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These small islands are dive holiday gems

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is a chain of emerald jewels sitting atop lO km-high underwater mountains in the Pacific. The diving here is excellent, and the islands, with their laid-back feel, are a great holiday destination.

Just north of Guam, stretching almost in a straight line for 685km, are the 14 islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Northern Marianas are mostly tiny specks in the vast Pacific Ocean, ranging in size from the miniscule Farallon de Medinilla, which measures 0.9sq km, to the political and economic centre of Saipan, which comes in at a hefty 123sq km. All these islands are the storm-battered peaks of a massive submerged mountain range that rises 10km from the sea floor.

The island chain's biggest attraction for tourists— 85 percent of whom come from Japan — is its combination of a laid back island paradise feel and spectacular div¬ing. The CNMI also offers the sunniest weather in the whole of Micronesia. Of course it does rain — mainly from July to September — but the warm dry season asts longer here than anywhere else in the federated states.

The landscape changes dramatically to south, with towering volcanoes dominating the islands in the far north — some still active — and hills and sandy beaches in the south. The deepwater trench, which sits off the eastern edge of the island chain, drops away to a depth of around 9750m — deeper than Mount Everest is high. Offshore to the west there is a long barrier reef, making the islands an ideal destination for divers, snorkelers and board sailors. The favourite spots for most visiting divers are around the three main islands of Saipan, Rota and Tinian.

SAIPAN

The waters off Saipan are incredibly clear and warm, and the sea around the island is alive with an enormous variety of ma¬rine life. There are strange rock formations and odd pieces of wreckage, covered worth colourful coral growth.

The Grotto
Perhaps the most popular dive site on Saipan is The Grotto. It has not one, but three passageways that lead out to the sea. You exit through one, then come back through another. A good guide is needed to find the right way as several boulders covered in sea fans create crevices that can be mistaken for the entrance.

Tanapag Harbour
You can enjoy a more relaxed dive in Saipan's Tanapag Harbour. This site has many coral heads, wartime shipwrecks and airplanes in 6-12m of water. Eagle rays wing their way across the sand, while whitetip reef sharks sleep by day and hunt by night under sunken aeroplanes.

Managaha Island
For a relaxing snorkel, go to Managaha Island at the mouth of the harbour. This gentle island has sand beaches and clear water with lots of tiny fish that will happily feed from your hand.

General
There is a good variety of accommodation on Saipan, and there's diving for all skill levels. Big Dog Diving is a Japanese-ori¬ented operation that has nice boats. Sting¬ray Divers, located in the PIC Hotel, does introductory lessons and caters to more ex¬perienced divers looking for adventure. They have a good local following and have put together a series of weekend trips.

All tours are customizable and can be extended as per requirements
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