Diving With an Axe Murderer


Diving With an Axe Murderer

Definitely off the beaten trail is Saipan in the Pacific’s North Mariana islands, a relative stone’s throw from in-the-news Guam and a revelation for divers when it comes to marine life and wartime hardware. LISA COLLINS’ only initial concern was about exactly who would be arranging the diving…

1117 saipan sherman tank
Partly submerged Sherman tank from WW2.

HARRY BLALOCK PULLED UP at our apartment in his bright red truck with blacked-out windows, although it was impossible to make him out in the driving seat.

Opening the door, he climbed out.

We let out a sigh of relief as he greeted us jovially. Surely not an axe-murderer!

Just the owner of Axe Murderer Tours on the island of Saipan, in the central Northern Mariana Islands, 135 miles north of Guam.

I quizzed Harry on the intriguing name of his company. The former DJ explained that he had moved from the USA to Saipan 21 years ago to run a radio station. He had taken up diving with a friend, and soon became an expert on the dive-sites surrounding the island.

When two US Navy ladies asked whether they could be taken diving on their day off, Harry arranged to meet them at a remote beach the next day. “How do we know you’re not an axe-murderer?” they had asked. Harry replied that they didn’t, but if they wanted to go diving they would have to trust him.

After some fantastic diving, the ladies declared Harry’s the best dive-company they had ever used. They recommended it to their US Navy colleagues around the world, and Axe Murderer Tours was born, with Harry becoming a full-time dive instructor and guide.

Our first dive was meant to be a shore-dive at Lau Lau Beach, on the south-east side of the island, but Harry had lucked out and managed to get us aboard a US Navy merchant ship crew support-boat.

There is a mix of shore- and boat-dives around the island, and Harry had arranged a week of diving to show us the best of both. He runs the company as a one-man band, sourcing out tank-fills and renting boat space from small operators on the island, which seems to work well.

Boat-dives, depending on the location of the sites, incur a US $50-75 supplement on top of the shore-diving prices.

Luckily for us, over the years Harry has taught many seamen from the huge US merchant ships that moor off Saipan for six months of the year.

In return for his guiding skills, he had procured us the free trip on the crew transport boat, which needed fast sea tests after having a new jet engine fitted.

The Chief Engineer of the Vadm K R Wheeler had been on holiday and joined us at the dock with his suitcase, hoping for a crafty couple of dives before returning to duty that afternoon.

Appeared in DIVER November 2017

THE SITES OF BANZAI and Spotlight were a perfect location for testing speed across the flat-calm seas, and at the wheel was the 2nd Chief Engineer of the Wheeler, a huge vessel that supplies 10-mile-long hoses to run between fuel-tankers and other merchant ships.

Very quickly we arrived at Banzai, a submerged sea-mount just off the famous Banzai cliff. The banzai! war-cry would have been heard during the Japanese final defence of Saipan when the Americans invaded in June 1944.

1117 saipan cockpit and seat floating emily
The cockpit and seat of the Floating Emily.

Harry inflated his BC and dropped it over the side, before following it down to don it in the water. He normally dives with a massive 18-litre tank, so prefers this practice if the water is calm.

We kitted up on the boat and jumped in, hearing shouts and laughs from the other side as the Chief Engineer decided to copy Harry, hurling his tank into the water – but omitting to inflate his BC first!

As it dropped towards the 150m depths, Harry chased it down, managing to catch it at 33m and bring it back up.

As you might imagine, the Chief had to take plenty of ribbing from his crew, and became the focus of Harry’s stories over the coming week.

We descended to the top of the sea-mount at 15m, and saw a large marble ray resting on a ledge deeper down at 24m. After taking a few photos we continued around the mount, pushing into a slight current.

Harry had told us that this dive-site normally has ripping currents that bring in large pelagics. In what turned out to be a small current I didn’t expect to see anything too large, so was surprised to find a spotted eagle ray very close to my buddy. As I approached, it swam off into the blue.

From the topography and coral growth it is clear that this site is very exposed to the current and any passing storms. Strong hard corals dominate the whole sea-mount, with small soft corals, some seafans and Halimeda algae covering the almost sheer walls.

At first there seemed to be little life, but as we watched the reef it came alive with thousands of juvenile fish that had been hiding in the protection of hard-coral fingers. Featherstars were everywhere, and many different types of butterflyfish flitted around in pairs, grazing over the reef.

Our second dive was close by, under the cliff face at Spotlight. We would be diving into a cavern formed by the erosion of the limestone cliff, with the entrance at 12m. Inside there was a large hole in the ceiling, and the sun streamed down through the water, causing a spotlight effect.

Further into the cave, there is a small area where it’s possible to surface in complete darkness to an air cavity, and our torches came in very useful there.

As we descended again we could see the incredibly vibrant and bright blue of the ocean beyond the mouth of the cavern. Visibility at both sites was amazing at 40m-plus, which made the colour of the water so vivid.

Spotlight can be dived only for four months of the year, between May and August, when the weather is good. Normally the seas are fairly rough in the area, making entries and exits difficult.

That day we had near-perfect conditions, with very gentle waves crashing against the cliff above our heads as we started our safety-stop.

The water was a balmy 29°, such a luxury after our previous diving the week before in Japan, where the temperature had been only 17°!

BEING AN EXPOSED ISLAND in the middle of the Pacific, the second largest in the Mariana Islands archipelago after Guam, and close to the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the ocean, Saipan is often in the direct path of typhoons during the season between July and October.

In 2015 Saipan suffered 15 direct hits, one of which caused extensive damage across the island, leaving it without power or running water for more than three months. Happily the following year there wasn’t one direct hit.

Signs of the devastation caused in 2015 can still be seen everywhere around the island, though the underwater vistas don’t seem to have suffered.

Our next day’s outing was also to be a two-tank boat-dive, but on one of the small local speedboats. A boat-charter company called Fishguyz had several suitable small boats. Harry picked us up again from our apartment and drove us a short distance to a pier next to a beachfront picnic-site.

The local Chamarro people love to gather for communal picnics along the white sandy beaches surrounding much of the island. The government has built dedicated barbecue areas with parking and often facilities such as showers and toilets for them.

As we unloaded the dive-kit from the back of the truck (Harry had kept our BCs and regs so that he could rinse and hang them to dry in the dive-facility next to his house), a small speedboat pulled up. We were the only divers that day.

Harry takes no more than four anyway, and he gave us some choices of site.

With the strong WW2 history, we opted for two wreck dives in the shallow lagoon that runs the length of the island. Having sustained thousands of casualties on land, in the air and at sea, the whole island and its surrounding waters are like a shrine.

Our first dive, only 20 minutes along the coast, was on the Floating Emily, an Imperial Japanese Navy H8K large flying-boat. It is often mistaken for a US B-29 bomber because of its name, which was actually used as a code-name by the US Navy in radio messages.

Although fairly broken up, both from impact and from the many typhoons over the years, there are still many recognisable features. Two propellers stand upright on the shallow 9m-deep white-sand bottom. The gun-turret sits a little distance away by itself, again upright.

Much of the fuselage is broken up and buried in the sand, but the massive wings are largely intact, and are home to a large school of bigeyes.

Colourful butterflyfish dart around the wreck, which is full of coral growth and teeming with marine life.

Harry was very happy for us to dive for as long as we wanted. We were so shallow that we didn’t have to worry about deco-time, and dived for well over an hour, finding lots of interesting parts of the plane scattered over a fair-sized area.

The cockpit, complete with seat and controls, but minus the fuselage and canopy, was a fair distance away, probably carried there during a storm.

THE NEXT DIVE WAS ON a large Korean freighter, the Chin Sen Maru, which was taken over by the Japanese and torpedoed by the Americans in WW2. The wreckage is in one area, but the hull is pretty crushed and beaten up.

There are areas in which, by sucking our stomachs in slightly, we could squeeze through into the spaces between the cargo areas, which then open into the sea.

1117 saipan chin sen maru
The torpedo-blasted Chin Sen Maru.

The wreck is, again, only 9m deep, a short boat-ride inside the lagoon from the Floating Emily.

Following us around the shipwreck, like an angry-looking puppy, was a huge red snapper, accustomed to the yellow submarine that brings tourists to view the wreck, from which scraps of food are thrown to attract fish. We saw several green turtles cruising the wreck.

Under a broken cargo-plate, several whitetop reef sharks rested, while soldierfish and bigeyes gathered in the shadows of any structure that offered shelter. A large 7.7mm gun protruded, covered in coral growth, from the wreck.

The lagoon on this side of the island is very large, with the fringing reef a fair distance from the shore in most areas. There is only one main cut in it suitable for ships to pass through into the open ocean, although a small boat can cut across the reef in one or two areas at high tide.

The deepest the lagoon gets is only 10m, with the majority a lot less. In some areas it’s possible to walk several hundred metres all the way out to the fringing reef at low tide.

Saipan is a US Commonwealth territory, and the only place within the USA that Chinese and Koreans can visit without needing a visa. Many large Chinese- and Korean-built hotels house throngs of tourists, all either joining the many coach-tours that visit the main historic sites on the islands, or renting bright pink Mustang convertibles.

We rented a car for the week, but largely managed to avoid the tourists by visiting the sites before or after the tours, or finding deserted beaches and places of historical interest that the hordes don’t visit.

On the other side of the island, the coast is a lot more rugged, with jagged limestone cliffs and no beaches. Here we carried out a shore-dive at the island’s most famous dive-site – the Grotto.

After kitting up by the van, we climbed down 116 steps and across a large rock formation to enter the blue water of the collapsed limestone sinkhole.

It’s a popular site for snorkellers and swimmers, so we were happy to descend below the surface and head for the three brilliant cyan exits to the open sea.

The depth of the cave is 15m. Massive orange seafans dominate the rocky bottom, making a stunning contrast to the blue beyond. We headed for the third cave-exit and swam out onto a sloping wall which dropped beyond 60m.

HARRY HAD EXPLAINED that there were many sites that could be visited from the outside of the Grotto. He took us to the left to visit the Bat Cave, which was almost as big as the grotto, with the top at 14m and the base at 23m. Large pink lace corals hung from the ceiling, and glassy sweepers hid towards the rear.

As we came back into the Grotto we examined the rocks on the bottom, gradually ascending them towards the exit point as we did our safety stop. Harry pointed out an endemic and rare nudibranch that lives in the cave.

After the long climb back up the steps, we drove to Lau Lau Beach for a shore-dive. Walking down a short sandy path through the jungle we came out on a beautiful deserted beach. Harry had warned us to bring wetsuit boots, as the coral encroached almost to the shoreline.

We walked out around 100m to a step in the reef, where it suddenly dropped off to about 3m. We donned our fins and followed a fixed rope that guided us through a cut in the reef.

Where the guide-rope finished the reef opened up into an alien-looking seascape with strange coral formations I had never seen before.

Stalagmite-type fingers of coral spread as far as the eye could see, and among them Meyer’s and saddle butterflyfish fed, while several different types of hawkfish perched between the jagged peaks.

A green turtle swam slowly over the reef, looking for a place to rest. A large colony of anemones filled with different anemonefish spread across one of the flatter areas of reef.

With very little current, the site was beautiful, fascinating and surreal.

FIVE NAUTICAL MILES to the south lies the island of Tinian. Harry had arranged a slightly bigger charter-boat to take us and two other divers across the deep sea trench between the islands.

The sea became a little choppy and currents swirled across the surface, but once in the protected waters around the island, it became calm again.

Mooring up close to a small cliff, we were to dive Flemming Wall first, followed by Tinian’s Grotto a short distance away.

We couldn’t believe the visibility. It was even better than Saipan, at 50m-plus!

The edge of Flemming Wall started at 20m and dropped to more than 90m in a near-vertical drop. As we went down through a fissure starting at 8m, entering out on the wall at around 25m, we could see the white-sand bottom below us.

The wall was very similar to Banzai, with a rockface covered in small formations of coral and algae, dotted with seafans.

Deco-time came round rapidly as we forgot to check our depth in the incredible visibility. All too soon we were back on the boat for an hour-long safety stop before moving on to the Tinian Grotto.

As we started to descend, we could see a large hole in the top of the reef at 5m. Descending through the hole we entered a grotto studded with bright blue where holes in the cave let the sunlit ocean in.

Swimming through the Grotto, we swam out of one of the holes and along the reef-wall to enter another hole that brought us back into it.

In the cave we found flameshells, lobsters and many different nudibranchs. It was a spectacular dive, so vivid was the blue water in the exits.

As our air ran short we ascended through one of the holes to find the dive-boat right above us. Trying to stay under water as long as possible, we swam towards the waves breaking against the cliff-face until we were down to our last 10 bar, soaking up the beauty of the dive.

Our final day’s diving was at Wing Beach, another shore-dive, which can be dived, again, for only about four months of the year when the weather and sea is calm.

As with Lau Lau, we entered the beach through a jungle path. Wing Beach is even more beautiful, deserted apart from fresh tracks from a turtle that had come to lay eggs the previous night.

THE ONLY WAY TO GET PAST the crashing waves on the reef is to walk to the far end of the beach and carefully wade through the rocks and shallow reef next to the cliff forming the bay. At its edge is a very small area where you can get past the fringing reef.

Inflating our BCs, we fell backwards into the deeper water to put our fins on while floating. The surge created by the waves breaking over the reef to the side of us made this a little difficult, but  we were soon descending, following guide-ropes out onto the reef.

We passed a huge but shy Napoleon wrasse, and reached a narrow cut in the reef, swimming down through it to enter on the wall at 23m.

Heading back towards the beach, we saw lots of healthy corals, interesting rock formations, cuts, crevices and swim-throughs. Thousands of juvenile fish darted about the reef, and schools of snapper swam in formation out in the blue.

The dive was beautiful and relaxing, but we could see how difficult it would become once the weather changed, as we exited the way we had come in through quite a bit of surge.

The fixed guide-rope came in handy as we hauled ourselves out into the shallows.

Our diving done, we waited for low tide on our last full day so that we could wade out to two of the three half-submerged

US Sherman tanks, abandoned during the Battle of the Pacific in 1944 after being damaged by Japanese guns as they drove through the lagoon shallows.

We waded out for 200m across the seagrass, the sea at waist-level. The first tank seen close up was fully intact, despite people have climbed on it, and it was a moving sight with its gun pointing towards land.

The second tank, 100m or so further out and close to the fringing reef, set my imagination spinning as I looked back past it towards land, and thought of how its crew must have felt more than 70 years ago, on 14 June, 1944, during the Battle of the Pacific.

The fixed guide-rope came in handy as we hauled ourselves out into the shallows.

Our diving done, we waited for low tide on our last full day so that we could wade out to two of the three half-submerged

US Sherman tanks, abandoned during the Battle of the Pacific in 1944 after being damaged by Japanese guns as they drove through the lagoon shallows.

We waded out for 200m across the seagrass, the sea at waist-level. The first tank seen close up was fully intact, despite people have climbed on it, and it was a moving sight with its gun pointing towards land.

The second tank, 100m or so further out and close to the fringing reef, set my imagination spinning as I looked back past it towards land, and thought of how its crew must have felt more than 70 years ago, on 14 June, 1944, during the Battle of the Pacific.


GETTING THERE> Lisa flew from Tokyo to Saipan with Delta Airlines – it’s a three-hour flight. There are also direct flights from Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing and via Guam.

DIVING> Axe Murderer Tours, axemurderertours.com

ACCOMMODATION> Garapan the main town has hotels for all budgets. Lisa stayed at an Airbnb cottage on the beach at Oleai, airbnb.com

WHEN TO GO> May-July has the calmest seas, July-November is wet season, peaking in August. Typhoon season is June-September and the dry season means clear blue skies. It’s windy year-round, calmest between May and September. Sea temperatures range from 27°C in February to 29° in July.

MONEY> US dollars

PRICES> Return flights from London to Tokyo from £450.
Two shore-dives cost US $120, two boat-dives $170-195. Return flights from Tokyo $125. Car hire from $170 a week.

VISITOR Information> mymarianas.com


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