for thinking our expedition team had completely lost track of seasons, or compasses for that matter.
It all started with a Facebook message exchange, but not your ordinary kind. A contact from the Japan Tourism Office put us in touch with Ito Yoshihiro, an expert wilderness guide when it comes to giant salamanders.
Hanging in suspense like a nervous teenager with a paralyzing crush, the friend request was eventually accepted, and we commenced an enthusiastic chain of communication. However, there was one hitch. Each message was in our respective native language. Google Translate was hard at work as we tried to establish how we could potentially meet.
They sit only marginally behind the Chinese giant salamander for holding the title of the biggest amphibian on the planet. Prehistoric in appearance, they are estimated to have roamed the earth for over 20 million years. They have been known to have a lifespan of more than 70 years if left to thrive in their preferred habitat, fast-flowing freshwater mountain streams.
Recognized as a Special Natural Monument of Japan in 1951, and a federally protected species, it was easy to understand why the exact whereabouts of giant salamanders’ habitat remains closely guarded.
Though we were not blindfolded and put in the back of a van upon getting picked up at the train station, we were heavily educated on the importance of their conservation and the various threats facing this incredible species. Threats to giant salamanders include habitat destruction from river modifications, pollution and illegal capture for pet trade—the usual challenges species on the planet face.
Finally meeting Ito in person, it was clear from the get-go just how passionate he was about giant salamanders. Arriving at our final destination, a dam spillway located among lush green, rolling Japanese mountains under a deep blue sky, we had hardly stepped out of the vehicle before Ito enthusiastically suited up.
Following a few rough translations and gesturing, we hastily followed his lead without question. With the summer weather warm and favorable, we had expected to need only light swimming gear. Looking across to Ito though, decked in a dry suit and thick booties, we immediately felt like kids in the sandpit staring up at the high school graduates. It was to be the first of many sideways glances being made for the day as if to say, ‘What on earth have we got ourselves into here?!’
What Ito lacks in physical stature he certainly makes up for in charisma and presence, enough to slice through any definitive language barrier. Ito is no stranger to the diving game and his no-nonsense, technical approach was evidence enough of this. He became a certified scuba instructor many years earlier and has completed over 3,000 ocean dives.
Previously having a successful career as a salesman, it was a childhood experience that had stuck with Ito his entire life and eventually led him to pursue his passion for the giant salamanders full-time. He remembers seeing a giant salamander at his local aquarium at a very young age and since that moment he remained completely enchanted.
Leaving his sales career behind, he soon became the only guide in Japan to take select explorers like us out to see the treasured giant salamanders. With masks and snorkels on and torches in hand in broad daylight, we marched like a small, strangely assembled army towards the streaming dam waters.
There would be no need for any back-roll entries or giant strides. Instructed to stay at the water’s edge, we watched Ito shuffle into knee-deep water before performing what can only be described as a head down, bum up, soft belly flop.
He commenced the searching pattern, working against the fast-flowing, extremely cold waters, peering under every crack and crevice as he moved systematically from one side of the waterway to the other.
Barely visible from the water surface was a dark underwater cave possibly big enough for a small human head. Sensing everyone’s apprehension, Ito did his best to encourage us to stick our heads under and in, assuring us that everything would be ok.
This is also after he told us that salamanders who feel threatened by trespassers have been known to lock onto their enemies with a vice-like grip. People have even lost fingers to their powerful jaws on such occasions!
With only the beam of an underwater torch offering some sense of safety, and a lingering back-of-mind thought that this could be the last we would ever grip an item with all fingers still intact, we went under one by one.
Quite timid, nestled deep in the rock cave, the only thing that gave away its existence was its white seam-like smile that flashed every now and again.
As a member of the amphibian family, giant salamanders can breathe oxygen through their skin underwater, meaning they can stay under for a long time - technically, indefinitely. Every so often though, their behavior is to creep out of their hiding spot and sneak a quick deeper breath at the water’s surface.
With that in mind, Ito led us further downstream in search of more salamanders that might be on the move and ready to breathe, giving away their position. We were in luck, finding more as we went and each salamander getting a little more ‘giant’ than its predecessor.
Ito described this incredible encounter as a rare and lucky sighting given the length of time that we had been searching for them. Watching the salamander twist and turn underwater in an unsteady but somewhat graceful fashion, it was easy to see why Ito had dedicated his time to giant salamanders.
It was also a moment to appreciate that the enjoyment of diving does not always have to be in the more traditional forms of the sport that typically come to mind. It can be equally enjoyed whether in 90 meters (300 feet) of ocean water or a 3-meter (10 feet) deep mountain stream.
Like others on our expedition, Ito reaffirmed that scuba and freediving is not just a sport or hobby reserved only for the ocean! This makes it an exciting prospect for people who are landlocked or not within a convenient distance of a coastline.
Ito now works alongside Gifu University and the local high schools in the area, with most days spent conducting citizen science programs. Over time, he has identified close to 300 salamanders in the surrounding waterways of Gifu. However, there is not enough research or historical data to suggest whether this is a small or large percentage of the overall surviving population.
For this purpose, he does a large-scale survey once every five years in partnership with a scientist, determined to find out more about his beloved salamanders. With the help of scientists, they are now devising ways to tag these creatures so they can further add to their growing database.
Ito’s life work, along with his small citizen science community and the university, is critical in light of Japanese law. Though it is illegal to hunt or touch them, with giant salamanders holding an endangered status, the responsibility for these creatures sits in the hands of Japanese cultural bodies.
These organizations are rarely staffed with wildlife experts or biologists, so it is up to the community to do their part for their native co-inhabitants.
We left Gifu with a new appreciation for the lesser sought dive experiences; for the fact that behemoths can be found even under rocks in shallow waters. Every waterbody around the world, from the smallest of ponds to the largest lake, is an ecosystem waiting to be discovered.
Whether you go cave diving, explore fast-flowing mountain streams or something else, there is always a community of people curious and eager to take the plunge with you.
Tackling new things with a measured approach and experts by your side will help you find out what sits on the other side of fear. Taking a step outside of your comfort zone can lead you to meet the greatest people and potentially the most unusual and interesting stories.
Who knows, it may well be the most beautiful, unique discovery that you ever make, and it could maybe even alter the course of your life forever! So, where will you explore next?
Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Youtube and their website.