Published: March 19th 2008March 19th 2008
While Saipan’s culture has been influenced by the US, it is less developed than Guam. The northern end of the island has neither electricity nor water infrastructure and is maintained much like a national park. Despite pressure from developers, the locals have repeatedly voted to keep it that way. It is on the north end that my tour was concentrated.
The first stop was the Blue Grotto, a collapsed cave when divers can experience one of the great cave dives. One enters the water in a turbulent shore side pool and swims through one of three tunnels to the sea. Turtles, sharks and other marine critters make their home there. It is a dive for only the most experienced. There are 112 steps down to the pool. Six Chinese tourists who were taking pictures during a stormy period were swept into the pool. Five were tossed back on shore but the sixth was never seen again. We were treated to ballets of fairy terns and stormy petrels. A kingfisher sat in the tree and squawked and squawked. Which brings me to the brown tree snake.
Guam and the Northern Marianas were snake free until the transportation age. Experts believe that the snakes stowed away in cargo containers of airplane landing gear and made their way across the pacific from the Far East. Having no natural enemies the population exploded when they reached Guam. Their main source of food is bird’s eggs and that explains the marked absence of birds on Guam.
Saipan struggles to remain snake free. There are two snakes known to be on the island, both males and in the possession of the Fish & Wildlife service. They are used to train snake-sniffing dogs that patrol the ports and airport. Consequently, the birdlife on Saipan is healthy for the moment.
Our next stop was Bird Island, a sanctuary for marine birdlife, turtles and fish. It is located inside the reef and fringed by one of the few beaches I’ve seen. Folks are welcome to swim, snorkel and picnic there but no fishing is allowed. The beach looks pristine.
Just up the road is a huge limestone cave. During the final days of the Saipan campaign, an American Marine unit discovered the cave and the Japanese soldiers hiding there. The Marines shelled the cave and the surviving Japanese were taken prisoner. And there an American Marine Captain (name forgotten but who I will call Joe) met Sato. The meeting itself was bazaar as Joe addressed Sato in Japanese and Sato answered Joe in English.
Sato was placed in the POW compound and Joe visited him when he could. They spoke of politics and philosophy, their families, about everything but the war. Sato was transferred to Hawaii and whenever Joe was there he visited the POW camp. The two went for long walks and continued their conversations.
The friendship that developed at the mouth of a cave in Saipan continues to this day. Last year the two returned to the island with their children and grand children. They returned to the cave where they met in the heat of battle and both could be seen sobbing together at the memories.