USS Ford visits Saipan

Photo by Harry Blalock
Photo by Harry Blalock

USS Ford visits Saipan

by: Harry Blalock | .
Stripes Guam | .
published: July 12, 2012

Saipan recently started seeing the return of some U.S. Navy ships for relaxation port stops. This was welcome news to island businesses. Due to some large coral heads in the shipping channel leading to the port, ships could not stop by Saipan. The coral heads were relocated and military vessels made their way back to the port. The U.S.S. Ford was the first ship that visited Saipan following the hiatus.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce is active in welcoming sailors and letting them know about member business activities they may be interested in
while visiting. Whenever possible, the SCC will hold a reception for the officers and sailors of visiting ships at one of their resorts such as Pacific Islands Club, World Resort, Fiesta Resort or the Hyatt. During these mixers, chamber members find out what kind of activities the sailors are interested in and point them in the right direction.

Commander Michael Taylor expressed an interest in going diving with one of his officers, Lt. James Carsner, to SCC member Becky Castro. Saturday night I received a call from Becky asking if I would take the two out diving on Sunday morning. After talking to Commander Taylor for a few minutes, we decided to head to Grotto early the next morning.

Grotto is a dive that never disappoints. However, it is also a dive that requires going with someone who understands the currents and the swells rolling through Grotto, and also knows the exits and entrances. Visiting servicemen and women are encouraged to always dive Grotto with an experienced guide. An experienced Grotto diver will also yield an abundance of marine life sightings for your dive. One can be guaranteed to see at least a couple white tip reef sharks on every dive, but only if you know where to look. Commander Taylor and Lt. Carsner saw a couple sharks, several different species of nudibranchs, colorful fan coral, a big lionfish and more. After the dive, they commented that this was the highlight of their diving experiences.

To reach Grotto, one must walk down approximately 110 steps leading to a cavern with a shimmering blue pool of water. Three main exits lead out to the open ocean. When you first descend into the waters, the incredible visibility strikes you. A distance of 100 feet of visibility is normal. The next thing that amazes divers is the light shining through the exit holes. It gives Grotto a magical feel.

Before leaving, many will most likely see white tip reef sharks just lying on the little stones on the bottom. Up to six resident white tip reef sharks make Grotto their home and if you’re lucky, you might see baby white tips. Shark pups are a fairly common sighting in Grotto. The walls are covered with lace fan coral, colorful sponges and coral formations. It pays to take a flashlight on your dive even during the daytime. You will miss out seeing many of the amazing things Grotto has to offer if you don’t. Grotto is rapidly gaining an international reputation as a nudibranch hotspot. The Halgerda guahan and Halgerda malesso nudibranchs are primarily found only in the Marianas islands. They like to live in caves or caverns. An experienced guide should be able to find at least a couple of these unique sea slugs.

After our dive, I took the Commander and his lieutenant. to see some other sights on the north end. We went to the Bird Island lookout, Suicide and Banzai cliffs and to the Last Command Post. Both found the sights fascinating. They took time looking around and took several pictures. The Commander was so grateful for the tour and dive that he had a plaque made up for me and my fictitious tour company.

The following day, I took three more sailors from the ship up to Grotto for a dive and some sightseeing. HM3 Jacob Moody, GSMFR Joshua Smith and OSSN Stephen Ware all got a taste of why Saipan is a favorite stop for Navy ships. The three agreed they would definitely request another stop in Saipan, and next time, a longer one.

The Saipan dive industry and shops have struggled over the last couple of years to meet the expectations from visiting military servicemen and women. However, a group is organizing to put visiting divers in touch with either dive professionals or with local divers willing to buddy up with visiting military divers. The goal is to make sure every military visitor can easily find the information and connections to pursue whatever hobby or sport they are interested in.

Saipan, while only a short flight away from Guam, is unique in what it has to offer. When looking for a change of scenery that is fairly close and convenient, you’ll find that the Marianas Islands will be a breath of fresh air.

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