Jumping into open water, a scuba diver can rarely know what they’ll find in the depths below. For most, that’s part of the pastime’s allure: they can explore new underwater landscapes and see how a diverse ecosystem works – and that experience will change with every dive.
And yet one scuba diver found himself making the exact same dive in Japan’s Tateyama Bay for a quarter century. Through the water he flipped his fins, heading toward the location of an underwater shrine of which he had been become caretaker.
When he reached its algae-covered frame though, his actions didn’t seem like those of someone protecting a piece of property: he pulled out a hammer and began tapping the shrine itself. The noise echoed through the water, creating a signal that a strange undersea creature knew well – she had been answering it for 25 years.
Hiroyuki Arakawa of Tateyama, Japan, went scuba diving for the first time at 18 – and he still hadn’t stopped by the time he was 79 years old. “Being in the water, you can be so isolated,” he told Great Big Story. “It’s your own world. I like being in the deep water.”
Fortunately for Arakawa, his role as caretaker of a sunken religious shrine led him to dive to depths of 50 feet or more regularly. But on one of his dives about 25 years ago, he found something aside from the structure in need of his attention: an ailing fish.
“One day, she was by the shrine’s gate, exhausted,” Arakawa recalled. He soon realized why the fish could barely muster up her strength. “She couldn’t catch her own food,” he said. With this problem as motivation, he came up with a way to help her.
To meet his new end, for ten days, Arakawa dove into Tateyama Bay to bring five crabs for the fish to eat. As it turned out, it was just what she needed to regain her health. He named the thriving fish Yoriko, and he continued to visit her from then on out.
One video posted in July 2015 showed the extent of the duo’s bond. Arakawa had a way to contact Yoriko when he was visiting the shrine. To achieve this, he brought a hammer with him into the water and used it to tap the side of the structure, creating a sound that the fish recognized.
After about a half-minute, a fish larger and stranger looking than the rest appeared. It was Yoriko, and Arakawa immediately extended his hand to pet the fish on her head, which had a curved, bulbous shape.
In another video, Arakawa explained more about the anatomy of the kobudai fish, as Yoriko’s species is called in Japan. He said that they had earned their name because kobu meant “bump” in Japanese. To him though, the kobudai’s face was noteworthy for a different reason.
He told Great Big Story, “If you look closely, from the front, they look like they have a human face.” And it seemed to him, if you looked at a fish’s face with greater scrutiny, it could even look familiar. “You’ll think it looks like someone you know,” Arakawa said.
In a similar vein, Arakawa believed that Yoriko recognized his human face too. Recent scientific research could corroborate his theory too: a 2016 study revealed that at least one type of fish could remember faces it had previously seen.
A University of Oxford researcher, Dr. Cait Newport, spoke out about the results of the study, saying to the Daily Mail, “Fish have a simpler brain than humans and entirely lack the section of the brain that humans use for recognizing faces. Despite this, many fish demonstrate impressive visual behaviors.”
As for Arakawa and Yoriko, the scuba diver believed that their relationship – and countless warm reunions – ignited for one big reason: food. “I think anyone can get an animal’s attention by feeding them,” he told Great Big Story.
But Arakawa admitted that their bond wasn’t instantaneously forged with food – it took more than that. The scuba diver, who petted and sometimes even kissed Yoriko on her head, said, “To touch or interact with [animals] is harder to accomplish.”
Whatever the truth of that, he couldn’t say with certainty whether Yoriko’s species had anything to do with their unique bond either. “I’m not sure if it’s in the nature of the kobudai or not,” he said. But he did venture a guess that their bond came from the “sense of trust between [them].”
They’ve had more than two decades to build their rapport, but it was the beginning that solidified their relationship. Arakawa said, “I guess she knows that I saved her, that I helped her when she was badly injured.”
And for the 79-year-old, that meant more than anything else. “For me to be able to [save her], I am proud,” he said. “I have an amazing sense of accomplishment in my heart,” he added. As he did so, the smallest hint of a smile crept across his face.
Arakawa and Yoriko’s friendship has very much resonated with viewers across the internet. More than two million people have watched the YouTube video in which he smooched the fish on her forehead; his interview with Great Big World garnered more than 350,000 views as well.
For most, the relationship between man and fish warmed their hearts. “This is a beautiful story showing love and respect,” one Facebook user commented. Another viewer on YouTube couldn’t help but note the seemingly endless wonder of the planet-at-large, writing, “Mother Nature once again proves to be amazing.”