YAP TRIP REPORT - June 24-30, 2007

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

I have to start this off by revealing my prejudice: I love going to Yap, I love staying at Manta Ray Bay Hotel, I love diving with Yap Divers. I really like the staff and I feel a kinship with Bill Acker, who's the owner of the place and one of those wonderful characters that our sport seems to produce. I know this is going to read like I'm on their payroll but I assure you I'm not.

This was our fourth trip to Yap (and Manta Ray Bay) and it ended up being our best ever for a whole host of reasons which I'll detail as this narrative unfolds. And MRB has undergone some significant changes. Or, as I said to Bill, nothing like a typhoon to encourage you to remodel.

We were last at MRB in March of 2004. A month later, the island-state was devastated by Typhoon Sudal, which hung over the island for two full days, damaging or destroying 98% of the buildings in Yap and truly wrecking havoc, including throwing MRB's huge sailing vessel/restaurant, the Mnuw, up on the shoreline. Although you can still see evidence of the devastation, MRB has not only recovered nicely but Bill basically took the typhoon as an opportunity for a full rebuild and expansion of Manta Ray Bay Hotel. I have no idea what the whole thing cost but multiple millions would be my guess. However, the place hasnít become so fancy that it's lost it's Yapese flavor.

Essentially, they took the "old" hotel and added on it to. There's now a spacious and comfortable lobby with a view overlooking their swimming pool (with the images of two manta rays laid into the tile bottom). They purchased the land next to them, allowing for the expansion of the dive shop area. That now includes individual gear lockers for each diver, wash bins, six photo tables with lockable storage so you don't have to schlep your camera back to your room every day (there's room to add a few more - probably a good idea for when the place is full), and three small gazebos that serve as great briefing areas or just a place to sit and relax either before going out or once you come back.

Above the new dive shop are six brand new second-floor rooms which connect to the rest of the hotel. If youíre going with a group and want to feel like you've got a little separation from other guests, these would be a good choice. I put our folks into what I still think are the best two Ocean View rooms in the hotel - 307 & 308. These two, along with 306 and 309, were originally remodeled in early 2004, then served as the restaurant in the aftermath of Sudal, and now have been converted back to the loveliest hotel rooms youíll find at any dive resort in the world. Each of the rooms is huge, has ornate beds (306 & 308 have a single king-size bed - 307 & 309 each have two Queens), colorful fish-themed bedspreads (as do all the rooms), more storage space than you could possibly need, and very effective air-conditioning.

The Mnuw has also been refloated and remodeled following the typhoon and now sits just off the edge of the pool. Breakfast and lunch are served on the second/middle deck and dinner is served on the top deck (which is also where the main bar is located). So it's really a great place to hang out at the end of the day and have a few drinks (including beer they brew on-site in their new microbrewery). And the food, although a little on the pricey end, is really good. I was getting hooked on their beef spring rolls as a nightly appetizer and would follow that up with a pizza or one of the main dishes (which change each night).

The icing on the cake is Bill's Big Screen. They taken a huge (10' x 16') piece of plywood, painted it white, and have hung it from the mainmast of the Mnuw to use as a big screen. They've got a digital projector that's set up to throw to the screen. So they'll show slide shows from Mike Veitch (their resident photo pro), slides from guests who have a laptop with them, movies, and even the occasional live TV event like the Super Bowl or the World Cup.

In short, Manta Ray Bay is simply one of the most complete and nicest dive resorts anywhere that I've been in the world (and I've been to a lot of places). It's reasonably priced, especially for what you get, and the staff will do whatever they can to ensure that you have a fabulous time. Their goal is to take you to the best dive sites available that given day, not to adhere to some set schedule. They're happy to dive for as long as you have bottom time &/or air (as log as the tides don't cause a problem) and we did some dives that were in excess of 90 minutes. And that kind of an attitude (and the constant betel nut chewing probably helps too) means you'll have a very low-hassle dive vacation. And isn't that what's it's all about?

Our visit was exactly that. Even though I hadn't been there for three years, it was really nice to have staff members come up and greet me by name. And they quickly learned the names of the others in the group too.

We had John as our dive guide the whole week which was just dandy. We dove with John before (as well as Nico) and always had a great time. John's also got a great set of eyes for spotting small and unusual creatures on the reef. In fact, I told him he was turning my highly sophisticated Nikon D200 camera system into a point-and-shoot camera. He'd point, and I'd shoot.

The diving at MRB is mainly done out of fast skiffs with a max load of 10 divers. (There's also a bigger boat that can take up to 20 for larger groups.) We generally had only 6 on our skiff and one day (after our group had left) it was just John & me. Most of the time it's a 2-tank morning dive, with the boats leaving as early as 7AM or as late as 9AM, with the departure time based on the expected tides and current flow at the anticipated dive sites. Trips in the boats are as little as 5 minutes (for the macro sites) or as much as 30 minutes. One day, at an extreme low tide, it took us almost an hour to get back because we had to run at idle speed through a large expanse of water that, with the low tide, was only about two feet deep. But thatís unusual.

The diving in Yap varies but itĎs all good. The close-in macro areas are going to have lower visibility (they're essentially muck dives), generally ranging from 10-30 feet. The outer reefs are almost always going to have 60-100 foot vis. The manta dives are variable as the outgoing tide will decrease the vis and the incoming tide may clean things up a bit. Or not. You sort of never know until you get there. But, the journey's worth it.

You can basically divide Yap dives in to the types mentioned above. Since Yap's known for Mantas, that's what people generally tend to want to go for and usually your best shot is going to be the first dive of the day. As the morning wears on, the mantas tend to scatter. The Manta dive is one where you settle in and wait. If no mantas show up, it can get rather boring. But . . . you never know.

Simply put, we had some of the most fantastic manta dives I've had in Yap. Because I stayed a full week (two days longer than our group), I ended up doing four manta dives and had 1-4 mantas in view on every dive almost the entire time we were in place around the cleaning station. Iíd estimate their wingtip-to-wingtip size as 10-16 feet. We'd see mantas on top of the cleaning station above us, mantas to the side of the cleaning station eye-level with us, mantas behind us in the channel awaiting their turn to come in, mantas ahead of us at a secondary cleaning station, and mantas swooping in from nowhere. (Did I mention we had REALLY good manta encounters?)

On the day we had only a single manta, she stayed with us for well over an hour. During that time, the ray would come close and take a look at us, drift off a little bit, come back in, go forward, drift backwards, and one time even came straight at me and essentially gave me a Manta Ray Macro Dive - buzzing about 2 inches over the top of my face as I bent backwards to avoid contact with the ray. It's an interesting experience to watch a manta's belly pass by your eyes in slow motion as you gaze upwards and take in every little detail.

And on the day we had four mantas with us, it was amazing watching them interact with each other, trade positions, come take a look at us, drift off a bit, and then come back to repeat the process. All in all, we probably spent close to four hours or more in the water watching mantas. Definitely the most successful manta encounters I've had in Yap.

But Mantas aren't the only thing Yap has to offer. They've also got Mandarinfish. Every night at a predictable time. And . . . they're mating.

The dive site is Rainbow Reef on O'Keefe Island, about a 5-minute run from MRB. You go out just before sunset and drop in on a very shallow reef (it almost breaks the surface and you never need to go deeper than 20 feet) and start looking through the coral branches. Mandarinfish are small (1-2Ĺ inches long) and colorful (orange/green/blue). Youíre hoping to get a glimpse of either a male (bigger ones) or a female (smaller ones). Keep your light on them and eventually two of them will come together, dance around a little bit, and then go pec-to-pec as they slowly rise up off the reef, and finish in a small milky burst of sperm and eggs. Then they settle back in to the reef to start the process again, usually with another Mandarinfish. (Fidelity is not their strong suit.) In fact, we had one guy who was the Lothario of Mandarinfish. He must have mated with a dozen females during the time we were watching him. After a while, you begin to feel a bit like a voyeur. But it's an amazing spectacle to see.

And, as quickly as it began, it ends. The whole process takes 60-90 minutes. As darkness really settles in on the reef, you realize the Mandarinfish have gone back into hiding, and you're left with the memory of their frenzy in your head.

Yap also has some great reef dives. It's not all just Mantas and Mandarins. We dove one of the eastern reefs near Goofnuw Channel (I'd been in the area before) and the one thing you notice is that there are massive coral formations which are very impressive, but there's not a lot of fish life. It's still a good dive, but not a great one. But it's a nice (and sensible) choice following a Manta dive during the time of the season they frequent Goofnuw.

But a better choice is to go to the southern reefs (although hard to do following a Manta dive because itĎs a very long run). These sites are much more wall-like and rival anything in Palau. The fish life is much more plentiful and I think the southern reefs are generally healthier. You see a greater variety of fish (as well as more of them) and you notice species - in addition to Anthias in profusion - who are absent on the other reefs.

One southern spot is Yap Caverns. Itís a nice dive and - depending on the current - you either drift left and finish up on Lionfish Wall or drift right and finish up on Gillman Wall. Both provide a really great finish.

I think my favorite this time was Magic Kingdom. John described it as "A garden of table corals" and that's a very apt description. There are hundreds of table corals, one after the other, almost stacked on top of one another. Apparently a typhoon hit it pretty hard ten years ago but the reef is recovering, so most of the corals you see are fairly young. That means they're not huge - I'd estimate they average 2-3 feet across - but they're everywhere. And that means you also get a lot of the little fish that live in these corals, which attracts the bigger fish that eat the little guys, which makes for a healthy ecosystem. If you're going to Yap, you really must do at least one or two dives in the south.

There's also an option for a shark feed that we found very exciting. They do it at a site called Vertigo which is a fairly sheer wall outside of M'il Channel. They way they do it is to place the divers in a loose line along the wall. Then they thread a line through a small pulley that's mounted on a dead spot in the coral. The send that line up to the boat overhead and the bait is attached. The line is then pulled back down so that it's level with the divers (and only about 10-15 feet away) and let the frenzy begin.

The bait is a combination of fish heads and chunks and blood and good sharky stuff, that's been frozen overnight into a ball around a piece of rebar so it won't break apart at first bite. And there's a second bait standing by so that as the first bait is almost finished, they send the line up, attach the second bait, and off we go again.

Although they've gotten skunked, the sharks seem to know what's going on because there were five of them circling off the wall waiting for us when we went down the mooring line to get in place. Once the feed started, there were 15-20 sharks participating. We had mostly Blacktips and Grey Reefs, but also two Silkies, a small Silvertip, and even a Hammerhead (but only three of the people saw that). But aside from the visual spectacle, if you take pictures, you'll have some great opportunities at shark shots because they come pretty close to you.

And if all of this werenít enough, they've got some great macro/muck diving. The great thing about this is that it's fairly close to MRB and it's well protected so that if it's rough on the outside reefs, this offers a great option. We ended up doing three of these dives and each was found creatures we hadn't seen on previous dives. On one dive alone, I shot 300 frames including 35 different/unusual species. From my log: "Started out with shy Ringed Pipefish. Then had a pair of Banded Shrimpgobies (yellow) working with a shrimp cleaning a burrow. Next came a Network Pipefish (??) followed by a juvy Peacock Razorfish, numerous cleaner shrimp, a juvy Emperor Angel, juvy Bicolor Angel, two versions of nudi cuties, Neon Pygmygoby, a Lionfish, Steinitz' Shrimpgoby (and shrimp), a Whip Goby, a juvy Yellowtail Tubelip, Pajama Cardinalfish, and Staghorn Damsel, to name most of them. Whew!!! Nice 99 minutes underwater."

So with all of this going for it - Mantas, Mandarinfish, macro, man-eaters (well, sharks, but I'm going with an "M" theme here), and mighty reefs - Yap should be on your "must-dive" list. For a lot of people, a problem has been the perception that Yapís hard to get to. But it's not all that bad, especially if you're already going to Palau and want to do Yap as an add-on. (You can also do it after Truk or other similar close-by locations.) Granted, it's an awful flight sked because you leave Palau at 12:30AM, fly for an hour, lose an hour to time zone changes, and arrive in Yap at 2:30AM. But the MRB staff will be at the airport to greet you and grab your bags and get you to the hotel, where your room will be ready so you can get some rest in preparation for the diving.

You can pretty much schedule whatever dives you want but here's what I'd recommend if you're not going to stay a full week. You should get a pretty good shot at everything Yap has to offer even in this limited time frame (maybe they'll call it "The Ken Kurtis Special"):

Day 1 - Arrive early AM, sleep in, take the early afternoon to set up, Macro Dive at 3:30, Mandarinfish Dive at 5:30.
Day 2 - Manta Dive, Reef Dive, lunch, relax in the afternoon.
Day 3 - Manta Dive, Reef Dive, lunch, afternoon dive (M'il or Goofnuw, depending on which you didnít do in the morning)
Day 4 - Southern reef 1, Southern reef 2, lunch (maybe on the boat - set it up ahead of time), shark dive.
Day 5 - Non-diving day. Let gear dry, walk around Yap to see Stone Money, island tour, kayak tour, etc. Leave for the airport around midnight to catch your flight home, leaving Yap at 3:15AM and arriving in L.A. (through Guam and Honolulu) at 5:00AM the same day, because you gain a day back when you cross the International Dateline. If you somewhere other than Los Angeles, thereís still time to connect and make it home on Sunday.

Yap's got a lot to offer. It just takes a little effort to get there. But, especially if you're an experienced diver, finding those off-the-beaten-path places to dive is part of the hunt, isnít it? Give Yap some thought and try to add them to your dive list. We'll definitely go back again and hope to see you there.

PALAU TRIP REPORT (in case you missed it)

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