Monthly Archives: December 2016

October 2016: Saipan

Thursday October 27th, 2016

As the weather cools down in Japan, many divers look to warmer destinations for upcoming trips, somewhere with a good variety of dive sites that doesn’t break the bank.  The tropical island of Saipan ticks both these boxes. One of the fastest growing tourist resorts in Micronesia, it’s a world of magnificent beaches, year-round outdoor activities, a cacophony of international and indigenous cultures and, of course, world-class scuba diving.

Saipan is home to a variety of frequented dive sites and there is no shortage of fun or discovery: small reefs to action-packed bommies or dramatic walls; shallow or deep; sites fit for beginners or the more advanced. The Grotto, for example, is the island’s premier spot and one of the world’s best cavern dives. Descending a long, steep staircase into a huge sinkhole, divers enter the pool at the bottom and work their way towards one of three exit holes to the open ocean, passing beautiful walls, swim-throughs and caves. If this sounds like a bit much, however, there is still plenty on offer. Rather than something adventurous, we wanted somewhere quiet where we could relax in shallow water and swim over vast coral reefs and colourful marine life, so we were delighted with the chance to explore the plethora of life at Lau Lau Beach.

This beach is home to one of Saipan’s largest coral reefs and most popular snorkelling spots. On our first dive we soon found a series of rock formations blossoming with life and an area of huge, well-developed plate corals with beautiful delicate tips. During the calm descent, we swam over to a rock that was overlaid with a spray of filter-feeding creatures. A crab hid within the mass of colour and a medium-sized trumpet fish emerged from among the diverse life. We made a beeline for a series of medium-sized rocks animated with a small bouquet of nudibranchs. Further on in the dive, we couldn’t resist approaching a hawksbill turtle busy grazing on algae. It paid no attention to us and eventually headed to the surface to breathe. Butterfly fish added to the show, seeming to dance under the beams of sunlight. An intrigued group of them paid me a visit while a couple of barracuda glanced at me as I passed by.  A careful inspection in the sand revealed various hermit crabs, while back on the reef angelfish devoured what they could find. Lau Lau Beach is also home to well-concealed stonefish and lots of crustaceans. The maximum depth here is around 20m but there is plenty to see in the shallows, such as big Moorish Idols that sometimes form schools along the reef’s outer edges. As we headed to the exit, the dive had one more surprise in store, as we spotted an octopus that stayed where it was for several minutes, seemingly content to watch us without feeling the need to camouflage its appearance. Octopus often prefer to retreat into minuscule crevices but not this one…well, at least while we were there!

For our next dive, we entered from a different point where the rocky walls proved to host many small creatures such as gobies. Below the ocean surface was a carpet of coral and rocky structures spreading hundreds of metres into the distance. The dive began with a series of connecting sandy, winding paths that divers could swim over while observing the reef fish, nestled close to the rocky walls (good buoyancy skills are a must here). The area featured wall after wall of rock and coral with dramatic formations dotted here and there. The walls were covered with life and decorated with black coral, tube sponges and white barrel sponges. Threadfin butterfly fish patrolled the wall edges and a procession of circling barracuda past in the deep blue. We took in the scenery, watching angel and other fish cruising over the reef. A banded sea snake coursed through the corals, stopping to delve deep into a hole to corner a hiding fish and then undulated towards us, unconcerned by our bubbles and more focused on finding prey.

Lau Lau Beach offers amazingly clear blue water and with the white sand and colourful reefs, it lends itself to some excellent photography. But with so much going on over the reefs, it was hard to know where to look and what to photograph, so we headed slightly away from the structures to marvel at the view with encrusting sponges and vibrant angelfish. Arguably among the best features of this dive were the resident schools of bigscale soldier fish, several quite tame turtles and hundreds of big-eye scad forming a huge bait ball. The highlight was swimming quite close to them, watching them disperse and then congregate.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of life at Lau Lau Beach and it’s well worth a visit. The sheer quantity and volume of marine life was staggering. This could have been one of the most prolific and exciting dive sites I had seen for a while.

Practical Information

  • We flew direct to Saipan from Tokyo’s Narita airport with Delta airlines, leaving around 10:25AM and arriving around 14:30 Saipan time (13:30 Japan time) on Saturday October 22nd, 2016.
  • We were picked up at the airport by our resort, Fiesta Resort and Spa (http://www.fiestasaipan.com/experience/), where we stayed for 7 days.
  • We booked our dives with a Japanese travel agent, HIS, located at the Fiesta Resort. HIS arranged our day with the dive shop Wondersea Saipan (http://www.wondersea-saipan.com/diving-fun.html). Two dives cost USD100 (including tanks, guide and weights, excluding rental gear).
  • A staff member from Wondersea Saipan came to collect us from Fiesta around 8:00AM to take us to the dive shop. From there, we signed a waiver form and gathered our gear for loading into the van. Free tea and coffee is available, as well as spacious tables, books and magazines on marine life (mainly in Japanese) and a noticeboard with diving-related information at the reception. Outside the main entrance is a car park and area to wash gear after the dives.
  • The drive from the shop to Lau Lau Beach took around 40mins. An extremely poor dirt road leads down to a valley and wide bay. There are no facilities at Lau Lau Beach, not even toilets and showers, so the shop prepared cold tea and water. We got changed into wetsuits behind the van, and set up our gear before going to the edge of the water for the diving briefing.
  • There are at least 4 points of entry that are marked by ropes. We walked into the water until we were waist-deep, then put on our masks and fins, and started swimming out.
  • After the first dive, we had an hour or so surface interval back at the van before making our way back to the water for the second dive.
  • Gear is washed upon return to the dive shop and hung up to dry on the racks outside. During this time, we spent time writing up logbooks and going through photos.
  • There are no showers available at the dive shop. As the dives usually finish in the morning/lunchtime, customers are driven back to their resorts where they can shower and change in their own rooms.
  • Don’t forget to bring a towel to have with you after the dives.

October’s dives

Dive No: 235, Lau Lau Beach, entry time: 09:08, depth: 16m, dive time: 46mins, exit time: 09:54, water temperature 29-33C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 80 bar, wore surf shorts, rashy and 1kg weight, used a 9L aluminium tank. Saw: octopus, turtles x 2, ball of big-eye scad, clown fish, anemonefish, phyllidia coelestis nudibranch, barracuda, threadfin butterfly fish, Pacific double-saddle butterfly fish, bigscale soldier fish and trumpet fish

Dive No: 236, Lau Lau Beach, entry time: 10:53, depth: 18m, dive time: 50mins, exit time: 11:45, water temperature: 29-34C, water visibility: 10-15m, start pressure: 200 bar, end pressure: 60 bar, wore surf shorts, rashy and 2kg weight, used a 9L aluminium tank. Saw: barracuda, fish ball (big-eye scad), clown fish, nudibranchs and trumpet fish

*Many thanks to Jun Hashimoto of Wondersea for the photos! 

 

 

The Return to the Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture, JAPAN

Sunday October 16th, 2016

Returning to the Oki Islands to dive once more, I wasn’t yearning for the vast shoals of tropical fish and colourful marine life that I’d seen so far this year. Instead, I was looking forward to something slightly different. The Oki islands offer a topographically intriguing seabed of rocky structures that have succumbed to the relentless force of the sea, piles of giant boulders, walls and even caves, all crammed with endless nooks and crannies. The islands also boast a plethora of dive sites both near and far from shore, with some unsurprisingly fascinating underwater features. Down at depth there is plenty to steal your attention, such as rock formations with such sheer sides that they look as if they have been polished to precision. Around these dramatic life forms are sandy patches and grassy spots that are home to a beautiful variety of fish and invertebrates.

Iguri:  Giant striding into the waters off the dive site Iguri is a great way to start a Sunday. Our route took us north towards the open sea as we meandered through a small canal, passing rows of delightful houses. As we arrived, the sun was shining and the surface of the water was covered in gentle ripples with almost no waves.

The dive over Iguri’s main feature, a huge rocky mount, is both fun and full of atmosphere. Descending slowly down the anchor line we arrived at the top of the structure, which starts at around 15m. Its walls are covered in seaweed, marine growth and fish swimming everywhere. A large number of half-lined cardinal fish populate the rock, which eases its way down to an undulating sandy bottom with a maximum depth of around 26m. It’s a perfect site for divers of all experience levels and there is plenty to see, including rays and even a huge longtooth grouper watching us cautiously as it rested on the sandy seafloor. A variety of fish, such as damselfish and sardines call the area home too and the diving is effortless, with gentle finning all that’s required to move over the rocks and stones. Ascending slowly towards the end of the dive, the light envelopes an underwater landscape of boulders, and schooling fish sweep by while the odd dangerous stonefish sits waiting in the shadowy parts. Red sea bream and amberjack patrol the site relentlessly, while more discoveries await in the shallower depths, such as tiny crabs and colourful nudibranchs.

Katado:  Our guide paused at the cave entrance to Katado, peered backwards to make sure we were present, and began swimming forward. Once inside, he turned his torch on to light up a colossal wall covered in sponges and macrolife. Heading further in, we shined our torches all around to reveal features that were just as interesting as the areas closer to the entrance. Striped eel catfish wriggled around, while a comical-looking puffer fish glided slowly by.

Good buoyancy skills, as well as control and judgement, are all important at Katado as there are a few tight spots and the dive is no deeper than 11m. Despite the darkness, there is plenty of entertainment and a slightly spooky atmosphere as you venture further into the cave. It’s an atmospheric location, with beams of sunlight shining through the entrance and good photo opportunities (especially macro) for those with cameras. Because it all lies in relatively shallow water, you can spend pretty much your entire dive within the cave, with virtually no chance of running out of bottom time. Photography and macrolife fans won’t be disappointed with the amount of time available to get that perfect shot.  We were in there for just over an hour.

Crabs, nudibranchs and tiny shrimps poked their faces out from their lairs having clearly taken a foothold on the walls, and looking closely, we could even see a variety of bennies that looked like frogs, some with feathery tentacles above their eyes. The area was covered in sponges and colourful bits of seaweed, while the impressive walls did a good job of inviting us deeper inside where more nudibranchs could be found, displaying a broad palette of different colour forms amidst strong, angry-looking sea urchins in every crack and space. But it’s not just the macrolife that’s impressive — Katado is  home to a range of fish such as Japanese blacktail triplefin, stonefish (watch out for these!), black rockfish and marbled rockfish. After an enjoyable meeting with a school of half-lined cardinal fish dancing by and shining against the sunlight, we headed back towards the surface and exit. Katado is one of the Oki Islands’ richest in terms of diversity and abundance.

Given than most of the dive sites are no more than a 10-minute boat ride, it’s fair to say that the Oki Islands have some beautiful diving right on their doorstep. They may not inspire the same awe or possess the same allure as other Japanese dive sites, but do provide some fantastic and original underwater experiences.

Practical Information: Please refer to my previous blog on the Oki Islands (Nishinoshima, October 2014) for details on how to get to Oki, where to stay and diving costs

October’s Dives 

Dive No: 233, Iguri, entry time: 09:55, depth: 25.4m, dive time: 39mins, exit time: 10:29, water temperature: 22C, water visibility: 10m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 40 bar, used a 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight (due to heavy camera), jacket BC, 10L steel tank. Saw: red sea bream, amberjack, half-lined cardinal fish, ray, crab (charybdis acuta), longtooth grouper, sardines, damselfish, nudibranch (Glossodoris misakinosibogae Baba), sea urchins

Dive No: 234: Katado, entry time: 11:12, depth: 11.2m, dive time: 60mins, exit time: 12:12, water temp: 21C, water visibility: 10m, start pressure: 180 bar, end pressure: 100 bar, used a 5mm wetsuit, 3mm hood/vest, 3kg weight, jacket BC, 10L steel tank. Saw: white nudibranch (chromodoris orientalis), blue nudibranch (hypselodoris festiva), nudibranch (glossodoris misakinosibogae Baba), striped eel catfish, pufferfish (Takifugu pardalis), Japanese blacktail triplefin, half-lined cardinal fish, black rockfish, stonefish, marbled rockfish, sea urchins