Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another Typical Grotto Dive

I do an average of 3 Grotto dives each week, which I think gives me a pretty good idea of what can be found there on any given day. These pics were all taken last weekend and represent things you could expect to see anytime you dive the Grotto. The picture above is a green sea turtle swimming near some of the big boulders outside of hole #1.This is a fairly small school of Tuna that hang out down the cliffline from the Grotto a ways. They were all up near the surface so I was floating face up to get this shot. I always enjoy just swimming into the middle of a school like that and becoming one of them.I was swimming over the top of one of the huge rock outcroppings outside of the Grotto when this eel poked his head up to say "hi". I find that most of the green morays really aren't that shy if you take the time to let them get used to you and you don't make any fast, erratic movements around them.This giant clam is one of the biggest I've seen anywhere on Saipan. It is outside of the Grotto and has obviously been there for quite a while to get this size. It is tucked into an out of the way spot where you wouldn't find it unless you knew right where to look, which is probably why it has lived this long and gotten this big.And this is a big colony of Plerogyra sinuosa, or bubble coral. This is a fairly uncommon type of coral that prefers living where it gets a good current ripping past it. There is also a fairly big cluster at Wing Beach, but these are the only two places I have seen it on Saipan, although I'm sure there have to be more spots.Unfortunately this is becoming an all too common site outside the Grotto thanks to the illegal fishermen. I spend at least an hour every weekend untangling the fishing line from the coral heads, wrapping it all up and taking it out.And sadly this is also becoming a very common sighting inside the Grotto. The swimmers who come down into the Grotto to party think it's fun to just throw their empty cans into the Grotto when they're done with them. I pick up an average of 6 of these every weekend as well. Tomorrow I'll show you some of the cool shots I got on my night dive in the Grotto last Saturday night.

Illegal Fishing At The Grotto Continues

On our Saturday morning dive, we spent quite a bit of time untangling fishing line, hooks and homemade sinkers from the coral outside of the Grotto. Some of the pieces of fishing line were well over 100 feet long and went from one piece of coral to the next. The illegal fishermen were using pieces of cut up rebar, old spark plugs set into a mold with melted lead poured around them, and chunks of busted up concrete. A little over a month ago, Fish & Wildlife officers arrested 2 Chinese fisherman at the Grotto for fishing in a sanctuary. We were all glad that something was finally being done about it, some of us were getting tired of spending the majority of our dives unraveling fishing line and picking up homemade sinkers.

But then the 2 Chinese fishermen went to court and had to face Judge Mona Manglona. Instead of teaching them a lesson and showing them that this kind of behavior won't be tolerated in our sanctuaries, it seemed as if she was almost apologizing to them in the sentence she handed down. She gave them 6 months in jail, all suspended except for the first 9 days with credit for the 9 days already served. She then placed the defendant on 6 months of unsupervised probation and hit him with a staggering $25 fine. According to the story in the newspaper, in accepting the plea agreement, Judge Manglona said the accused had pleaded guilty to a "rarely committed offense". Absolutely unbelievable!!! Can she possibly be anymore out of touch with reality?

But now the question comes in, who is really at fault, was it Judge Manglona, or was it the prosecutor from the AG's office prosecuting the case? Was Judge Manglona given enough information from the AG's office to make an educated decision. And why did the AG's office choose to settle this through a plea bargain as opposed to actually prosecuting it? Is it because they don't have the time or money? Do they not feel the crime was important enough to merit a trial? If we're not serious about protecting our sanctuaries and enforcing the laws that pertain to them, then why have them in the first place? If we don't have the time or money to follow through on things like this, then let's stop playing games, just get rid of the laws, the sanctuaries and the rules, after all they really don't seem to mean much anyway.

This is the pile of garbage picked up on just one dive last Saturday morning. All the pieces of cut up rebar were used as sinkers for fishing line. There is easily over 300 feet of fishing line there. And I didn't even bother bringing up all the broken up chunks of concrete that were used for sinkers down there. A rarely committed offense? Hardly! Our system is not functioning properly, and our laws have become a sad joke. We just sent the message loud and clear that you might as well go ahead and fish in our sanctuaries because you'll easily catch enough fish to pay the $25 fine you'll get and you'll still make a good profit. And that's only if you manage to get caught. I'm guessing that the Fish & Wildlife officers aren't exactly thrilled about going out to try and catch more of the illegal fisherman at the Grotto now that they've learned they'll only get a $25 fine.

In the meantime, I'll continue collecting the fishing line and cut up chunks of rebar, concrete, nuts and bolts and just hope that a diving tourist doesn't get entangled in the fishing line before I get to it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Diving Deco Stop

I wind up spending quite a bit of time on the rope in the Grotto doing my deco stops. It's a cool spot to just sit there and watch divers come and go, watch the swimmers above you, and occasionally some pretty cool effects as the sun comes streaming down into the Grotto.Sunday afternoon was one of those times that the sun was positioned just right so that it really lit up the shallow area of the Grotto, and visibility was pretty good, so it made for some cool shots. Here are some Japanese divers heading up after their dive.Did I mention Sunday afternoon was extremely busy in the Grotto? I was just kind of hanging there in about 15' of water and I counted over 40 diving tourists all heading toward the rope at the same time. There were people everywhere. I was down photographing some nudibranchs in the bottom of #2 when all of the sudden the light that filters in through the opening was blocked out. I looked up to see what was going on and there were 18 divers all coming down through the opening, they had totally blocked out the light. Not really my favorite time to dive when there are that many people in the water at once. But once they all started clearing out, a very cool thing started to happen.You can see the last of the divers lined up on the rope getting ready to exit the Grotto as the sun came streaking down into the Grotto. It was as if God had turned on a big spotlight and shined it directly down into the Grotto, the rays of sunshine looked awesome as they penetrated the darkness of the Grotto and gave it an otherworldly feeling.Sometimes the most amazing part of the dive isn't where you're looking for it at all, you just have to learn to always be looking around you and observing the various scenery. I just floated down there for a good 25 minutes enjoying the light show and snapping away. I'm so thankful for the age of digital cameras. Back in the old days I would have already filled up my 36 shots and would have had nothing left to capture the awesome spectacle that was waiting for me at the end. I just never get tired of scenes like that one.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Virtual Grotto Dive


I do have quite a few pictures from this past weekends dives, as well as the Flametree Festival, but I'll wait to start posting them until tomorrow. While I was doing one of my decompression stops at the Grotto, I decided to do a little video of what it is like to head out hole #1, go down the cliff line and then come back in hole #3 of the Grotto. So here is your little virtual dive tour going out of the Grotto and back in again.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Swimming In The Bait Ball At Lau Lau

Kelli and I are heading out to Lau Lau this morning to swim with the fishes with some friends. Barry & Vaughan Wonenberg are getting back into diving and seem to have been bitten by the bug as well, I'm always stoked when somebody else really gets into the underwater world and can't wait until their next dive. Last weekend was Kelli's first experience seeing the bait ball of big eyed scad at Lau Lau and I'm hoping they're around today for Barry & Vaughan to see as well. This was some video I took of the bait ball a year ago or so, with any luck I'll get some better video today.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hawksbill Turtle Video Journey

Since it is the weekend, and since the last video was only of a Hawksbill turtle eating, and since I am out swimming with the turtles right now, I thought I'd go ahead and let you go swimming with some turtles as well. This video is several video clips I took swimming with Hawksbill turtles. For those of you who can't go under the water this weekend, hopefully this will be the next best thing. I hope you enjoy!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Turtle Video

I decided today I would give you a different kind of glimpse into what it's like to be underwater with all the amazing creatures down there. The guy we're watching today is a Hawksbill turtle and is on the endangered species list. I have spent countless hours just hanging out with turtles, watching how they react to different things, watching them eat, discovering their sleeping holes, watching the way they glide through the water and maneuver. I never get tired of it, and I hope this video gives you a taste of just how cool it can be too. I have several other videos on my www.saipandiver.smugmug.com site, just go to the Underwater gallery and they will all be at the top. You can swim with sharks, octopus, turtles, leaf scorpionfish and the big fishball at Lau Lau. I also have several videos on youtube under Saipandiver, feel free to have a look there as well. Have a great weekend everybody, you know I will!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Saipan Chamber Keeping Me Hopping

I'm the Vice President of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce this year, and it's been one of the more active Chamber years in quite a while. Part of the Education Committee, Kathryn Barry, Kanae Quinn, Jim Arenovski, Jay Santos, and myself have been putting on seminars for high school seniors on Saturday mornings lately. The topic is, "I'm about to graduate from High School, now what?" We teach them about career choices, budgeting and finances, filling out resumes, going through a job interview, expectations on the job, how to balance family and work responsibilities and communication. We put them on 3 weeks in a row, first at Saipan Southern High School, next at Kagman, and finally at Marianas High School. The students who came out for them seemed to really enjoy them and get a lot from them. I wish somebody had put on seminars like that when I was still in high school. In the picture above, Kathryn is talking about communications.
We provided pastries and fruit each morning and then fed the students lunch at the end of the program. Here you see Chamber President Jim Arenovski carving up the 6' party subs from Subway.
The Saipan Chamber has also been very busy with military ship receptions. We believe if we go out of our way to welcome these sailors and show them island hospitality, they will be much more likely to choose Saipan as a R&R stop the next time they are in the area. We had a reception for the 2 ships and sub that were in port last week at the Hard Rock Cafe, which was very well attended. This week we had a reception for the USS Higgins beachside at the Hyatt. Every sailor I've talked to said that we've made a huge impression on them, and that Saipan has been their favorite liberty port on their deployment. That's also why I take sailors from the ships out diving when they express an interest. I want to make sure that they have the best time possible here, and want to come back again next time. There have been those who have done nothing but criticize the Chamber of Commerce this past year, but where are they and what are they doing? How are they giving back to the community? I believe our actions speak much louder than their words. In the picture above, Doug, Kyle and I are sharing a laugh at the beginning of the reception, while JoJo is interviewing Commander Smith as Judge Wiseman listens in.
Here are some of the sailors who came to the reception enjoying free appetizers provided by the Hyatt and some drinks while watching the sunset.

Grant Dunn, the XO of the ship came up next to me on the beach as I was taking some sunset pictures and said it must be a great sunset if even the locals are taking pictures. Honestly, it wasn't one of the better ones, I just try to never take a sunset for granted, no pun intended. I try to remember how blessed I am to live here every chance I get and to continuously soak it all in. Kelli had kidnapped my camera and was the official photographer of the night, which is the only reason you're seeing any pictures of me. I much prefer being the one behind the lens of the camera, not the one in front of it. Here I am chatting with Chamber President Jim Arenovski during the reception.Here you see Judge Wiseman presenting the Chamber plaque to Commander Winton Fred Smith as Jim Arenovski and Doug Brennan look on. Here Chamber President Jim Arenovski receives the plaque of appreciation from Commander Smith, as Judge Wiseman, Doug Brennan and XO Grant Dunn all look on.And one last shot of me for the night, here I am with Esther Pinzon, who has been one of the people spearheading the Invite-a-sailor program for the last several years. Esther has a special soft spot in her heart for our men and women in the military and goes way out of her way to make sure they truly enjoy their time here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

USS Higgins Latest Axe Murderer Tours Victims

This is the USS Higgins which pulled into the Saipan port last Sunday. It is a destroyer with about 380 sailors on board, so it is definitely a boost for the local economy, especially the bars and restaurants in Garapan. My dive buddy Doug met the Commander and XO who both wanted to go diving in the Grotto, so Doug called me up and we set the next Axe Murderer Tours dive up. We're always happy to take the Captain's and XO's out diving, hoping it will make their stay on Saipan more memorable and enjoyable.Lt. Commander Grant Dunn, Doug Brennan, Harry Blalock & Commander Winton Fred Smith after our Grotto dive. They seemed to totally enjoy their dive, although I think Captain Smith might have wished he hadn't biked to the top of Mt. Topochou and rode 28 miles earlier in the day and then had to hike his tank up those stairs at the Grotto. It sure didn't seem to slow him down at all though.Here you see Commander Winton Smith silhouetted against the light coming through hole #1 in the Grotto. It is truly a magical place to see the first time you dive the Grotto.
After we went outside of the Grotto, saw the giant clam, the bubble coral, went through the fan coral cave, up through the serpentine tunnel, and went down through the little hole that leads back into hole #2, we spent some time looking around inside the Grotto. I was able to show the CO and the XO their very first nudibranch and introduce them to a whole new variety of different things to see underwater.This is of course a Halgerda guahan, and I managed to find a couple of them to show them. They have been appearing in big numbers recently, and I've been seeing a lot of egg ribbons. The plan was to do an afternoon dive, have some dinner, get the tanks filled and then go back and do another night dive at the Grotto. However, the CO and XO got a call from the ship and had to get back for some pressing business, but of course that wasn't about to stop Doug and I from going back and enjoying a night dive. We had another friend join us and had a great dive.I saw two of these live Cypraea Leviathan's crawling on the walls in the bottom of the Grotto. Here is must have just headed out of his hole and was just in the process of covering his shell with his mantle. The soft mantle sliding back and forth over the shell all the time is what keeps the shells polished and looking so shiny and smooth.Here he has his mantle totally covering his shell. The little things that look like tiny white Christmas trees are called pappilae, and you can make out his antennae at the top of the picture. I love catching these guys like this in their natural element and getting pictures of them, and watching them move over the coral in and out of tiny little holes.There were also plenty of nudibranchs crawling all over the rocks and feeding on the white sponges. This Halgerda malesso was feeding on a white sponge, it's the first time I've seen one of them climb a sponge like that to feed on it.This was another nudibranch that was crawling across one of the big rocks leading up from hole #2. At less than an inch long, you've got to be looking pretty hard to spot them, but if you take the time and look carefully they are there.The lobster were also out roaming around, at least until your flashlight hit them, and then they hid in their holes in the rocks.And there are all kinds of little starfish that are out feeding at night as well, some of them are red, purple, and with unique coloring and patterns like this one.And night dives are the only time you will see these decorator crabs out roaming around. Can you see him? He has all kinds of different little pieces of coral stuck to his legs to make him just blend in with his surroundings.I've seen this little box pufferfish on the last several night dives, and he's sleeping in almost the same spot each time. This has got to be one of the hardest sleepers I've ever seen, nothing seems to wake him up. I can take repeated pictures right in his face and it doesn't faze him. I have even moved him before to get him in a better angle for a picture, and it didn't wake him up or bother him at all.And of course there are sleeping parrotfish everywhere you look. If you look carefully in this photo, or click on it to have it blown up, you will see the mucous bubble he has blown around himself. He was actually blowing it as I floating there watching him. It was an awesome night for a dive, and I'm never disappointed with all the things I see on a night dive. I hope you enjoyed your virtual night dive!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Axe Murderer Tours Busier Than Ever!

Saipan has been blessed recently with by the visits of several military ships and submarines. Last week we had 3 in port all at the same time. The Saipan Chamber of Commerce has been hosting receptions for the visiting ships and subs at various venues around the island, and for these 3 it was at the Hard Rock Cafe. The event was very well attended by both the ships crews and Chamber members, and actually packed out the Hard Rock. I was introduced to the XO of the USS Ingraham, John Cranston, who told me he was a certified diver and would love to go out diving Friday afternoon. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, it was John and 5 of his fellow crewmembers, all certified divers, who wanted to go and dive the Grotto. I was really glad I had recruited some extra help in taking this bunch out diving. Of course my usual partner in crime in Axe Murderer Tours Doug Brennan was with me, but also joining us on this dive were the Mikes, Mike Tripp and another one who shall have his last name withheld to protect the guilty.This is a shot of the group from the USS Ingraham that dove the Grotto. You'll notice a couple of old Axe Murderers in the back, and Mike Tripp in the picture as well. The good news is this picture was taken after the dive and they all still had smiles on their faces. Of course this was taken before I started feeding them my Wasabe peanuts from Expressions. However I did manage to get some of them hooked on the very spicy nuts, and they went and bought some to take with them for the trip to Honolulu.Here you see Pete looking down into the Grotto before the dive, checking things out and taking a look at where he'll be heading in just a few minutes. I took a bunch of pictures of Pete, I think it was because of his outstanding haircut!Pete is emerging from the first little tunnel or swimthrough I took them through. The terrain outside of the Grotto is full of cracks, holes, tunnels and swimthroughs and can be a lot of fun to go exploring as long as you have someone with you who really knows their way around and the way back into the Grotto.We had a big surprise as we went down on the bottom side of the fan coral cave rock, tucked right in by the wall was a 6' Napolean Wrasse. He didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry to get away from us, so several of them got a very good look at him.As we entered the fan coral cave, Mike was coming it through it from the other direction, but it made for a pretty cool picture with the fans and the opening behind him. 3 of them had so much fun on the Grotto dive they wanted to go again with a couple crazy Axe Murderers to Lau Lau the next afternoon. And I know that the XO, John, really wanted to go as well, but unfortunately duty was calling for him.So on the Lau Lau dive I got to take Brian, pictured above.Brittany was also along for the Lau Lau dive.And Pete was OK with his Lau Lau dive as well. I decided to see just how adventurous these 3 were, so I led them through a bunch of the tight little swimthroughs that go under the coral. They all followed me through all of them. And of course it's always a bonus when you get to swim with turtles on a dive.The little Hawksbill was just lazily swimming over the coral and letting us get a nice, close look at him. They all said the dives were the best they've ever been on, which I'm always happy to hear. Axe Murderer Tours managed to put 6 more notches in it's belt over the weekend, and we're taking the Commander and the XO of the USS Higgins out this afternoon and tonight, so our next 2 victims are already standing in line. I think I may have to start a hat & t-shirt clothing line with an Axe Murderer Tours logo, I think they'd be pretty hot sellers.

Friday, April 18, 2008

New Batch of Pictures For Sale

I have just ordered a new batch of pictures from my http://www.saipandiver.smugmug.com/ site, and will be offering them for sale. I will be selling them in a nice wood frame and each of them will be signed on the back and I will write up a short description on the picture of what it is and where it was taken. I have had quite a number of people asking for some of my pictures so this is the first public offering of them. I have ordered 8x10 prints of all the pictures you'll see on today's blog post, so if you decide you really want one of them please contact me by e-mail and let me know which one you want and I'll reserve it for you. I'll be selling each of the 8x10's, framed, signed and personalized for $35 each. If you don't live on Saipan and would like one of the personalized, signed and framed pictures, I'd be happy to mail it to you, just contact me to work out payment. You can also just buy the prints of all of these pictures without the frame or being signed by going here. All of these pictures are featured in my Recommended Pictures gallery on my smugmug site. Or you can just click on the individual picture and it will take you to that picture in the smugmug gallery. The picture shown above is of a Halgerda malesso at the Grotto.This is a red scorpionfish taken on a night dive at Lau Lau.This extreme close up is of a white tip reef sharks eye. I like to quietly see how close I can get to them for pictures, as you can see, I managed to get pretty close to this guy.I've spent many hours with this little Hawksbill turtle over the last year. Here I caught him tucked into a little hole at Lau Lau.This shot is looking up at the bottom side of a sea cucumber as he makes his way over a patch of coral. I just loved the combination of colors in this picture and a view of a sea cucumber that most people have never seen.This has got to be my favorite shark shot of all time. There is no photo editing or trick photography involved, these two were actually laying next to each other in the Grotto like that, fin to fin.I caught this colorful parrotfish just sleeping on the sand during a night dive at Lau Lau. I'm always intrigued at seeing them sleep in their mucous bubble.This Titan Triggerfish was in the USAT Liberty shipwreck in Tulamben, Bali. He was just sitting there at this cleaning station letting the little wrasse go in and out of his mouth and give him a good cleaning. It's pretty rare to catch one of these guys this still and have him just let you take his picture.This was sunrise from our resort in Tulamben, Bali. You could see across the ocean and see the volcano on the island of Lombok just before sunrise each morning. Here you see the sun rising directly behind the volcano, it was truly a memorable morning.This blue spotted stingray was also from one of my dives in Bali. You can see him just laying on the black sand, all the beaches in the Tulamben area were black sand.

This was a live Tiger Cowrie that was just out crawling along on the black sand in Bali. I thought it was very cool to catch him with his mantle mostly covering his shell and the papilae sticking out to move him along.Kelli and I were going out to eat one night driving down Beach Road when I noticed this spectacular sunset, I pulled the truck over, took my camera out and started shooting pictures. I'm getting this picture made into 4x8 cards with envelopes. The cards will be $3.50 each, let me know if you'd like to buy some of them.

The pictures should be here by the end of next week, if you would like to have me reserve one for you, please send me an e-mail to harryblalock@gmail.com and let me know what you'd like, and I'll set it aside for you. And again, if you'd just like to buy the print, you can do that on my smugmug site, just click on the picture and it will take you there. Then click on the buy this photo icon above the picture. Thanks for your interest and support.