YAP & PALAU - March 13-26, 2016
I’m taking about travel to Micronesia and specifically to Yap and Palau, two of our favorite places in the world to explore. We’re on our way back now (I’m starting this on the Guam to Honolulu leg of our flights home) and we had a blast. Our group this year was five strong in Yap (Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Angi & Ron Burkard, and me – Ken Kurtis) and seven strong in Palau (we added Mark Geraghty and Glenn Suhd, and then dropped Glenn off in Yap on our way back).
Overall, it was a great trip and a wonderful two weeks of diving but certainly not without surprises. One of them – and we noticed this both in Yap and Palau – was the amount of fine, white particulate in the water at many (but not all) of the dive sites. I don’t know what to call it other than schmutz (pronounced “sh-MUTTS” for those who are Yiddish-impaired). You’ll definitely notice it manifesting itself as backscatter in many of the pictures that are on the SmugMug page. And since we noticed this both in Yap and Palau, it doesn’t seem like it was just a localized phenomena or something you could attribute to runoff from storms or something like that.
In fact, it may even have something to do with El Nino and this is an aspect of that that we Californians tend not to think about. To us, El Nino represents more rain falling out of the sky. But that water’s got to come from somewhere. And since El Nino conditions start in the Western Pacific, it’s not surprising to realize that the Micronesia area is undergoing a drought. In Yap, it rained a bit our first full day there and they said it was the first rain they’d had for four months. In both Yap & Palau, there are signs posted about conserving water. Basically, El Nino takes their rainwater and transports it to us. Whether or not that specifically accounts for the schmutz I don’t know, but it would make sense to me that there’s some sort of a cause-and-effect going on.
So in both Yap & Palau, visibility wasn’t what we’d normally except. At many sites, it was probably 50-60 feet with the schmutz visible as well. But we definitely had some 100+ sites like at Vertigo in Yap, and in Palau at all four sites we dove at Peleliu, as well as on one of our dives at Blue Corner. By the same token, after that very same Blue Corner dive, we did dives at Dexter’s Wall, Canyons, and Fern’s Wall – all within a mile or so of Blue Corner and pretty much next to one another, and the vis got as low as 10 feet. In fact, I remarked to Angi that it was like doing a dive at Vets Park in Redondo, only warmer.
Speaking of which, water temps were a pretty consistent 83-84 in Yap but a bit cooler in Palau at 82-83. And on one dive at Blue Corner, I registered 80 on my temperature gauge. During the dive, the current brought in little pockets of cooler water and then pockets of warmer water throughout. (And for those who are reading this who don’t dive, a 2-degree change underwater feels like a 20-degree swing on land because water conducts heat from the body much more readily than air.)
So with all of this as prologue, let me beak it down into the Yap and Palau portions of the trip and share with you what we experienced.
A lot of it has to do with Bill Acker and the staff at Manta Ray Bay Resort (aka MRB). Bill is a good ‘ol boy from Texas who joined the Peace Corps. In 1976, he was assigned to Yap. Little did he know at that time that Yap would become his adopted home. 10 years later he founded Yap Divers as the island's first professional dive operation. His nickname is the Manta Man and he was recently inducted into the International Diving Hall of Fame for all of his accomplishments. He basically “invented” scuba tourism in Yap. And while he could rest on his laurels, he still shows up at the resort each day, dives many days with the various guests, and almost every night spends some time on the Mnuw – Manta Ray Bay’s triple-decker 170-foot long Phinisi schooner that serves as restaurant and social hub – telling tales and talking diving. And when Bill and I get together, we simply have a blast no matter what we’re doing.
Their staff is fantastic too. Whether it’s Lee/Theo/Richard greeting you at the airport, Wes/Maxine/Cally/Helen at the front desk, John/Nico/Willy/Gordon/Alex and others in dive area, Maria/Lori/Ian at breakfast, Derek in housekeeping, Detlef/Joce/Erin in the evenings on the Mnuw, or Freddy the Stone Money Brewing Company brewmaster, everyone makes you feel welcome. In fact, one of more impressive things they do as a whole, is that within 24 hours of your arrival, everyone not only knows your name and greets you each time they see you. That goes a long way to making you feel welcome and at home. As Dale Carnegie said, there’s no sound sweeter to a person’s ear than that of their own name.
I love the physical plant of MRB as well. Each room is unique and named after an underwater animal. Normally, we stay in 306, 307, 308, and 309, which I think are the nicest rooms in the resort. In fact, we get those rooms so often that a few years ago Bill had a sign put up proclaiming it the “Ken Kurtis Wing.” He swears it stays up year-round (and some of my spies who have been there on their own have confirmed that).
So imagine my surprise and SHOCK when we arrived and my beloved sign said: "Joe Liburdi Wing." Turns out legendary photo guru and diver Joe Liburdi was there with a group of 20+ and they said, "How come Ken gets a wing and Joe doesn't?" So they made up a second sign to go over mine and were all eagerly awaiting my arrival to see my reaction. All in good fun. (And yes, the "regular" order was restored once Joe & his group left.)
The other thing I love about Yap is that the entire day just seems like such a relaxed pace. On the Aggressor in Palau (and I don't mean this in a bad way, it's just what you have to do) to get in five dives a day we were starting at 7AM each day and diving about every three hours. It can feel a bit rushed, especially if you have a long ride back to the main boat (more on that in the Palau portion of this report). You feel like you have a shorter surface interval just because there's a pace you have to maintain or the day will get away from you.
Not so in Yap.
First of all, for good or bad, we're only doing three dives a day, not five. That makes a huge difference in your timing. So we would start each day with breakfast on the lower deck of the Mnuw (included in the package - I'd usually go down around 6:30AM) and that would leave plenty of to go back to the room to freshen up, prepare camera gear, and get ready for the 8:30AM departure.
Our general M.O. was to do two dives in the morning, come back and take a break for lunch, and then go out and do a single-tank dive as our third dive in the afternoon. So generally it was breakfast, departure at 8:30AM, dive #1 at 9:30, tea & homemade bread during the one-hour surface interval, dive #2 around 11:30, back at the resort by 1PM, take a break for lunch (usually at Ganir, a little restaurant down the road where my nickname is now "Mr. Regular Ramen" because that's what I always get there), leave for dive #3 at 3PM, back no later than 5PM. The day we did the Mandarinfish Dive (which means leaving the dock at 5:30PM), we took the afternoon off and just did the evening dive as #3.
Once the diving is over, the MRB staff takes your gear and washes it, hangs it up in your locker, and you're done for the day (they call it their VIP service). Most people at that point then migrate up to the top/third deck of the Mnuw, which serves as restaurant and bar, a place to swap stories with other divers and Bill, and it's just a pleasant place to hang out as well as a good place to eat.
Much as I love the place (and I've always said that I could find enjoyment diving in a mud puddle), this wasn't our best trip to Yap in terms of water conditions. Much of that was weather-related as the wind was howling when we first got there, which really chopped things up, meaning that many dive sites were not accessible or were rough for the first two days. (The Liburdi group even aborted one of their outside reef dives due to conditions - we had chosen to stay inside and do some muck/macro.) By the end of the week, it had calmed down to the point where the water inside the bay was literally like glass without a ripple to be seen. But generally, conditions weren't ideal.
We also didn't get many mantas. A lot of that has to do with being in the right place at the right time. And the vis affects it too because even though the mantas are pretty big (10-20 foot wingspans), if your vis is only 20-30 feet and the manta is 40 feet away, you won't see him.
The main cleaning station is Stammtisch (there are also stations at M'il Channel and Goofnu Channel) and we had a single manta for about 15 minutes on Sunday. Monday was our best day with three mantas taking turns getting cleaned and then two more mantas zooming by in a mating "train", but the total time with them all was maybe 10 minutes. Wednesday we had a single manta who didn't show up until about 75 minutes into the dive (Stammtisch is very shallow - 15-20 feet depending on the tide - so you can make really long dives there) and sort of kept his distance, only making a couple of passes over the cleaning area. And on Friday . . . we got skunked. That's the first time that's ever happened to me in Yap.
This was all in stark contrast to previous years, where we've had multiple mantas for 90 minutes or more. Granted, I realize it may sound a little jaded to read, "We only had three mantas with us for 10 minutes, and the vis wasn't too good." Wah, wah, wah. But Yap spoils you when it comes to mantas and ESPECIALLY because we heard that on the Friday afternoon dive, they had mantas all over the place (estimated at 14 individual animals coming in and out) and Saturday morning (we were done diving because we flew to Palau that evening) they had 11.
So you never know and there's a lot of luck that plays into this as well as were you looking to the left when the manta passed by on the right? But Yap's more than just mantas. And that's one reason I love going there.
Two of the other signature dives are the Mandarinfish Dive and their shark feeds. The former lets you watch the nightly mating ritual of the little colorful Mandarinfish (we saw plenty of fish this year but no mating) and the latter has a new twist this year.
In the past, the feed has consisted of two buckets of frozen chum attached to a line so that it hangs over the reef. But this year they added a new wrinkle in the form of what they call a "tube." It's a piece of round, hollow PCV, maybe two feet long and eight inches across, inside of which has been jammed frozen-ish fish. There are holes along the sides of the tube so that the fish scent can waft out, as well as the holes allow small fish to dive in nose-first and tear out a piece of food, but they're way too small for the sharks to get at.
What this all does is attract sharks because of the scent but it doesn't send them into a feeding frenzy. We first used a tube on a shark observation dive at Vertigo, one of the sites along the west side of Yap. In the past, the sharks would be hanging out but usually off the wall in the blue because there wasn't any food. But this time, because they can smell the scent of fish (the tube is placed in a bare hollow spot on the reef about 40 feet deep) they just sort of hang out and they do it very close. This gives great photo ops for those with cameras and an excellent observation opportunity for those who would like to just observe sharks in the wild close up. I really liked the idea of the tube. (They also use it as part of the feed now with just one bucket of frozen chum to give them sharks something to eat and then a tube or two to keep them hanging around.)
Yap is also more than Mantas, sharks, and Mandarinfish (although that's a pretty good list). The Lionfish Wall and Gilman Wall in the south are simply spectacular, especially up in the shallows with millions of Anthias of all colors pulsing with the water, we had lovely dives at Magic Kingdom and Cabbage Patch, and despite the weather issues early in the week, things cleared up by week's end. You can get a good idea of what we saw by looking at the slide show on SmugMug (the link's at the top of this page).
I would highly recommend you put Yap on your list if you haven't been there yet and to that end, Bill Acker and I are working up a special package for 2017 that will involve 10 days in Yap to include plenty of diving, island and village tours, manta ID classes, and more. It'll be a really great way to immerse yourself in all the things that make Yap so special. Stay tuned for details.
On to Palau . . .
One thing I always like to do is go visit the jail in town and "The Prisoner's Gift Store," because that's where you find the best storyboards, which are a special/traditional souvenir from Palau as they are elaborately carved and tell some sort of a folk tale. I was a bit disappointed this year because, while the gift shop walls are covered with them, they still didn't seem to have as many as they did last year and it seems their prices have risen noticeably. Last year, you could find medium-sized storyboards for under $100 (I got one for $75 - price-haggling is allowed) but this year it seemed the cheapest ones started around $150 or so.
Our home for the week was to be the 106-foot long Palau Aggressor II (PA2), a vessel we've used many times before. As always with Aggressors, it's a top-notch boat with a top-notch crew, and they've got all of this down so the trip runs like a well-tuned regulator breathes: smoothly and easily. And it was great to see (and dive with) old friend Hector Manglicmot as well as Captain Scott Arni (who I knew from a previous non-Palau trip), and other crew members.
One thing that's special for the PA2 is that they've got a 35-foot high-speed skiff (the PA2.5) on a hydraulic lift that's big enough accommodate all the divers and divemasters for each dive. It’s at dive deck level so you go from the back of the PA2 to the inside of the PA2.5.
But having the skiff has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the skiff is highly maneuverable and runs at probably 30mph, much faster than the mothership can go. So the PA2 can sit at a mooring in a protected, calm area and then the PA2.5 can make short runs to the nearby dive sites.
The downside of all of this is that it's generally takes 15-20 minutes to run back and forth and while it's not a big deal, that's 30-40 minutes each dive. With 4-5 dives each day, that means you spend 2-3 hours each day on the skiff traveling back and forth. It certainly doesn't hurt your surface interval because your excess nitrogen will outgas on the skiff run the same as it would on the big boat. But what it does affect is the time you have to do things between dives like re-rig cameras, adjust dive gear (which all lives on the skiff), or just take a nap.
Not a huge issue but just something of which to be aware. Aggressor's not the only liveaboard in Palau that does this, nor is Palau the only destination is the world that does this. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of liveaboards around the world nowadays use some sort of skiff or zodiac to do dives. The smaller boats are easier to maneuver than the big boats, there's likely a fuel savings, and there's a comfort improvement between dives since you don't have to keep the big boat in bouncy seas by a dive site but can sit in calm waters. Everything in life is a tradeoff.
One great thing they do on the PA2.5 post-dive is handing out small towels but also (and more importantly) bottles of water. Everyone has a 10-ounce water bottle with their dive number (1-18) on it which is kept in a cooler up front. Everyone’s handed their bottle after the dive and the bottles are refilled between dives. It's a really great way to help keep people hydrated in the tropical environment.
Another nice post-dive touch was that when we got back to the main boat, there was always a crew person circulating the dive deck with a tray of assorted drinks: water, sodas, lemonade, and such during day dives, and fresh hot chocolate after night dives. Nice touch. Also, Aggressor has always been known for having post-dive warm deck towels and now many of the boats are numbering the towels so each person is assigned a specific deck towel that corresponds to your skiff tank slot number. This means you avoid someone grabbing a deck towel for their camera plus a towel for themselves and if you're the last one to want a towel, there are none left. Good idea.
So the general schedule for a 5-dive day on the PA2 is breakfast starting at 6AM, dive #1 at 7AM, back for a snack, dive #2 at 10AM, back for lunch around 12:15, dive #3 at 1:30PM, afternoon snack, dive #4 at 4:30PM, dinner at 6PM, dive #5 (night dive) at 7:30PM. It's a busy but productive day.
We started our Palau diving with two wrecks I always love to dive (and they're good "checkout" sites as well), the Helmet Wreck and the Iro Maru. The Iro is the bigger of the two (over 500 feet long) and last year I missed one of the highlights so I made a mental note not to do the same this year. That would be the Tomato Clowns in the bulb anemones that sit between two clams high up (only about 35' deep) on one of the forward masts of the Iro (you start the dive at stern) so we made a beeline for that and were not disappointed.
Photographically, it offers some great opportunities because you can shoot upwards slightly and get a nice blue water background (visibility - for the Iro - was fairly good at 40-50 feet), as well as you've got colorful fish, anemones, and the clams. On top of that, the Iro’s an interesting wreck to explore and it's got some holds that can be safely examined and many fish and coral now call it home. Hard to believe it's been underwater for over 70 years but is still is relatively good shape.
Our next stop that first day was to be Ulong Channel, which is a dive I love but also a dive I approached with a little trepidation. Last year, Ulong was the spot we pulled into and counted literally 50 day boats all sitting around the mouth of the channel. This year, not that bad at all. In fact, while we certainly saw other boats, overall it didn't seem as crowded to me this year as I thought it was last year (when we also got run over by another group at German Channel). Some of that is due to the Captain Scott scheduling more popular sites (Blue Corner, Ulong) at the beginning or end of the day when day boats aren't there, and some of it may be due to fewer tourist in Palau. Most of the influx has come from Chinese tourists but the economy in China has been on the decline in the last year so that may be playing out as well. And, as with last year, I didn't think any of the sites, even when crowded, showed significant reef/coral damage from divers. So that's good.
In the Ulong area is a site called Sandy Paradise. It certainly doesn't look like much. It's a little sand spit with a light marker. In fact, I think they started diving it as a where-can-we-go-when-Ulong-Channel-is-crowded choice. But my oh my, what a dive!!!! Perhaps one of my favorites of the trip. (It was good last year too.)
What I loved most about this dive was not only that it was fish-y, but that the fish would let you get right in the middle of their huge schools and they’d sort of "adopt" you (or at least tolerate you) as one of their own. There was a large collection of Crescent-Tail Bigeyes that I hung with for a long time as they engulfed me, plus a big school of Chevron Barracuda. And I got an enormous kick out of the number of Titan Triggerfish - usually a very aggressive fish - that were there and let me come very close to where they were hanging out, presumably guarding a nest or nest-to-be. Wonderful dive.
On Wednesday we made it over to Peleliu, site of a major World War 2 battle and also home to the Peleliu Express, where we encountered the strongest currents on the trip. Not quite rip-your-mask-off stuff, but definitely stronger than you could kick against (thank goodness for reef hooks). And it's quite humbling as you are struggling to see fish - especially the sharks - blithely swim by you INTO the current and look at you almost as if to say, "Why are you struggling so hard, human?"
Peleliu also has two fabulous sites in Barracks Point or and Orange Beach Wall, both of which have giant clams and hundreds and hundreds of beautiful soft corals. They also seem to have a lot of purple soft corals, more than I can recall seeing at any other sites, so whenever I dive these spots, "purple" is always at the forefront of my mind.
Thursday marked our first dive at Blue Corner, probably Palau’s most famous dive spot. It sits at the confluence of three prevailing currents and there's almost always something going on in terms of fish activity. But we do have a bit of very sad news to report.
Over the years, there have always been resident male Napoleon Wrasses inhabiting the corner. Originally it was Sweetie and Stitch. They were conditioned (I think "trained" is too strong a term) by the PA2 crew, and specifically by Hector, to eat hard-boiled eggs. They’d treat it like a crab and would inhale it, chew it up, swallow the meat, and spit out the shells.
Sweetie disappeared a few years ago and Stitch was gone soon after. No one was sure why but the suspicion was that they were illegally hunted and speared. After Stitch disappeared, Hector found another large Napoleon they named Hecky, who also loved doing the egg thing and loved hanging out with Hector (whether he had an egg or not). We met Hecky last year and he was very interactive with divers.
So the sad news is that it appears Hecky has also been illegally hunted and speared. Hector doesn't have proof, but the strong suspicion is that someone paid a local diver a lot of money ($1,000 or so) to go down and kill Hecky. And even though the area is supposed to be protected, there's no real enforcement so it's an honor system and when there is no honor, there is trouble. Male Napoleons are often hunted for their lips, like sharks are hunted for their fins, and Hector feels that's what happened here. He also says he will not train another Napoleon because he doesn't want him to suffer the same fate.
The apparent demise of Hecky notwithstanding, we made three dives at Blue Corner over two days. The first dive, if you'd never dove Blue Corner before, was great because Blue Corner has so much going on that even a bad Blue Corner dive is still pretty amazing. On the second dive, we started at Blue Hole - perhaps 100 yards away - and then made our way down to Blue Corner where we again hooked in and watched the parade of life pass us by.
By the way, if you're unclear as to what I mean by "hooked in" and "reef hooks," these are sturdy metal hooks with a 5-foot or so line attached that's secured to your BC. Your find a small crack or lip in the reef (dead coral) and plant the hook. You then slowly let the line play out and put a little air in your BC so you float upwards. Now the current wafts over you but the line holds you securely in place. Also for those who are concerned that you're damaging the reef, the places that we hook in have a strong prevailing current which means coral larvae can't settle there so what you're generally hooking in to is a fairly barren rockface. But it's a very good way to secure yourself without harming the environment so that you can observe the natural order of all of the fish that inhabit the place into which you're hooked.
Our hooks served us well Friday morning for our 7AM dive at Blue Corner. The current was a bit stronger, there were more fish, and it was a HAPPENING place!!!
We started by going down the mooring line and letting the current push us northward to the 60-foot plateau and the hook-in area. Along the way, we encountered a school or perhaps . . . I don't know . . . 5,000??? . . . Black Snappers. Behind them was another huge school (another 5,000 or so???) Bigeye Jacks. As we hooked in, we noticed tens of thousands of Red-Toothed Triggerfish all around us, flitting about to and fro and trying to snatch little chucks of food or whatever that was flying by in the current. While all this was happening, right in front of us, cruising right to left going INTO the current, were dozens of sharks out for their morning constitutional. And I haven't even gotten to the school of Sennet/Bigeye Barracuda behind us, nor the school of Chevron Barracuda that hung a little bit downcurrent, and this also doesn't take into account the thousands and thousands of wrasses, and blennies, and snappers, and what-have-you that hung close to the reef and darted all around.
Now THIS is what Blue Corner dive is all about. Truly magical. And also likely indicative of how healthy a marine environment can get when you try to protect it (despite what happened to Hecky) as Palau has done. As the president of Palau has said on many occasions, a live fish is worth a thousand times more in tourism dollars than a dead one is.
Interestingly, we had some of the worst vis on the trip for the three dives that followed our spectacular Blue Corner dive. And we were only diving maybe half a mile away. By the end of the final dive of the day at Fern's Wall, the vis in the upper 20 feet of the water column was down to maybe 10 feet. Now I'll be the first to admit that 10 feet in warm water is much more enjoyable than 10 feet of vis in cold water, but even so, you're thinking, "I'm in Palau and this shouldn‘t be happening."
Our final day was Saturday and - because we fly out just after midnight that night - we don't dive but only do the Jellyfish Lake snorkel. I've always raved about that dive and have described as like swimming in living Jell-O. Not so much this year.
One thing that's greatly improved is that they built new wooden docks. They even built a small platform about a foot underwater to make it that much easier to get in and get out. And when you realize (when the trip is over) that the permit fee for Koror & Jellyfish Lake is $100/diver, it's nice to see that the money is being used for something useful. (If you passed on Jellyfish Lake, the Koror diving permit would be $50.)
One good thing about the Aggressor sked is that they try to arrive before the day boats so we can have the place to ourselves. But I think we got there too early this year (around 7:15AM). The jellies seek out the sun and sunrise was at 6AM. Realize that Jellyfish Lake is surrounded by tall trees so that means the sun really isn’t hitting the lake until somewhere around 7AM. The jellies spend the night at the bottom part of the lake in toxic hydrogen sulfide-infused water and start to ascend to the upper layers (more oxygenated water) when it gets light. So if you come too early, there aren't many jellies.
In looking back at past years, we arrived at 8AM last year and 9AM years before. I just think we might have been too early this year. There were some jellies, but not many. In fact, I was probably almost halfway across the lake (it's about 1500 feet long and 500 feet wide) before I saw my first jelly. And I never encountered the cloud of jellies like I normally do, although a few in our group said if you went all the way to the back wall (the first area to get sun - I didn‘t go that far) they were there, although perhaps (based on the pix I saw) not in the density that I was expecting.
Still it's a fascinating dive and a great chance to really observe these marvelous animals. It's also interesting to remember when observing them that they don't have a centralized brain and they don't have a traditional nervous system but they're all pulsing around and moving like they're on a mission so what's driving that?
And the thing I was getting into on this trip (which will explain why some of my jelly pix make it look like they’re flying through the air) was diving down a few feet under the jellies and shooting straight up. So yes, those ARE clouds and sky you will see "behind" them.
After Jellyfish Lake, the PA2.5 takes you on a high-speed tour of the Rock Islands and then back to the main dock at Koror where we hook back up with the big boat, which then becomes the world's largest clothesline as everyone starts hanging out gear. Luckily it dries quickly because you then need the afternoon to pack up, enjoy the farewell cocktail party, and then say your goodbyes, because at 10PM we were off to the airport for the long slog home.
Yap & Palau might be remote and take a while to get to, but they both offer unique and interesting diving with world-class operations and they are both places that we will look forward to visiting again. And maybe next time, you'll be able to join us.