Many of the Northern Mariana Islands are still active volcanoes. A flight from the capital of Saipan to Japan will show the smoking calderas of Anatahan, Pagan and Maug in the far north. In the south, these geologically-quiet islands are alive with marine life and the clearest waters found anywhere. The two most popular islands are Saipan and Rota, where old war wrecks, pelagic aggregations and warm waters beckon scuba divers.
The PIC hotel on the west coast of Saipan has a large water park, punctuated by a replica of an ancient Manila galleon. It is located right on the hotel grounds and is a tribute to the ship that sunk on the nearby coast and was studied in the 1990s by archaeologists and treasure hunters. The “mother load” of the treasure of gold and jewellery is said to still be in the deep, offshore waters. National Geographic reported on the efforts to salvage this treasure a decade ago. But whether it is gold or bountiful marine life, Saipan is a place that holds many secrets beneath its sea.
The island of Saipan is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and is a quick three-hour trip by jet from Japan and most other Asian airports. It is a haven for golfers, snorkellers, divers and duty free shopping aficionados. Its western coast has white sand beaches. The interior is full of jungle greenery and rugged cliffs. There are some lush botanical gardens and the island is famous for clear water. Divers are now coming to see a new underwater attraction, shoaling eagle rays of off Managaha Island.
I joined Saipan dive guru Rick Northen to see them in only 8m (25ft) of water with bright white sand and blue seas. This eagle ray dive, dubbed Eagle Ray City, in the harbour is an amazing sight. Anywhere from 5 to 25 of these rays gather at a couple of current-fed spots in the bay to feed and play in the moving water. Just sit still and wait and they may come quite close. The beautiful patterns of the rays and their balletic movements are worth holding firm in the currents to snap a few nice shots.
It is here that one gets an idea of just how clear the water is. The place resembles a swimming pool and it is easy to get lulled into a sense of serenity as one views the antics of the rays as they play with each other and with the changing strengths of the currents.
Nearby are a couple of WWII aircraft wrecks complete with whitetip reef sharks and resident eels. Big propellers stand high in the sand. There’s also a couple of wartime shipwrecks in shallow water clouded with shoals of goatfish and snappers.
On the outer reefs, nice stony corals and fishy spots abound. The Grotto, has a long flight of steps to march down (tank and all). Here a gaping hole greets divers. High overhead stalactites of this partially collapsed cave still drip. The diver steps off a big boulder and a new world opens below. Three windows to the sea open into a blue hue that has to be seen to be believed. Outside, big boulders attract fish both large and small, golden gorgonian sea fans and even an occasional manta ray will swim by.
For the visitor wanting to get a good look at Saipan’s famous natural sites, the incredible cliffs and green jungles hold much natural splendour. Take a tour or a drive and see what the island looks like. At Bonsai Cliff, big waves crash against the boulders below, showing the beauty and force of the ocean. Listen, as the wave’s pound in.
Bird Island is made for a postcard. Located at “road’s end” along the northern part of the island, this noddy and booby sanctuary is isolated by a small bay that is easily viewed from a landscaped viewing site.
At night, the sun sets on old American WWII tanks that still lie in the western lagoon.
Rota, Crystal Clear
For divers, the Rota water clarity is astounding – 30m (98ft)-visibility is a bad day. It has a honeycombed base that extends to the sea, opening up a selection of caves, tunnels and crevices that are fun to explore, full of life and simply stunning when dived at the right time of day.
New finds are popping up all the time and known sites yield new features as more people take the time to visit them. Dive Rota owner Mark Michael and divemaster Fumiko Furukawa showed me around the best spots and told me of the island’s fast recovery following a 2004 typhoon.
One of the more photographed and famous sites in Rota is along the west shoreline at Wedding Cake Point. Puntan Senhanom, literally translated from Chamorro as The Water Point, is a cavern that is lit through a dual opening by the sun. The dive entails heading straight for the cliff, which falls vertically into the sea. The dark opening of a cave becomes apparent and at about 12m (40ft), and the cave can be entered. The cave itself is huge and the walls are covered in encrusting sponges. The many shelves of this cave have ledges that sometimes harbour sleeping whitetip reef sharks. The darker reaches of the cave have cowries and other shells. Unlike most caves, this one doesn’t get darker with further penetration, it gets lighter. The best time to visit here is early afternoon, when the sun streams down through an opening in the cliff and sends shafts of light into the cave. It is possible to swim to the light source and rise through it.
Pearlman Tunnel is home to a couple of whitetip reef sharks. The cave has an entrance at about 24m (80ft) and runs up a slope to less than 6m (20ft) where it opens up again. This site and Ponya Point nearby have forests of golden gorgonian sea fans that give off a brilliant hue when an underwater light is shined onto them.
Rota also has two shipwrecks in the gin-clear Sasanaya Bay. The WWII Japanese freighter Shoun Maru is upright and splayed wide open. The bow still sits high in the water. On most days the diver can see the entire 122m (400ft)-long wreck from the surface. Amazing. There’s also the Seven Screws wreck. This ship was sunk for sport diving but once plied the rivers of China. It was confiscated at part of a smuggling bust. The seabed around both wrecks is alive with garden eels. The ships attract Whitetip reef sharks and spadefish like the water above the Shoun Maru.
If you’re lucky, big Pacific bottlenose dolphins will be in the bay and play at the boat’s bow. Even pods of melonhead whales and an occasional humpback visit this amazing bay.
Rota is known as the friendliest island in the Marianas. This may be because of a local custom of greeting a passer-by. Everyone waves or nods at everyone else as they pass on the road.
The charm of this island is not only its people, but also its lack of people. The picturesque villages occupy relatively little space on the island, making it the perfect place to roam. Early morning jaunts may bring a glimpse at a monitor lizard, a shrunken cousin of the feared Komodo dragon. Hiking can be fascinating, with occasional finds in caves being artefacts from the Second World War or ancient glyphs from the Chamorro people.
At night, the sky is as clear as the water. There aren’t many lights on Rota, so stargazers are in for a treat. The Southern Cross and Orion punch through the blackness and the Milky Way is absolutely incredible, flowing across the sky in a shimmering array.
The islands of the CNMI are a great getaway for the diving enthusiast. Tinian, across a channel from Saipan, also offers some great dives and there is talk of a live-aboard coming soon to travel to the northern islands. Check out these islands for a great commune with Nature.
The diver needs a valid passport to enter the CNMI. All other conditions found in the USA are here including postal services, currency and the electricity.
Nearest International Airport
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