Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Saipan - a pearl in the Pacific

Saipan car number plate; Hafa Adai means Hello in Chamorro.

If you've ever seen the Nicholas Cage film Windtalkers then you've heard of Saipan, in the Pacific Ocean. The film wasn't filmed on the island, but was set there during WWII.

Saipan is the largest of the fifteen islands that belong to the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Everybody there speaks English, but some also speak Chamorro, which is the native language of the islands. The reason they are called the Northern Mariana islands is that there is another Mariana  island further to the south, Guam, which has a different political status. 

Managaha island, off Saipan's WNW coast

I've just been for a week in January, and I did a lot of scuba diving while there. One of my favourite spots was the Grotto, where you pass through a cave (see entrance below) and come out into the open ocean on the other side.

Grotto dive spot

Much of the recent history of Saipan is overshadowed by the Second World War, notably the three-week long Battle of Saipan in 1944 when US forces landed on the island to secure it from the Japanese who had been governing the island since the First World War.  Many of the Japanese civilians feared being slaughtered by the US troops and preferred to commit suicide by jumping off Suicide cliff or Banzai Cliff - 20 000 died.

'Suicide' cliff

Memorial at Banzai Cliff

Banzai cliff

Last command post

The island also has some other tourist sites that are not linked to the war, such as Kalabera cave and Bird island.

Kalabera cave

Bird island

One of the trip highlights was a trip to Tinian, a slightly smaller neighbouring island. As it is only 8 km from Saipan the flight there is very short.

Plane to Tinian

One of the main tourist sites on Tinian is the House of Taga, which is an important limestone Latte stone site (nothing to do with coffee!). 

House of Taga

Latte stones are pillars capped by a hemispherical capital with the flat side facing up, found only in the Mariana islands. In ancient times they were used as building supports, and are now often seen as a sign of Chamorro identity.

House of Taga

Of twelve large Latte structures at the House of Taga only one is still left standing.

Last one standing

fallen pillar

Tinian is perhaps best known for being the base from which the US launched their atomic bomb attacks on Japan during World War II. Strategically important, the island was captured by the US in 1944 and they installed two airfields : the West airfield (still used as Tinian's airport today), and the North airfield, now abandoned but visitable for its historical significance. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were loaded on planes at the North airfield.

loading pit of the world's first atomic bomb

loading pit of the world's second atomic bomb

Afterwards we headed to the north-east coast (never far away on an island this small).

The old bell tower


Tinian coast, Saipan on the horizon

half-flower, beloved of honeymooners

coconut crab

Saipan sunset on our last evening

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