YAP - July, 2008

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

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 wrong.

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 this world.

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 found them.

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 there.

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 manta encounters.

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 vantage point.

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 forget.

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.)

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