Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gear up and get wet already, MV 8

Editor's Note: All underwater photos are courtesy of Harry Blalock, who has thousands of amazing underwater photographs available here. Marianas Variety column 8.

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

You meet at the dock in the sleepy haze of morning feeling that slow, inexorable march of the tropical sun warming the Earth. Stepping onto the boat you hear the buzzing of plans solidified between buddies, tanks clanking, gear being loaded and motors roaring. You soon find yourself gliding over slightly bumpy, luminescent tropical waters of azure. The birds are hovering – out on the prowl for their fish breakfast. A school of dolphins might on occasion be your escort to the day’s chosen reef. Land becomes more distant over the horizon. You prepare yourself mentally to make that transformation from land dwelling mammal to sea exploring adventurer. The John Stockton like assist of modern underwater gear makes this act simple, reliable and above all else: possible. There is a tenor of anticipation for that first moment below water -- that contrasting explosion of color, light and water coupled with that indelible feeling of water eradicating summer's constant companion -- sweat. This is a morning that doesn't happen in Brooklyn, Beijing or Berlin, it is a morning unique to the tropics on a dive boat -- a unique joy of living here in Saipan that allows a brief escape from all life's stress above water. Scuba diving is a pleasure that far too many people exclude themselves from due to simple intimidation and misplaced fears.

Sea Fans are perhaps my favorite coral. They grow on walls, which are a common place to go diving.
The typical dive boat lures a crowd of people who approach life with a certain zest for living, a “je voie de vivre” as the French say. Divers are generally more compelling people who typically don't while away their days in some neon vestibule doing some mind numbing drudgery before capping off their day with whatever bad television is on tap. These are people who generally have been places, seen and done things and have something to say. Being around other divers, particularly in an exotic diving Mecca like Palau but certainly here in Saipan as well, is invigorating and life affirming. A day on the water brings a certain relaxation and peace of mind that is hard to find elsewhere. There are no cell phone calls underwater, no honking horns, no interruptions – just pure tranquility of mind and spirit.
It doesn't take too long for divers to break the chops of other divers, which I consider a good sign. Bo, who I met on the dive boat in Palau, gives me the horns the day I met him during a surface interval.

To the unitiated, diving probably looks complicated with all that dive gear. That apprehension is iced with an irrational fear of sharks inspired by one too many Jaws movies. Scuba diving is shockingly uncomplicated actually. A dive course can be completed in a week, and while that doesn't make you a crackerjack diver just yet, it gets you started. There are only a few inviolate rules to diving such as make a slow, controlled ascent from the deep, do not hold your breath underwater and keep a close watch on your air supply and depth, which is limited to 130 feet for the recreational diver. There are only three pieces of gear the diver needs over the snorkeler, a regulator that ensures the right air supply, a buoyancy control device that helps hold the tank in place and helps provide proper buoyancy, particularly useful at the surface, and a weight belt to help the diver sink upon entry, which is sometimes integrated with the BCD. Diving opens a lot more opportunity to explore the underwater world over snorkeling.
This coral is only seen at night. Night dives in particular open up a world unavailable or hiding during the day.

Saipan in particular has some especially good diving. I've traveled to many places throughout Asia largely with diving on my mind, and our very own Grotto is perhaps the most unique dive site I've ever explored -- including many in the rightfully exalted Palau . There is a sharp contrast between light and dark with that blue enclosed backdrop that blends together creating a staggering underwater seascape. That combination of light and dark works in a way far better together than it could alone -- much like McCartney and Lennon are better together than alone or crispy bacon is far better with a thin pancake drenched in Maple Syrup.

One of the holes at the Grotto. I love that contrast between light and dark. Few things above water look this cool.
Mike Tripp is a licensed pharmacist, an underwater videographer who released a DVD called the Underwater World of Saipan and president of the newly formed Marianas Dive Group. The underwater world is what lured Tripp to Saipan and away from a more lucrative day job.

“To me if you have to wait to go on a dive vacation for that feeling of peace that diving instantly brings, then you’re, or at least I am, in trouble. What's more soothing then being immersed in a big warm pool? Had a really stressful day? Go for a dive, there's one only 15 minutes tops away from anywhere on the island. Here we are lucky because if you miss the boat, you can still jump in and get wet.”

Crusing around on a dive boat in Palau is a heck of a lot of fun. There is some great scenery.
Tripp even goes to drastic measures to be underwater when back home in his native Canada. “I remember trips home to visit my family in Vancouver. One particular house my parents had came with a pool. Rather than gear up in a dry-suit and drive hours to the nearest doable site, I’d sit at the bottom of the pool just breathing. In the winter I'd even put on my dry-suit, that's how desperate I was. If a week goes by where I'm not in the water it starts to get ugly!”

As a scuba instructor Tripp deals with the anxieties of novices. “Dive gear can still feel a little heavy for some on land sometimes, but once you're in the water, you're weightless. That's right, it's like walking on the moon. Not that I've ever walked on the moon, but that’s what they, who have, say about SCUBA. So even if it looks a little complicated, which it really is not, it's a lot less complicated than jumping in the space shuttle.”

A turtle is always a welcome sight. This turtle, among others, appears at the Grotto from time to time.

Divers might also get more of that moon feeling here in Saipan because driving to the Obyan and Lau Lau dive sites is a lot like driving on the moon with all the craters in the road. But getting to those sites is indeed worth the trouble

The next major hang-up to entry to this sport tends to be fear of sharks; a fear that Tripp notes is not particular based in reality. “By and large the types of sharks we see in these waters are the reef sharks, white tip, black and gray reef sharks. They are unlikely to swim anywhere near you and if you are lucky enough to see them close up, you'll quickly see they are quite happy to look at you and then get the hell out of there if you look like you want to get too close. It's also important to note that when it comes to shark attacks, they get a lot of media attention, but in fact they are extremely rare and as I say, always involve someone on the surface. I cannot go on record to say that there has never been an attack on a scuba diver during a regular dive (i.e. not a shark feeding experience) but if there has been one, I have not heard about it. Either way, it is much more likely you will be hit by a car crossing beach road a hundred times than diving a lifetime in these waters. They are amazing to see and well worth overcoming a fear Hollywood has created!” These little reef sharks aren't all that scary. Most sharks really aren't. I've seen these sharks at the Grotto many times.

With some of the common fears allayed, there is one reaction I hope people now have, get trained, gear up and get wet already.

Jeffrey C. Turbitt is the language arts department chairman at Saipan Southern High School, as well as an avid scuba diver and traveler. He offers more thoughts in his blog Hypercritical Thought at: www.turbittj.blogspot.com/ He welcomes feedback, tips and story ideas at turbittj@yahoo.com. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.


CNMI Blogger said...

Great post, Jeff!

Nahal said...

These pictures are really really beautiful. I wish I had the skills to see them for myself. Very nice Jeff.