The Four of Hearts

Number 17 – See the firefly squid in Japan (Four of Hearts) – Tuesday 4th April 2017

Squid that light up and glow in the sea? It can’t actually be real though right? It’s just one of those very well photo-shopped images. We’ve all read and seen those articles of the most amazing things in the world; normally we read them at our office desk whilst pretending to do work, or maybe even on the toilet. Don’t pretend you haven’t. But last year I remember seeing one particular picture that looked too good to be true. It was a shoreline inundated with small electric blue lights. The caption below talked about a special type of squid that line the shore in only one part of the world and for only a few weeks a year. They were affectionately known as firefly squid, and at first I figured it couldn’t actually be true. So I decided to do a little more research. I had already begun planning my trip to Japan at this point, so when I found that these animals were not only real, but that one of the only places in the world where you could see them was in Japan, I realised that I had to make this one happen. It wasn’t quite the success I had planned, but it was still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. Read on to find out more.

Toyama is a small town in the west of Japan, around 7 hours driving from Tokyo. Recently it has become even more accessible with the introduction of a new Shinkansen line connecting the area with Tokyo. There is a castle, some gardens and a few other things to see, including the most beautiful Starbucks in the world (supposedly) but apart from that it is a pretty sleepy town. However, Toyama bay holds an incredible secret in its waters, and a spectacle that only happens for a few short weeks each year. Hotaru-ika are a small breed of squid native to the waters around Toyama bay. Normally living deep underwater, they venture into the shallow waters of the bay between late March and May each year in order to breed. They are considered a delicacy in the area, and what makes them special is the bio-luminescent features that they exhibit. Hotaru-ika have an array of bio-luminescent organs in their body, from two special tentacles, to 5 spots under their eyes, which can light up a bright, electric blue colour and be seen from a significant distance. The best place to see these animals is out at sea during the night, when fishing boats trawl their nets and recover them from the ocean. As they get caught in the net and pulled out of the water, they light up in an array of patterns, perhaps out of fear. You can view this from a tourist boat, which for 4000 yen will take a group of people out into the bay to see the squid. A good place to start I thought.

I arrived in Toyama on the 4th April ready to start my adventure. I had read that you needed to book a place on the early morning tourist boats that go out into the bay, however there was no way of doing this online, and for some reason no way of getting in contact with them. But I wasn’t going to be deterred. After I checked in I decided to do a little more digging whilst I had Wi-Fi; it was here where things began to come undone. I managed to find a website that had been updated the day before my arrival. It stated that this year they would not be running the tourist boat until further notice because of the previous year’s bad weather. There was no other information and as it had been translated from Japanese I wasn’t entirely sure I could rely on the information, but it was still a kick to the stomach. Still I pressed on. I figured this would be some wrong information and so I decided instead to go direct to the source, and also cover my bases just in case.

The tourist boat actually departs from Namerikawa, a village around 12km north of Toyama, which houses the world’s only firefly squid museum. I wanted to visit the museum anyway, and thought they would have some more information, so I set off. Unfortunately my fears became a reality; they were indeed not running the tourist boat this year, and therefore there was no way to get out to sea during the night. I was gutted, but I figured since I was there I might as well check out the museum. The information was all in Japanese, however there were some live Hotaru-ika here that you could watch and even hold, which I found quite strange. They were swimming around in a little tank and every now and again you would see small glows from various squid, but nothing significant. However, after having been there for a while, the visitors were invited to experience a live show of the firefly squid. Again all the information was in Japanese, but as you entered the small theatre you were greeted by a large group of squid in a tank lined by a fishing net. Piecing together what the lady was saying it became apparent that we were going to play the part of the fishermen on these boats. We were ushered towards the tank and asked to grab hold of the rope and net around the pool. After that the guide plunged us into total darkness, counted down from three and we were all told to pull on the net. The squid were thrust from the water and all at once the room exploded into a blue glow as they all lit up. I was blown away by how bright they were and how much detail you could make out. It was bright enough that we were able to see the reflections on each other’s faces, which is crazy coming from a 1 inch squid! After almost a minute, the squid faded again as the guide switched the lights back on. It was a really spectacular sight and I was almost satisfied with the experience.

However…

I wasn’t quite finished. I really wanted to see the squid in the wild. I knew my chances were pretty much zero but I set out anyway to the nearby dock to see if I could convince a local sailor to take me out during the evening. In hindsight that probably wasn’t a good idea, and luckily the two people I saw weren’t willing to do that anyway, but that left me back at square one. I could still say that I had seen firefly squid, just not in the way I had hoped. It was then that I remembered how I was first introduced to them. The photo was of a shoreline, so the squid must come ashore at some point. But why, where, when and how? Once I got back to my accommodation I decided to do a little research. It turns out that the squid only come ashore at the end of their life, and the glow they exhibit is one last shine before their death. It’s basically a form of suicide, which is pretty tragic and depressing, but I guess there’s something poetic about going out shining. They don’t do this every night however, and conditions have to be pretty perfect to get a sight like exhibited in the picture. In fact I found out that a sight like that might only occur once every few years. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I decided I was going to visit the beach at 3am in the morning to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Hotaru-ika in their final moments.

My next problem was the beach itself. It was 7km away and there was obviously no public transport. This was also the first city I’d been in that didn’t have cycle hire! Luckily however I was able to convince one of the guys working at the hotel that I was an upstanding reliable young man, and he offered to lend me his bicycle for the night. So, at 2.15am I began my journey. The guy had left the sweetest note on the seat of the bicycle, which you can see below.

I arrived at the beach, in complete darkness apart from a twinkling sky of stars. As I approached the sea I noticed there were a few other people combing the beach in search of the squid, so I knew I was in the right place. As I said to you above though, these animals are a delicacy here; these people weren’t here to view and admire, they were here catching their breakfast! I spoke to one man for a few minutes before beginning to explore the shoreline. It didn’t take long. As I was walking I glanced behind me and saw a quick flash of light around 6metres away. I froze, thinking it may have just been a light from one of the fishing ships in the distance, then saw the flash again, this time a definite blue. The bike fell to the floor as I sprinted to the source of the light and there it was. I knew the conditions weren’t good when I was there and I already knew I wasn’t going to get a show like the pictures I had seen, but to see this squid, or as it turned out two squid, so soon after my arrival, was great. They only glowed for a few seconds, and then disappeared back into the night, but that was enough to enthuse me and push me on. Over the next hour or two I saw a bunch more squid, normally only one or maybe two at a time, arriving on the shore to end their lives in some spiritual way. Unfortunately my camera was worse than useless and the pictures are just awful, but I will put them up so you can have a laugh at my expense. Believe me though, the experience was magical. Perhaps not quite the photo opportunity I would have wanted, but what I saw that morning has probably only been seen by a tiny percentage of people in the world and I consider myself extremely lucky. After around 2 hours, with feeling in my hands disappearing and my eyes struggling to stay open, I decided I had better ride home. I got back as the sun was rising and headed straight to bed. Overall, just incredible.

Unfortunately you can’t determine the weather or conditions ahead of time and the conditions I had were the ones I had to deal with. Would I have liked to have seen the beach as they are in the pictures? Of course, just as I would have like to have gone on the tourist boat. But you can’t let these things stop you. If you are planning on seeing the Hotaru-ika you need to choose your times wisely. Later on in spring is better, as the weather tends to improve, and if you are wanting to see them on the beach, you ideally need to be there around a full moon, when the weather has been fine and clear and there has been a gentle south wind. I would also suggest giving yourself a few days if possible so that if there is adverse weather on one day, you aren’t completely beaten. Be aware though that there isn’t a whole lot to do in Toyama. I have also read recently that they are hoping to get the tourist boat running again later in the season, so do keep checking the website.

Have you managed to see the firefly squid, or are you planning a trip there yourself? Do you know someone who would love to have this experience? If so, leave me a comment below and share this post with your friends. If not, then leave me a comment below and share this post with your friends anyway!

Carpe that Diem.

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