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.
- 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.
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!