Northern Mariana Islands: Exploring depths of Rota's beauty
Northern Mariana Islands: Exploring depths of Rota's beauty
If you’ve ever looked north from Andersen Air Force Base on a clear day and caught glimpse of a mysterious isle floating 40 miles out, you have seen Rota. Known as “The Peaceful Isle,” Rota or Luta, is the southernmost island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Having been to Saipan and Tinian several times, I recently decided to pay Rota a visit and put its legendary sightseeing and dive sites to the test. I was not disappointed.
Rota is conveniently served by both Arctic Air and United Air from Guam almost every day of the week, and is only a short 25-minute hop from Wan Pat International to Rota International Airport.
When I arrived on Rota, I could immediately tell that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. As the shuttle took me to The Rota Resort for my first night, time seemed to instantly slow down to a leisurely crawl. I was struck by the greenness of the foliage, the deep azure hue of the sea, and the friendliness of the locals - as we passed cars on the road, everyone slowed down and waved with a friendly hand. There are no strangers on Rota - only friends.
After checking in at The Rota Resort, I decided to see the local landmarks, starting with the Rota Bird Sanctuary. Known as the I’Chenchon Wildlife Preserve, this protected nesting ground for seabird’s lies on a huge cliff overlooking the white-capped Philippine Sea. A gazimillion seabirds build their homes down at the base of the cliff and soar up and about on the sea breezes in search of fish.
Next on the list was the famous Taga stone quarry, also known as the As Nieves quarry, located near the village of Sinapalo. This ancient quarry was used to carve huge stone slabs from the limestone bedrock and make Latte Stone-like foundations for local meeting houses. It is amazing considering that these were wrestled out of the ground and assembled with pure muscle as there were obviously no cranes in those days.
Japanese coastal gun
In 1941, the defenders on Rota installed a huge 140mm coastal gun in a fortified emplacement overlooking Songsong harbor. No kills were recorded but getting the gun up the cliff and installing it in the pillbox was a major engineering feat. In the rear of the fortification, escape and supply tunnels go far back into the cliff.
Station of the Cross
This viewpoint sits up on the cliff line above the north end of Songsong Village and has a fantastic view of the village below, Wedding Cake mountain (named because of the shape) and the west and east sides of the island. It’s a sight to behold, the Philippine Sea to the west, the Pacific Ocean to the east and, on a clear day, beautiful Guam to the south.
Saltwater swimming pools
A local favorite, natural 20-feet-long tide pools in the limestone lined with white sand on the beach shore that floods at high tide, allowing the fish to escape and then strands them again at low tide. A perfect spot to watch the sunset.
On February 22, 1944, the 400-foot Shouen Maru freighter was anchored off the old Rota phosphate and gypsum quarry when it was spotted and attacked by a U.S. Navy Grumman TBF torpedo bomber from taskforce 58 on the USS Yorktown.
This sunken wreck 110-feet below the surface was bucket list material, so I booked a dive boat from local dive legend Mr. Yamamoto of the Rota Rubin dive shop to investigate. After getting a thorough briefing of the site at his shop, we trailered his 20-foot dive boat to the north dock of Songsong Village and launched for the short hop out to the dive site.
As we entered deeper water, the sea color changed to an incredible clear blue. As we motored up to the wreck’s mooring buoy, I could actually see the wreck below. After suiting up and splashing in first, the enormity of the ship became instantly apparent as it sat on an endless field of white sugar sand as far as the eye could see.
Visibility underwater was at least 300 feet, and as I descended down to the 5 story bow of the huge freighter, I could see all the way to the stern through the mangled wreckage and debris field. Slowly moving down the wreck, I glanced up and marveled at our dive boat tied 110 feet above me like a kite soaring above an inner world sky.
When the freighter was hit in 1944, it sank quickly. And after 71 years underwater enduring the wrath of typhoons and saltwater, it is largely broken up. However, the huge 20-feet tall reciprocating engine block and boilers are intact, as is the stern section that was ripped open as if by a giant can opener exposing it’s cargo of Nissan trucks rusted down to their frames.
After 30 minutes of circling the wreck several times, I slowly ascended to the surface accompanied by a sole eagle ray that soared off into the distance with a flap of its wings. Once back on the surface, we returned to the shop to spend our surface interval eating lunch and comparing pictures.
For the second dive, we motored out from the village to the leeward side of Rota’s Wedding Cake Mountain to visit The Rota Grotto. After mooring out in deep water, we splashed in and headed to the Grotto’s underwater entrance at 20 feet. After navigating a short tunnel, the passage gradually widened out to a 60-foot-wide underwater chamber with an open skylight to the jungle above.
As we began to explore the cavern’s boulders and dark crevices, suddenly the famous Rota Grotto’s trademark appeared like a blinding shaft of light from heaven, blasting from the natural skylight above then ethereally to the bottom of the cavern. The effect was mind-blowing and we took turns swimming thru the tube of light pretending we were beaming up. Too soon it seemed, our gas levels had dropped and we swam out to the open sea and reboarded our boat for the ride back. A perfect end to a perfect two days on Relaxing Rota.
Rota is serviced from Guam by Arctic Air and United Airlines almost every day.
The Rota Resort & Country Club http://www.rotaresortgolf.com/ is the island’s largest and most well-appointed hotel with spacious condo type rooms with WIFI perfect for couples or families, 18 hole golf course, pool, and bar/restaurant. Military discounts available. The property sits back on its own private area overlooking the sea. However, the island is small and resort shuttle can pick you up from the airport and easily take you any place of interest on the island within a matter of minutes. Songsong Village has several smaller budget motels with less amenities, but within walking distance of the village stores and restaurants.
Rubin Rota Scuba Center http://rotarubin.com/PRICE%20LIST%20ENGLISH.htm is one of two shops on island, and the owner, Mr. Yamamoto, offers military discounts and will pick you up from your hotel. Very friendly and customer service oriented. Depending on his mood and number of divers, he may have a BBQ at his shop’s picturesque marina side patio after the dives.
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