A Tokyo girl turns a childhood dream into a way of life amid the warm, clear waters of Saipan.
Mayuki Kebukawa was born and raised in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward (Adachi-ku), but for the past 10 years her home has been in the Northern Marianas. The journey that led her to the island of Saipan started when in high school with a trip to her grandmother’s house where she caught the tail end of a television show about scuba diving.
“The photos and video of fish and warm water called out to me. I decided then and there diving was what I wanted to do. Not just diving, but taking people diving.”
After high school, Mayuki enrolled in a two-year program at the Sports Education Academy in Tokyo to study marine sports. The first year she learned the finer points of yachting, kayaking, surfing, jet skiing and windsurfing. The second year she finally was able to don her BC (buoyancy compensator) and submerge into the murky waters near Kanagawa.
Making the trip to the ocean wasn’t easy. Mayuki and her friends would drive overnight and then catch a few hours sleep in their car or crash at a friend’s place before making the early morning dives.
“I hated it. The water was cold and dirty, my wetsuit was tight and itchy and the visibility was no good,” she said.
Most of the students had nothing to which to compare their first few dives, but Mayuki had already logged time in the tropical waters of Saipan and Okinawa. In fact, she made a trip back to Saipan for some fun diving when she stumbled across what seemed like a golden opportunity.
“I was on vacation in Saipan about halfway through my second year with the academy doing some diving,” she said. “After our morning dive, the shop owner said I handled myself well in the water. I told him I was going to school to be a dive master, and he said, if I needed a job, to look him up after graduation.”
Mayuki did just that. She earned her instructor’s license in Hawaii and returned home to Japan to wait for her assignment to become official. Saipan would become her new home, but first she was needed on the island of Rota she was told.
Her mom was worried about her moving overseas, but her grandmother encouraged her, saying, “Go ahead. Do what you really want.”
What she wanted was warm, clear water and simple living. Rota, a small island about 117 km. south of Saipan, seemed like the epitome of island life. When Mayuki first arrived in 1997, she said there wasn’t much there; no nightclubs and no traffic. In fact, most people waved at you when you drove by, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. But since she was never a fan of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, she made the adjustment easily.
Besides, she was there to dive—and dive she did. Mayuki logged two to three dives a day and spent most of her off-time resting, since 15 degrees north of the equator will take its toll on even the healthiest of people. She eventually became chief instructor and handled most of the daily operations, taking people out to popular dive spots such as Fireworks, Pona Point and her favorite Rota dive, the Harnom Drop-off.
“It’s a dynamic, advanced dive,” she says, “It is a deep drift dive with lots of big fish such as napoleons, barracudas and skipjacks.”
After six years in Rota, she was ready for a change of scenery and a new place to explore, so she headed to Saipan. She spent the next three years with a land-based trekking operator until she felt ready to use her acquired knowledge to open Heart of Gold Divers in 2006.
The diving on Saipan can be spectacular and it’s what keeps her there. The island has a nice variety of dive spots that can be good for all levels depending on conditions. The best-known spot, The Grotto, is located on the northern end of the island and was voted the No. 2 cavern diving spot in the world by Skin Diver Magazine.
After descending 103 stone steps, you reach a large rock which is the jumping off point into The Grotto. Once below, the sun illuminates three distinct holes that lead out into the open ocean. The iridescent shades of tranquil blue are mesmerizing.
Early morning dives give you the best chance to see turtles and sharks but, if you’re not a morning person, there is still a wide variety of fish to see against some amazing limestone formations. It can, however, get busy during the day.
Some of Mayuki’s favorite dive spots on Saipan are Wing Beach, Naftan, Dimple, Ice Cream, Shipwreck, Banzai and Spotlight to name a few. With more than 5,000 logged dives, she’s explored nearly every nook and cranny in Saipan and Rota but finds the most enjoyment sharing her underwater world with her customers.
She’s in no hurry to leave Saipan, but if this transplanted Tokyo girl’s eye starts wandering again, there’s no telling in what deep water she’ll be diving next.
Heart of Gold Divers