THE Grotto is one of the best dive sites on Saipan.  Not only can you dive the turquoise cavern itself, but once you swim out of the holes into the open sea, a new world emerges.  Off to the left is a great wall with caves and swim-throughs.  Straight ahead is a large, gently sloping aquatic field typically filled with colorful fish of all kinds.

But there is the problem.  There is so much to see and do outside the Grotto that time can easily get away from a diver.  That was how I ended up leaving my dive gear outside the Grotto.

The weather promised a good day for a dive.  The sun was out, and the water was clear.  After carrying all the gear and two air tanks down the steps, I stopped to catch my breath.  I had the Grotto all to myself.  Entry from the rock went well with hardly any surface chop.  Even the washing machine, usually frothy with energy, was calmer than usual.  I descended the rope and after looking around a little, made my way out the left exit.  The resident school of fish was right where I left them a few days earlier.

Moving north along the wall, I tucked into the opening of what divers call the Bat Cave, but I chose not to penetrate any further since I was diving alone.  I spotted a school of small, gray reef sharks, harmless and beautiful, searching the wall for small fish to eat and playfully enjoying life in the water.  It is easy to get caught up in viewing such wonders of creation, and I swam further into the abyss than my tank would allow.  By the time I had given up the pursuit of the sharks, I checked my gauge, did some quick calculations, and found I did not have enough air to return through the Grotto.

I took a brief safety stop at 15 feet, if I can call it that.  I hardly stopped at all because my tank was nearing empty.  I surfaced outside the Grotto and used the surf to help push me onto the shelf rock.  I was fine, the day was beautiful, and I had just finished a spectacular dive.  The only problem was that I had no air in my tank, and therefore no way to use my gear to get back in. 

I free dove to the outside of the Grotto before, so I knew it could be done.  Taking off all gear except mask, fins, and snorkel, I dove and swam back into the Grotto, where my second tank sat undisturbed on the rock.  Now all I had to do was free dive back out to the shelf where my gear was, only this time I would be carrying an air tank.

The dive back out went smoothly, but then it had to.  If I had dropped the tank, or took too long to get out, things could have gone bad in a hurry.  I switched out tanks and dove back into the Grotto, having learned a lesson in paying more attention to my gauges and less attention to nature.  But only a little less.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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