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The scuba diver stood at the entrance to a grotto that led a hundred feet below to the sea.
Crashing waves thundered from the grotto’s unseen floor and echoed off its walls, immense stone blocks that formed a giant throat down which 110 slippery stairs descended and disappeared.
The Grotto in Saipan is one of the best dives in the world. But is it too dangerous?
* * * * *
Three years ago this month, “Follow Me!” debuted in these pages, promising outdoor adventure on seven continents. Our first adventure: scuba diving in New Mexico.
To celebrate our third anniversary, we’re scuba diving again—half a world away!
Divemaster Eric Javier tosses your 45-pound 80-cubic foot compressed air tank with six-pound steel backplate over a muscular shoulder and scampers down the 110 steps. You follow, clutching sturdy handrails with one hand and swim fins and mask in the other.
At the bottom of the steps, ocean waves heave over and around Volkswagen-sized boulders. Your dive buddy waits on a boulder several yards away. “Just time the waves and leap to the next boulder. You can do it.”
He watches the waves for a few seconds then orders, “Now!”
Skittering like a crab between waves to the biggest rock, you join the guys and gear up. As Eric briefs the dive, his voice echoes over the crashing water and up the grotto walls. A green sea turtle the size of a Thanksgiving turkey platter snorkels up then disappears.
Excitement replaces fear.
Everyone stands up, takes a breath and, holding mouthpieces securely with one hand and weight belts with the other, giant-strides into the lagoon. You descend under a rock bridge into the Closet, one of the Grotto’s three passageways to the sea.
Thirty feet down, the water calms. Hundreds of butterflyfish surround you.
You look up—and your jaw drops, almost losing your mouthpiece. Bright morning sun fills the grotto with its famous, eerie “blue light.” Is this what heaven looks like?
You swim through the Closet into the open Pacific Ocean, emerging next to an underwater buoy. Your depth gauge reads 50 feet. You glance behind, to the rock wall from which you emerged. It disappears beyond your 125-foot visibility.
You descend to 100 feet. Current less than one knot drifts you above giant boulders covered with algae and cauliflower coral, hiding places for tiny gobies, wrasses and other small fish.
Hundreds of fish of every size and color swirl around, over and below. You, too, have become a fish.
A school of silvery barracuda hangs suspended 50 feet away, unspooked by your bubbles. Damselfish the size of salad plates swim fearlessly into your facemask.
A pair of two-striped clownfish scurry inside a carpet anemone the size of a bathroom rug. You think of Nemo, the cartoon clownfish. These real ones wriggle amid the anemone’s tentacles, immune to their poison.
You make no attempt to touch the tempting anemone, even with your neoprene-gloved hand. Unlike the clownfish, you would be stung.
Orange-band and eye-striped surgeonfish, palenose parrotfish, yellow and Achilles tangs and yellow-stripe goatfish school around you. Your underwater camera flashes and flashes.
At 90 feet Eric leads you through a swim-through, a semi-closed passage with daylight at both ends. The chimney-like swim-through drops to 105 feet before curling up to 70 feet. Green sea fans waft among clusters of lobe, antler and cauliflower coral.
You follow Eric up and down more swim-throughs into a room-sized cavern. Your dive lights pick out baby blue and pink corals. Eric waves his light gently to attract your attention. He points it down—on four sleeping white-tip reef sharks. The mother scuttles away from the light, but her three babies, each three feet long, ignore them.
Eric leads you up another chimney-like swim-through, emerging in the grotto you entered 45 minutes before. You ascend slowly to 15-20 feet and explore for ten minutes. This mandatory safety stop helps rid your body tissues of excess nitrogen your body absorbed underwater.
When you reach the surface, Eric’s already out of the water. You hand your gear to him between waves and clamber out.
Resting on the boulder, you and your dive buddy gaze up at cavernous walls, down at crashing surf and grin in disbelief. Then everyone talks at once. “Did you see those barracuda?”
“I never saw so many different kinds of butterflyfish.”
“Butterflyfish? What about those sharks! The babies never moved!”
“The visibility’s unbelievable! I’ve never seen so far into open ocean before.”
“This was the best dive of my life!”
“You were lucky,” Eric declares. “The sea’s calm today. We can’t dive the Grotto every day. When the sea is rough, which is most of the time, it’s like a washing machine in here. When the outside waves are pounding the outer wall, the hydraulic water force is transmitted and magnified by the secondary transmitted surge action.”
Gee, and you just thought it was rough water!
Saipan lies half a world away in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, less than an hour’s flight north of Guam. Most visitors are Japanese, since Tokyo is only three hours away. Speedy Tërtle Dive Shop, is one of the few dive operations with English-speaking divemasters.
As tempting as The Grotto is, do not attempt it without a local, knowledgeable divemaster guide. Not only must weather and sea conditions be perfect, the entrance back into the Grotto from the ocean is concealed. Divers who do not know exactly where it is and how to time the currents will be swept out to sea.
c. The Ruidoso News Friday, June 8, 2007