Dive sites of Saipan
Located at latitude of 15.25° north and longitude of 145.75° east, about 200 km (120 mi) north of Guam, Saipan is about 20 km (12.5 mi) long and 9 km (5.5 mi) wide. The island is a popular dive destination in the Pacific, attracting a large number of "introductory", beginner, and advanced divers from Japan, Korea, America and elsewhere. Its underwater beauty and appeal to divers is greater than Hawaii's and Guam's, but less than Palau's or Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The island is a typical middle-aged island composed of ancient fossil-rich coral limestone atop a subsiding, extinct marine volcano. A fringing reef of healthy offshore corals forming an extremely large lagoon and many small shallow lagoons in its larger bays, as well as a few offshore subsurface coral mounts.
Saipan's excellent reefs, white beaches, clownfish colonies, underwater caves, WWII shipwrecks, underwater WWII munitions dumps, and underwater WWII plane wreck offer diving that appeals to almost every type of diver.
Visibility, typically in the 50~90ft./16~30m range, varies enormously based on location, tide, and season.
Wave conditions are ideal, seldom rising above 1~2ft. / 30~60cm in height, except during typhoons and tropical storms.
Divers should consult weather reports for the region before traveling to Saipan during the typhoon season (Autumn), as the frequent typhoons and tropical storms can cause travel delays and undivable water conditions for several days at a time.
The following are some of the official dive sites in Saipan:
The Grotto is possibly the most popular and most challenging dive in Saipan. It is a natural tunnel leading from the top of a high cliff down below sea level, then exiting into open ocean through three wide openings at depths between 0~60ft./0~18m. Outside the openings, the cliff descends far beyond the depths of recreational diving, but allows for easy drift-diving along the cliff wall. To the left (southwest) of the openings, along the cliff face at 40~50ft. deep is a large divable underwater cavern known informally as "the batcave". (Divers should not attempt to reach the batcave without a local guide, and only if their air consumption rate is quite slow.)
Because of the physically demanding 112-step staircase, beach divers visiting this site should be in good physical condition. There are occasional boat-dives outside the Grotto, but distance from the harbor and the ease of beach entry make this an uncommon boat dive.
Access is via a well-paved asphalt road from San Roque to a parking lot atop the cliff, then down 112 cement steps to a sunlit large natural rock in the cave lagoon. From this rock divers make a giant-stride entry into 15ft./5m of water and hold onto a mooring buoy until all the members of their group are in the water.
Exit is also via this rock, and accomplished by holding onto the mooring buoy rope while swinging onto a sea-level ledge on the entry/exit rock.
Visibility here is quite possibly the best Saipan has to offer, typically exceeding 90ft./30m.
Snorkelers and swimmers should avoid exiting the Grotto even under the calmest conditions, since exiting at or near the surface is sometimes easy but reentry can often be impossible because of strong currents, whitewater waves crashing against the cliff, and extremely sharp rocks. Once outside the Grotto, the nearest surface-exit points are the far-away Bird Island to the northeast and equally distant Wing Beach to the southwest. It's therefore imperative that divers retain enough air to return underwater and make their safety-stop within the Grotto.
Typical natural life in and around the Grotto includes 1~3 harmless white-tip reef sharks, bubble coral and lace coral (in the batcave), a small group of barracuda, and pyramid butterfly fish. Occasional fauna include green sea turtles, Napoleon wrasses, tuna, and spotted eagle rays.
Coral growth is slight.
This site is one of the four divesites most frequently visited by professional dive shops on Saipan. Because of its difficulty, it is typically used only for divers who have already been certified, though on rare rough-weather occasions when all other sites are undivable, open water students and even introductory divers are brought here.
Wing beach is the beach/boat dive closest to The Grotto. Access is via a very poor dirt road, then to a small jungle clearing near the far northeast side of Wing Beach. From there, beach divers walk across a white pebble beach and follow the northeast rocky wall of the beach down a flat rocky slope, then follow the underwater wall around further to the northeast. Exit is by the same route.
The site has poor-to-moderate coral growth but excellent visibility and fairly interesting rock formations including a 30m/90ft. tower and equally deep canyon in the underwater wall. Common sights there are coral-eating pincushion starfish, somewhat poisonous coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, and butterfly fish.
This site is not commonly visited by professional dive shops.
This shallow introductory beachdive site should not be confused with the Saipan boat harbor of the same name. The two locations are separate, with extremely different beach and water conditions.
Tanapag is possibly the easiest, most convenient, safest introductory dive site on Saipan.
Although occasionally strong longshore currents inside the lagoon may reduce visibility to near-zero and require that divers cling to a submerged, anchored rope "walkway" along the dive's route, typically the conditions are near-ideal, with near-zero currents, moderate 30ft./10m visibility, and 0~15ft./5m depths. Access is via a well-paved asphalt road very close to Garapan City and San Roque, then parking next to a small church and an open-air public theater. From there, divers typically sit around the edges of the theater on low walls, listening to dive instructions and arranging their gear. Next, divers enter the water via an extremely gently sloping sand beach and practice their dive-training in water where they can stand up. Then the divers proceed into deeper water along a submerged anchored rope, visiting several small coral outcroppings surrounded by small reef fishes, sea cucumbers, small boxfish, clownfish, pufferfish, and occasional scorpionfish.
Controversially, professional dive leaders will often bring canned and plastic-wrapped hot dogs underwater so that customers can enjoy feeding the fish, who will flock around the diver in large numbers. While this is undoubtedly thrilling for the diver, the unnatural food source leads to health problems for the fishes and the cans/wrapping are often abandoned underwater, polluting the area.
This is an ideal site for using an inexpensive snorkeling camera without flash to take underwater photos, since the area is well lit and depths are within snorkeling-camera depths.
The Korean/Japanese Troop Ship
This World War Two troop ship was owned by the Japanese, but sank while carrying conscripted Korean soldiers. It is a rare type of shipwreck since it is in shallow (30~40ft./10~13m) water and contains almost no overhead environment, making it a very simple, safe dive.
The wreck is located in the large lagoon outside Garapan/Tanapag. It is strictly a boat dive, being too far from shore for a beach entry.
Occasional strong currents may make diving difficult and visibility poor, but conditions there are typically 50ft./17m visibility and zero current, with a white sandy bottom and no surface wave activity.
Controversially, in the mid-1990s Korean divers placed a memorial plaque on the wreck and a large stone memorial within a few yards of the wreck. The plaque, it's said, mourned the death of the Korean soldiers but made no mention of the other war casualties. This caused a minor uproar in the multinational professional dive community of Saipan.
The area has moderate coral growth, limiting the types of fish that gather at the wreck. Divers shoudl not be surprised, however, to find small 3ft./1m whitetip sharks occasionally napping in and around the wreck.
"Ice Cream" is a boat dive outside the lagoon, slightly south of Garapan. It is a very large submerged coral mount of antler corals with its baseball-diamond-sized summit roughly 40ft./16m below the surface.
There are several permanent boat moorings.
Visibility is typically 20m/60ft, and currents are rarely problematic, though divers should take care to cling to the anchor rope while descending, ascending, and making safety stops.
Life includes large populations of moorish idols and butterfly fish, particularly pyramid butterfly fish.
The dive site is near the airport, and accessed via a poorly maintained pothole-ridden asphalt road and a dirt/coral-rubble road. Occasionally, dive boats will moor and dive here and also visit the nearby site called "mushroom rock/boyscout beach/secret beach".
This beach is particularly well used by professional dive shops, both for easy "fun dives" and for open water training dives. Access and exit are typically from the beach along a rope anchored inside a natural cut in the coral plateau near the beach.
World War II history enthusiasts will note a Japanese pillbox near the parking lot. As with much of Saipan's beaches, shallow waters, and jungles, Obyan's underwater sandy regions and the nearby jungle area still give up occasional artillery fired from American warships and from the pillbox. If you see one, do not touch it, as roughly a third of the undetonated armaments are still capable of explosive reactions to mishandling.
Depths are 15ft./5m~60'/18m, and visibility varies from 30ft./10m~60ft./18m.
Life includes good hard coral growth, large colonies of soft coral, all manner of reef fishes, occasional green sea turtles, and an excellent colony of charming garden eels.
Snorkelers should be cautioned to stay in the yard-deep lagoon inside the wave-break zone, because although moving out into deeper water through the coral cuts is easy at the surface, return is not-- the waves break in extremely shallow sharp corals, and the coral cuts experience strong outgoing rip-tides.
Lau Lau Beach
Secret Beach / Boyscout Beach / Mushroom Rock
WW2 Plane Wreck
Ice Cream (B)- A seamount located on the west side of Saipan that is home to eels and octopus. It is not uncommon for a couple of Eagle Rays to visit the site. This is a shallow dive with the base of the seamount at 50 feet and the top at 18 feet.
Lau Lau Beach (S)- With an easy beach entry and one of the largest reefs on the island, this is one of Saipan's most frequently visited sites. Lau Lau has an array of Wrasses, Butterfly Fish, Surgeons, Big Eye Skad, Snappers, and more. For the diver that likes to go slow, you will also have frequent encounters with nudibranchs, scorpionfish, and octopus. This is an ideal dive site for beginners or people interested in smaller, more colorful animals.
Dimple (B)- This is a seamount on the Western side of Saipan. Entering the water you will see a large school of Red Snappers in the distance, towards the base you will find hundreds butterfly fish. Eagle Rays, eels, and Surgeons are also seen often. Depth on this dive ranges from 40 feet to 130 feet making it suitable for all skill levels.
Naftan (B)- One of the best wall dives in the CNMI, with amazing visibility and fish live, located on the southern tip of the island. The top of the wall starts at 45 feet and goes down to over 130 feet. On the top portion, there are some great coral formations that are home to huge clams among other things. As one starts to descend on the wall, you will find magnificent fan coral and colorful animal life. Since this dive is at the edge of the abyss there is always the possibility of running into the larger fish like Napoleon Wrasses and Sharks.
Chinsen Maru (B)- Chinsen Maru is a large Japanese freighter that sits at 30 foot of depth in the lagoon. The ship has been in the water for over 50 years, allowing for some significant coral growth as well as becoming a home to thousands of fish. There are monstrous Red Snappers as well as Big Eye Emperors patrolling the wreck while huge schools of Goat Fish sit on top. The wreck is probably the best place on island to find Stonefish, several Stonefish call Chinsen home. To top it off a resident White Tip rests underneath the wreck.
Banzai Cliff (B)- A beautiful wall located on the North side of the island. There is only a brief time during the year when conditions are suitable for diving, but it is well worth the wait if you like the big blue dives. Large pelagic fish such as sharks, rays, huge tuna, and dolphins are often seen. There are also amazing anemones and coral formations. This is an advanced dive due to the depths and currents.
Wing Beach (B/S)- A fantastic dive that can be done from the beach or a boat. Wing Beach is located on the northwest part of the island. There are some great geographical features here, such as large crevasses and breathtaking drop-offs. This site is well known for shark encounters and Spanish Dancers at night. A drift dive from a boat is the best way to do this dive.
Spot Light (B)- This dive site is very close to Banzai and as with Banzai only accessible during a brief time period. This cavern dive is named Spot Light, because when the sun shine through a hole in the top of the cavern, it is like a spotlight shining on a stage. There is always the possibility of seeing large fish and animals such as turtles and sharks. The cavern has some of the largest lionfish you've ever seen.
Grotto (S)- Considered by many as one of the best cavern dives in the world , this Must Do dive site in Saipan is sure to amaze you. After a giant stride into the water from a rock in the cavern, divers can take three different exit holes out to open ocean. Once outside, there are beautiful walls, swim-throughs, and caves to explore. Turtles and Clown Triggerfish are some of the many types of sea life to be seen at this magnificent dive site. Several resident White Tip Sharks lounge on the bottom during the day.
Obyan Beach (B/S)- Located near Naftan Point, this site has some of the best visibility on the island. On a good day, there will be 150 + feet of visibility. After entering through the first reef, there is a beautiful patch reef with hundreds of small fish and some interesting animals to see. The second reef starts at about 50 feet where one finds Barracuda, sharks, and garden eels. This dive site is ideal for all skill levels, especially people interested in photography.
B-29/Emily (B)- Okay, so the wreck is not a B-29 the name let you to believe, but that of a Japanese H8K or Type 2 Large Flying Boat. The Allied reporting name for this type of plane was Emily. The Emily was an Imperial Japanese Navy Flying boat used during World War II for maritime patrol duties. The 4 large props are still in tact as is most of the wing. The gun turret can been seen off the side. A chair and control panel lie close by. At 30 ft of depth this is an easy and relaxing dive.
Boyscout 1 & 2 (B/S) - Both Boyscout beaches are rarely visited by divers or anybody else for that matter, because they are hard to get to. Diver who go through the trouble are awarded with beautiful coral and white sand. Some of the largest clams can be found here. On a calm day you can do a surface swim from the second beach to Naftan and dive all the way back to the beach.