YAP - July, 2008
(Click here to see the pictures from
Thereís no question I love diving. Thereís
no question I am happy to wax poetic about it. And thereís no question
that thatís what Iím about to do as weíve just returned from a
magical week exploring the underwater sights offered up by the island of
Yap. We had some dives that can best be described as incredible and
unique. I am by no means a religious person but I am now convinced that if
there is a heaven, itís not up above us in the clouds but lies 37 feet
below the waters of Goofnuw Channel in the guise of a Manta cleaning
station. More on that a bit later,
Thereís no question that getting to Yap involves some effort. But
personally, I donít mind it as you start off from LAX at 9:30 in the
morning, stop in Honolulu and then Guam, change planes one more time and
touch down in Yap around 9PM local time. Stay up most of the flight and
youíll be exhausted upon arrival which means youíll have no trouble
(despite the 7-hour time zone change) falling asleep. If youíre like me,
one good nightís sleep allows you to reset your body clock and youíre
good to go.
We stayed, as usual, at Manta Ray Bay Resort (MRB). Once again, Iíll
tell you that it is hands-down the nicest dive resort youíll ever stay
in. We love rooms 306, 307, and 308 because of the view they command and
the fact that theyíre at the end of the hallway, so theyíre a little
more private and - once again - Bill Acker and his staff were able to
accommodate our request.
The physical place is simply, IMHO, magnificent. The rooms are gorgeous
and well-appointed, the grounds immaculate, the dive center well laid-out
with great camera stations, ample gear storage, and the most beautiful
rinse tanks (tile-lined AND lighted) that youíre ever going to see.
Theyíve got a fleet of seven boats that are fast and efficient. Nothing
fancy but thereís plenty of room, thereís shade, itís easy to
re-board via the amidships ladder (you generally do a back- or front-roll
to get off), and theyíve got tea, water, and fresh-made banana bread for
you between dives.
One of the joys of going to Yap and specifically to Manta Ray Bay is the
attitude of the entire staff. The Yapese people in general are a very
friendly and accommodating people and the whole island has a very
unpretentious feel to it. The staff at MRB takes that even a step further
and will do whatever they can to accommodate your needs. And theyíll do
it with a smile on their face.
Although the dives are generally an hour, thereís no set limit. We had
John Pekailug and Gordon Keiji as our dive guides for the entire week.
Theyíre two of my favorites at MRB (but the entire staff is really good)
and they would frequently say, ďYour bottom time is our time. We can
stay as long as you like.Ē In fact on the shallow macro dives and the
Mandarinfish dive, 90 minutes was not an uncommon bottom time.
The general dive package consists of your room (double-occupancy but they
might be a bit more flexible with singles during off-peak times),
breakfast daily on the Mnuw, their docked Indonesian sailing vessel
that doubles as restaurant/bar/social area, and two dives daily. You can
book a regular third dive for $40, the Mandarinfish dive for $58, and/or
the Shark feed for $85. Our group generally did three dives each day.
On my gauge (which may read a degree or two high) the water was a toasty
85-87ļ. Visibility ranged anywhere from 50-150í on the outer reefs,
30-60í (with particulate in the water) on the Manta dives, and 10-30í
on the muck/macro dives. Currents ranged from non-existent to
mild-to-moderate to one dive where it was like being in a washing machine.
This was my fifth trip to Yap. One of the problems Yap has (and Iíve
been guilty of this too) is that itís perceived as a place where you
only spend a few days on your way to or from some other place where youíll
spend a full week. So a lot of people tack on a stay in Yap to a full week
in either Palau or Truk. And while I wonít go so far as to say ďThatís
a mistakeĒ (youíve only got so many vacation days), I will say that
you can easily short-change yourself by not staying a full week in Yap.
Bill Acker has done a fantastic job of marketing Yap as a place where you
can go and regularly get close encounters with Giant Pacific Manta Rays.
In fact, the name of his resort belies that. But Yap is now a victim of itís
marketing because to a lot of people, thatís all Yap has to offer. Theyíre
In the course of our week, we chose to ďonlyĒ do four Manta dives
because there are other great things to see too. We were able to spend
time on the southern reefs (Lionfish Wall, Gilman Wall, and Magic Kingdom
are outstanding), we explored the macro sites (Slow & Easy, and then
Easy & Slow when we did it backwards - we didnít get to Macro or 1
to 2), we watched the dusk mating rituals of the Mandarinfish, we explored
other outer reefs, and we even had a shark feed that was simply out of
So the point is that Yapís got a lot more to offer than just Mantas (not
that they arenít spectacular). And itís really worthwhile spending a
full week in Yap to really get a feel for the entirety of what Yap has to
offer. This was the second year weíve done Yap as a full week and itís
a pattern weíll try to do again in the future.
Travel times to the dive sites can vary greatly depending on a number of
factors. If they can go outside the fringing reef, itís 30 minutes or so
up to the Manta spots, which are about 10 miles away. If itís too rough
to go outside, you stay inside which can mean a 30 minute run at high tide
or an hour run at low tide because they have to go at idle speed through
shallow areas. But itís a pleasant ride and the crew is happy to laugh
and joke with you all the way. We frequently had as good a time on the
ride out and back as we did on the dives.
Speaking of which . . .
I think some of the most spectacular reefs are in the southern area. We
started at Yap Caverns, which is a series of swim-throughs and an easy
place to start. You finish that dive and make a choice (based on the
current) of turning left and visiting Lionfish Wall or turning right and
visiting Gillman Wall. These two are both spectacular dives.
We dove Lionfish this time and itís an almost vertical wall, covered
with a profusion of various flower corals. Itís also one of the few
places in Yap where you see soft corals similar to what youíd see in
Palau. In fact, the southern walls remind me very much of many Palauan
dive sites. We also found numerous anemones with Clownfish (usually
Tomatoes and Pinks) and we even ran into a Hawksbill Turtle on this dive.
I also happen to really like the macro dive sites. They remind me very
much of the muck dives that you would find in places like the Lembeh
Straits in Indonesia (where Reef Seekers will be at the end of August).
Thereís no telling what youíre going to find. At Slow & Easy,
thereís a resident Mantis Shrimp who will perch at the top of his hole
to see whoís diving. We can also find Lionfish here too, as well as a
profusion of Shrimp Gobies and (blind) Bulldozer Shrimp. Plus youíre
likely to run into all kinds of Damselfish hiding in the branching corals,
nudibranchs of every color and hue, and thereís even a spot at the end
of the dive that houses 10,000 (or so it seems) Cardinalifish of various
species, all hovering just above the coral ready to duck in to safety if a
threat should appear. In fact, it was fascinating to watch a couple of
wrasses work the edge of the school until they were able to successfully
strike and grab a snack.
The Mandarinfish dive would also qualify as a muck dive. It takes place at
Rainbow Reef on OíKeefe Island, no more than a 10-minute run from MRB.
This is a dusk dive as the fish seem to be visible and active from shortly
before sundown until shortly after. Everyone parks themselves on a coral
head and starts looking for Mandarinfish meandering around. Once you find
one, you follow him or her. If youíre lucky, youíll see a male and
female pair up, go through a mating ritual, and then rise off of the reef
to mingle sperm and eggs that will then drift off to start life anew.
Although in the past, Iíve had spectacular luck with observing the
mating, this was a mixed year. I saw solitary males, but no pairs. Others
in our group saw parings but no mating. But one of our divers did observe
two instances of mating. So you never know. But even without observing the
actual mating, itís still an interesting dive.
But thereís no question that when you think of Yap, you probably think
of Manta Rays. The rays are there all year round spending half the year in
Míil Channel and half the year in Goofnuw Channel, which was where we
The general plan is that you do the dive while thereís current present
as thatís when the mantas are most likely to be coming in the channel to
be cleaned. The boat starts you on an upstream mooring and you descend and
drift out into the middle of the channel to check out the deep cleaning
station, about 60 feet deep. Although we did see some Bumphead Parrots, a
Map Puffer, and a Starry Puffer getting cleaned, Iíve never seen a manta
Better luck (from my experience anyhow) has always been a little more
downstream at the shallow cleaning station. This is a rather large coral
mound whose base is about 50 feet and whose top is about 25 feet deep,
providing you with protection from the current and giving you plenty of
places to observe the mantas when they come in to be cleaned.
Visibility can vary and thereís always particulate in the water, being
suspended and moved downstream by the ever-present current. This year, Iíd
estimate the vis at anywhere from 25-60 feet, but always a dirty greenish
water. (Sure would be nice to see this in cleaner bluer water, which Iím
told can happen in Míil during the winter months when the mantas
congregate to mate.)
But this dive is a wait-and-see dive. And thereís definitely a sense of
timing and luck that come into play. So itís not unusual to settle into
the cleaning area and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Sometimes, youíre
rewarded, sometimes youíre not. Last year, we had multiple mantas on
every dive. This year we also did well and even hit the mother lode of
One our first dive (on Monday, our second dive day in Yap), we had to
jockey for position with a large group from another dive operation. They
hid downstream behind the rock and we planted ourselves (courtesy of Reef
Hooks) upstream in front of the cleaning station. We had the better
position as there was a ray there when we arrived and she moved down and
forward and glided right over our head and then hovered in our area for a
while. A short time later, after sheíd moved back into cleaning
position, a second ray came in and bumped her out of the way. Interesting
to watch them jockey for position.
An hour later, we did a second dive in the same spot and got skunked. So
you never know.
We went back to Goofnuw on Thursday and were rewarded quite well. Hereís
the entry from my dive log: ďMust confess that I didnít expect much
today. Started off on the deep cleaning station and actually found someone
being cleaned!!! Two Bumphead Parrots in fact and they let us get close.
Then we moseyed down the channel and Bonnie spotted a Crocodilefish!!!
Things were looking up. As we slid into position in front of the shallow
cleaning station, Gordon pointed out a large Map Puffer getting cleaned in
the channel and I went over and took a picture. After that, I was taking
individual shots when things got interesting as a large female Manta,
accompanied by 31 (I counted) juvy Golden Trevallies came gliding in. VERY
nice. We spent the final 35 minutes of the dive watching the magnificence
before us. And then - when we were on the mooring line on our safety stop
- she came by as if to say good-bye. Really nice.Ē
But the best was yet to come.
One hour later, at the same spot, hereís what happened, again from my
dive log: ďDidnít expect much from this dive either. I stationed
myself to the side and in front of the cleaning station. Current had
picked up and the vis had dropped noticeably. I was afraid this was going
to be a waste of time. Thatís when the first Manta came in. Very nice. I
glided around to the back and John motioned me to a great spot right under
the Mantaís tail and almost on top of the station. This gave me a great
view . . . When the second one came in to join the first. And then a third
one (our female from the first dive) not only came in to join the party,
but did so by swimming almost eye level with me and directly over my head.
Remember the opening of Stars Wars??? Well, she was the Imperial
Battlecruiser passing over me. Kept going and going and going. Nice. Then
a fourth Manta slid into the mix. And if that werenít good enough, a
FIFTH one dropped in as well. At one point we had al five of them lined up
over the (now crowded) top of the cleaning station. To say this was a
magical dive would be an understatement and we were all fascinated
watching the five of them glide in and out, work around each other, and
get the job done. I am by no means a religious person but I am now
convinced that if there is a heaven, itís not up above us in the clouds
but lies 37 feet below the waters of Goofnuw Channel in the guise of a
Manta cleaning station.Ē
I think the best part of this was when there were already two mantas
getting cleaned and I turned around to see our Golden Trevally-led Manta
coming in from behind me, eye level, and straight at me. If I hadnít
ducked, I would have gotten rammed. So I took two quick shots of the
approach and then leaned back as first the Trevallies and then the Mantas
belly passed only inches in front of the faceplate of my mask. (Plus Iím
holding my breath this whole time so my bubbles donít spook anyone.) Itís
quite a humbling experience to have such a close encounter with such a
large, gentle, and magnificent creature and from such a close & unique
At the end of the dive, we simply all came on the boat and started
babbling (even the dive guides) about what an incredible experience this
was and debating who had the best position to see all the action.
Regardless of where you were, it was something none of us will ever
The last unforgettable moment of our Yap adventures came on our final dive
of the trip which was our shark feed.
Now I realize the idea of feeding wild animals is still a controversial
one and the argument is that it changes the natural behavior of the
animals, and that they become dependent or used to getting handouts. I
actually watched this feed (Iíd done this dive three or four times
previously) with that in mind and have come away with the impression that
this feeding is not altering behavior.
First of all, the sharks definitely compete for the food. We had the most
sharks Iíve ever seen in Yap for this feed. I tried counting at one
point and lost track at 30. (Iíve got one picture where you can count 20
sharks in the shot.) You definitely see sharks jostling for position,
bumping each other out of the way, diving in to grab their ďfair shareĒ,
as well as observing some sharks that circle the bait without striking and
are waiting for an opportune moment.
Secondly, at least in Yap, the sharks donít get fed every day. It
happens maybe once a week and sometimes not as frequently as that.
(Generally, MRB doesnít do the feed without 10 paying divers to cover
the costs of bait - two huge frozen tub-sized chunks of fish - and the
extra staff and boat required to safely do the dive.)
So we jumped in with high hopes for an exciting feed. One thing Iíve
always liked about this feed is that (1) itís cageless and (2) they let
you - well, me at least - sit fairly close to the bait, perhaps no more
than 15 feet away. That increases both the photographic opportunities as
well as the adrenaline rush. (Although I must confess, perhaps foolishly,
that at no time did I feel any of us were in danger of getting bitten by
any of the sharks mistaking us for the food source.)
We were amply rewarded. When we descended, even before the bait was in the
water, there were 15 sharks cruising the drop-off waiting for the
excitement to begin. Once the bait was lowered into the water, that number
increased significantly, perhaps as much as threefold. Interestingly, they
werenít hitting the bait right away. They circled it, make a couple of
close passes, and generally sized things up before diving in. the first
hits came from the Snappers and Sergeant Majors who also try to steal a
morsel. But it was maybe close to five minutes before the action really
heated up. But once it did . . . my, oh my!!!!
One thing that really got my attention was a small Blacktip shark who was
accompanied by a lone Golden Trevally. It was fascinating watching them
both go in for a bite to eat. The Trevally would always stay on the
Blacktips pectoral fin (for protection??) and would follow every move the
shark made. It was hard to see if the Trevally got any food or not but it
was really interesting to watch it all play out.
After all the food was gone (it took the sharks about 35 minutes to go
through two frozen blocks of bait), we got out of position and swim around
a bit. The sharks were still in the area just swimming about and a few of
us swam out into the blue to mingle with them while others scoured the
reef under the feeding area looking for sharkís teeth that had fallen
out during the frenzy. All in all, an interesting experience and a great
way to end our dive adventures in Yap.
All I can say is that I love going to Yap for the whole host of reasons Iíve
outlined here. Great diving, great experiences, friendly people, not too
terribly difficult to get to, value for the money, and definitely a place
that should be on your list of places that you want to go diving. (Maybe
even with us when we return next year.)