YAP - July, 2010

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

This is being written at 34,000, halfway through a grueling trip home. We’re all exhausted. I got three hours sleep before getting up at 1AM to make it to the plane, which left at 4AM. We’ll get back into Los Angeles (after a three-hour layover in Honolulu) at 5AM. And yet . . . we’re all looking forward to doing it again.

That’s the magic of spending a week diving in Yap.

On the face of it, Yap sounds like a really pain in the butt to get to. But it’s actually not all that bad, even though it’s a long journey. From L.A., it’s a total of three flights: LAX-Honolulu, Honolulu-Guam, and Guam-Yap. We left L.A. at 10AM on Friday and, with an assist from the International dateline, arrived in Yap at 8PM local time on Saturday. Door-to-door, the entire journey takes about 18 hours.

Our group this year consisted of Laurie Kasper, Rachel Capoccia, Sherwin Isenberg, Dave Cooley, Ric Selber, and me (Ken Kurtis). Expect for Sherwin & me, this was the first visit to Yap for everyone in the group.

We once again stayed at Manta Ray Bay Hotel. (Although I’ll refer to “Manta Ray Bay” or “MRB” through this report, the dive operation part of all of this is technically known as Yap Divers.) The whole operation is overseen by Bill Acker, who came to Yap as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1976, fell in love with a local Yapese woman, and stayed. The resort itself opened in 1986 and Bill is constantly working to make it, in his words, the best dive resort in the world.

I think they succeed.

The hotel itself is wonderful. There are 35 rooms, all large and spacious, on three floors in two wings. Some rooms have a single king or queen bed; the others generally have two queens. There’s plenty of storage, a nice big bathroom (with great water pressure in the showers), a desk, chairs, and most rooms have a balcony. There are even rooms with private hot tubs if you really want to indulge yourself. And they made a great change (IMHO) in their huge moored sailing vessel the Mnuw, which also serves as their restaurant.

The ship is basically three decks. When they first opened, the second deck was breakfast and lunch (but it was un-air-conditioned, so you sweated like a pig), the lower deck was the main restaurant (which was air-conditioned but only open for dinner in the evening ), and the top deck . . . had potential.

After the big Easter Sunday 2004 typhoon, the Mnuw was redone. The lower deck restaurant closed, the second deck stayed the same (and un-air-conditioned), but the third deck became an open-air bar and dinner deck, which was really nice. But breakfast on that second deck was always a bit uncomfortable, not only due to the lack of air-conditioning but due to a lack of organization since the food is prepared in the bowels of the ship and dumb-waitered to the serving deck, and it sometimes took forever to get fed. (I mean, how long can it possibly take to make toast???)

But that's now changed.

The first/lower deck is now the breakfast deck (air-conditioned - YAHOO!!!) and they've got everything laid out as a buffet. Excellent changes on both counts. Now you can dine in comfort and you don't have to wait for food. And that's important when you remember that sometimes to hit the tides and increase your manta potential, you might be have an early departure and the last thing you want to be doing is choosing between eating and leaving the dock. So this was great.

The second deck still serves lunch (but the ventilation seems better), and the third deck is the late afternoon-evening happening/hangout spot plus you can have dinner up there. Happy Hour starts at 4:30PM each day with the firing of the ceremonial cannon on the Mnuw (one day they put a double load in and it gave everyone a heart attack from the "BOOM!!!") But the whole ship is very functional now and, best of all, the food's pretty good. (The Stone Pizza is excellent.)

The dive operation consist of eight boats of varying sizes, all very fast, and very well-accommodating for the various types of diving the island offers. Most importantly, seven of the eight boats are able to go through the mangrove channel that runs through the middle of the island, which significantly reduces the time it takes (especially at high tide when they can run full out) to get from the MRB dock to some of the northern sites, especially Mi’l Channel which is one of the prime Manta Ray encounter spots.

There’s a gear storage room and camera assembly area adjacent to the boat dock. Each diver gets an individual open locker, plus there are six lockable camera storage cabinets with work stations (very handy for those of us who travel with multiple lenses and ports). Each morning the staff grabs your BC and reg, takes it to the boat, and hooks it up to a tank. You grab the rest of your gear (a mesh gear bag is a good thing to have), get on the boat, and off you go.

And while we’re at it, we must sing the praises of the entire MRB staff, but especially the dive staff.

One of the things I’ve also liked about going to Yap is the friendliness of the Yapese people. It seems they always have an easy smile and a hearty laugh. Nowhere is that more true than with the staff at Manta Ray Bay. It seems like you never hear the word “No.” If you’ve got a request, they’ll do whatever they can to make it happen for you.

On our trip, one of our divers had a leaky hose. No problem. They sent out a boat to us with an extra hose. Another time a computer went down. No problem. They loaned (at no charge) one of their rental computers. On one dive I forgot to put the memory card into my camera and only discovered the calamity when we were starting the dive. The card was back in the camera room. No problem. They simply . . . well, actually that one was beyond their repair. But they did ask me each dive for the rest of the week, with some good-natured teasing in their tone, if I’d remembered to put the card in the camera.

While we love all of the staff, we want to especially single out John Pekailug and Willy Seiwemai who were assigned to us as guide and captain for the entire week. We’ve been with both of them before but it was like coming home to old friends. John’s a great guide, very patient with everyone, and always seems to know where to find all the cool stuff, like the day at Yap Caverns and Gilman Wall where he found not one, not two, but SIX Leaf Scorpionfish in the first ten minutes of the dive.

Willy was in charge of gear handling and getting us back on the boat. Every morning he’d start around 6:30AM loading up tanks for the day, getting our gear from the lockers and hooking things up, picking up the fresh homemade bread and hot tea they serve between dives, and just generally making sure that we were ready to go for our 8AM daily departure. Both John and Willy’s efforts and good-naturedness will greatly enhance anyone’s experience in Yap.

Our general plan each day for a two-tank dive, break for lunch, and then a third dive. That gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of where we went as well as gave us a chance to take a break on land, which also meant we could go have lunch each day at a little local place called Ganir, about a two-minute walk from Manta Ray Bay. Much as we loved the food at MBR, a lunch each day at Ganir (I especially like their Regular Ramen dish) held a special appeal for us.

We were staying a full week in Yap. However, many people do Yap on their way to or from Palau. And that means they only get a few days of Yap diving under their belt. That’s a shame because there’s plenty of variety in the sites if you allow yourself the luxury of a little time.

One of the problems with a shorter stay is that you fall victim to Yap’s success. Bill Acker’s done a great job of marketing the fact that Yap is a haven for Manta rays. (Keep an eye out for a 2011 yearlong “Manta Census” that Bill and I discussed.) In fact, he’s even got a “Guaranteed Manta” package where if you don’t see a Manta during your visit to Yap, you get a refund. (Full details on the www.mantaray.com website.)

But Yap is much more than just Mantas. Mi’l Channel (also a Manta cleaning station) is simply a gorgeous area that you can’t cover in a single dive. Vertigo is a spectacular wall that also serves as home for their shark feed. Gilman and Lionfish Walls are as healthy and prolific as you’ll find anywhere in the region. O’Keefe Island, not more than ten minutes from the MRB dock, is home to nightly Mandarinfish mating. Also a short ride from MRB are a couple of excellent macro/muck spots where we found juvy Emperor Angels, Mantis Shrimp, Lionfish, and a host of other critters.

So it’s easy to get Manta Fever and focus only on that, which means you take some of the other sites out of play because of proximity. A better plan is to get a good balance of all of the sites Yap has to offer. Our original thought was to do acclimation dives (2) on Sunday afternoon, and then make Monday/Wednesday/Friday Manta days, with Tuesday & Thursday set aside for hitting the other diving site hotspots, like the Southern reefs and walls.

But it’s important to understand how you do the Manta dives. You’re basically going to one of the known cleaning stations, parking yourself, and waiting. If the Mantas show up to be cleaned, you’re in business. But if they don’t, then you’re spending a lot of time . . . waiting. Sometimes it’s simply a question of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you may only get a glimpse. And if you’re looking left when the Manta glides by right, you’ll never know it was there.

In 2007 and 2008, we had phenomenal encounters. We had Mantas coming and going for sometimes almost an hour. One would slide into cleaning position while others hovered nearby and when that guy was done, he’d leave and the next one would come in to be serviced. It was magical to watch.

But the mantas can be sensitive and finicky. They can get easily spooked. Maybe the wind’s making the surface choppy, or there are too many people, or someone gets in the Manta’s way when he’s on final approach. You just never know. And you never can know, if the Mantas have been spooked, when things might have calmed down enough for then to return.

So sometimes you have to sit there a while for things to get going. You never know when the Mantas are going to start showing up, if at all. And if there’s nothing going on, there’s that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that if you wait just ONE more minute, things will start happening. And because the main cleaning stations are pretty shallow, 40 feet or less, 90-minute dives are not unusual so you can sit there for a loooooong time if you like.

But patience pays off. On our first manta day, we settled in and waited. After about an hour, divers started getting low on air and heading back to the boat, which was moored a hundred feet away. Eventually, it was just Sherwin and me and our patience paid off. A single manta came in for a cleaning and hung around for about five minutes while Sherwin and I watched, mesmerized. It ended up being the longest Manta encounter of the week. And our investment in time paid off. But you never know whether you’re wasting your time or not although for my money, since there’s always the thrill of what possibly is about to happen, it’s worth it. And you’d certainly hate to hear, “Oh, if only you’d waited a few more minutes . . .”

We ended up making four Manta dives over the course of the week and got Mantas on two of the four. On our third try, we had a Manta glide by our mooring line as we were coming down, didn’t have any luck at the cleaning station for 90 more minutes, and then had two more glide by us as we were on the other mooring line doing our safety stop. Go figure.

On top of that, we got mantas when we weren’t expecting Mantas. Because there was clear water in Mi‘l Channel, after we got skunked on Friday at Valley of the Rays, we decided to do dive two at Mi’l mainly because it’s a great dive under any conditions. Mi’l (west side of the Yap) is a good wintertime Manta spot but not at this particular time of the year. Normally the Mantas are over in Goofnu Channel (east side of Yap) during the summer months. So we were pleasantly surprised to have three Mantas glide by us in Mi’l when we spent a little time lingering at Manta Ridge in Mi’l

Another dive where patience pays is the Mandarinfish dive. I never get tired on this one and Rachel & I ended up doing it twice, both times having good success.

Mandarinfish are psychedelically-colored members of the Dragonet family and are rather cute but elusive. Normally, they spend their days hiding amongst branching corals and are very hard to find. However, things change at dusk.

Shortly before sundown, the Mandarinfish come out of hiding. At first they scurry around the corals, nibbling on polyps and what have you. But then they get down to the serious business of mating. The males try to hook up with females and when they do, they go through a little courtship dance on the corals, and then slowly rise together above the reef, where the simultaneously release eggs and sperm in a small “Poof!!” and then they settle back down on the corals and go their separate ways.

This all can go on for an hour or so and it’s not uncommon for them to mate, not necessarily with the same partner, multiple times in an evening. Plus you can have anywhere from dozens to hundred of mandarin fish all doing this so you’ve generally got a good chance of seeing the activity.

The first night we did this (which was also the night I forgot to put my memory card into my camera so I got NO images of this), we not only got the Mandarins mating, but I noticed what seemed to be unusual sea cucumber activity on the reef. There just seemed to be a lot of sea cucumbers crawling all over the place. As the evening progressed, I noticed that they started extending themselves from the reef. In a few minutes, I realized what was going on.

We were witnessing a mass spawning of a type of Warty Sea Cucumbers. It’s not as dramatic as the mass spawning of an entire coral reef that you may be familiar with, but nonetheless very cool to see.

All over the reef, cucumbers were sticking straight up out of the coral, extending as high into the water column as they could, which sometimes meant two feet or more above the reef. They would then release their eggs/sperm into the mild current. It’s called “broadcast spawning” and the hope is that the sperm and eggs find each other in the water column and mix, and then the fertilized eggs settle down somewhere to become a new generation of sea cucumbers.

The other really cool thing we do when at Manta Ray Bay is the Shark Feed. I’m going to avoid the entire debate about whether this type of feed changes their behavior or makes them more likely to see humans as prey. (I don’t buy either argument, and certainly not the way they do it in Yap in terms of technique &/or frequency.) But on a purely adrenaline level, it’s an amazing experience.

One thing that ramps up the excitement value is that you’re not confined to a cage. As a photographer, I like that a lot. Another aspect is that you can sit pretty much as close to the bait as you feel comfortable. For me, that means perching maybe 10-15 feet away and slightly below the bait, which is on a buoyed line that runs from the reef up to the surface. The bait the sharks strike at is actually a frozen block of fish heads and bodies with a piece of rebar in the middle of it. The rebar is clipped to the line and the whole thing makes a nice target for the sharks that sits just above the reef.

And boy, do they seem to like it.

I have no idea how many sharks there were total but I’ve got some images where I counted 20 in the frame. It was a mixture of Grey Reef Sharks (7-9 feet long) and Blacktip Sharks (4-6 feet long), plus a smattering of very brave reef fish darting in and out to get some of the loose chunks/scraps without being eaten.

Probably the most exciting part of the feed was when the sharks were attacking the bait and it broke loose from the line. No big deal as the sharks kept striking it and flipping around trying to break off pieces. The problem was that while they were doing this, they were tumbling closer and closer to me. In fact, they were sort of aiming for my lap.

Now as many of you know, I’m a volunteer diver at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific and one of my duties there is to hand-feed our California Leopard Sharks. I occasionally get bitten but it’s no big deal because those sharks have very small teeth (sort of like a sharp nail file) and while it may occasionally draw blood, it’s never more than a rough scrap.

The teeth of a Grey Reef or a Blacktip, however, are made to shred fish flesh. So as the feeding frenzy continued and the sharks got closer to me, I took another couple of photos and then said to myself, “This is how people get bitten.” I very quickly backpedaled a few feet to get out of the way. Good thing too because the sharks landed where I had previously been perched. Nothing like adding a little excitement to an already exciting situation.

But even outside of those admittedly somewhat specialized dives, the diving in Yap can be anywhere from good to very good. The west side of the island, with it’s steeper walls, seems to have a healthier coral and fish population than the eastern side does, which is also the side that’s more exposed to the weather.

And the Southern Reefs, especially Lionfish & Gilman Walls, are simply spectacular. We also found a lot of cool small guys just outside of Yap Caverns. If you like muck/macro diving, there are some pretty good spots not too far from Manta Ray Bay. The other nice thing about these is that they are fairly shallow, so you can do some really long dives because your air is going to last a lot longer.

In no particular order, some of the animals we saw included all kinds of Anemone fish (Pink, Orangefin, & Tomato), various eels, numerous Parrotfish including some very large schooling Bumphead Parrots in Mi’l, Butterflies of all colors, a number of Tridacna Clams, Flatworms (many undulating and “swimming”), some gorgeous Cowries, lots of Angelfish (including Regal, Emperors, and Yellow-Masked), plenty of Damsels and Anthias, lots of Gobies including Shrimp Gobies with their blind Shrimp partners, some octopi, a few turtles, and too many other fish to mention. We even saw some of Yap’s famous Stone Money . . . underwater!!! (You can see all of this in our pictures from this trip.)

In other words, Yap is more than just mantas.

We also did the Village Cultural Tour this year on Tuesday afternoon and that was a nice treat as well. You're bussed to a site near the village and then you walk over the traditional stone path to go into the village, led by a native guide (ours was Alan). Once inside the village, you're greeted by the chief who explains the traditional ways (the locals are all wearing native attire, although they admitted to me they don't always dress that way). There's an opportunity to chew some beetlenut if you like, there's a native dance (the kids of the village performed ours), and there are some crafts available if you'd like to buy anything. It was all very interesting, a nice insight into the roots of Yap.

It also gave us one of our more light-hearted moments as we entered the village. The Yapese people, as I'm sure you can understand, are fairly dark-skinned. As we entered the village, there was a guy dressed in native attire (pretty much just a loin-cloth and a flowered headband) but he was white as a ghost. Turns out he was a friend of someone who lived in the village and he was visiting for a week and got into the swing of things. But he looked a bit out of place. (There's a shot of him in the pix from this trip, along with a couple of the young kids who danced for us.) Thankfully, he didn't do the dancing.

Not everything in Yap in hunky-dory. There was some bad news in all of this as well. One is that there’s definitely some bleaching going on. The water was very warm while we were there, generally around 85° or so and that may be some of the cause of it. The good news is that it was patchy and a closer examination of the bleached corals seemed to indicate they weren’t dead, meaning the bleaching is likely recent and hopefully reversible.

The other problem is a noticeable increase in the population of Crown of Thorns sea stars, which essentially destroy reefs. Crown of Thorns basically suck the living organisms out of the corals as they slide across them, killing the reef. We didn't dive Magic Kingdom, one of my favorites from 2008, because the Crown of Thorns have decimated it. Whether the reef can make a comeback is something only time will tell. But Bill Acker tells me that he and other operators have now started removing the Crown of Thorns from the waters to prevent further reef degradation.

The other problem Yap faces is one of access. They've always been at the mercy of Continental Airlines (actually Continental Micronesia) and generally had three flights per week coming from Guam (which then go on to Palau) and two coming from Palau (which then continues on to Guam). But with the merger of Continental and United, that's going to change to only two flights per week from Guam and one flight per week from Palau.

In some ways it may work a little better because they're canceling the Wednesday morning flight and replacing it with a Tuesday evening flight. Under the old schedule, if you left L.A. on Monday morning, you'd arrive in Guam Tuesday afternoon, overnight in Guam, and then get the early-morning flight to Yap. I never liked that arrangement.

But under the new schedule (not sure when it takes effect, but soon) you would still leave L.A. Monday morning, arrive in Guam Tuesday in the late afternoon, and can now continue on to Yap, arriving Tuesday evening, which means you're good to go for diving on Wednesday.

For anyone who “just” want to do a couple of days in yap on their way in to Palau, this is a great schedule. You can dive Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in Yap, and then you'll fly to Palau Saturday evening.

But Yap is really a location that's worth doing for a week. I've done it both ways and doing it for a week gives you a lot more flexibility so that you can really make sure you maximize your diving experience. For a weeklong trip, you can leave L.A. on Friday morning as we did, and you're in Yap Saturday evening. You do your diving Sunday-Friday, relax on Saturday, and then fly home late Saturday evening (actually early Sunday morning) and arrive back in L.A. at 5AM, also on Sunday morning..

You can also do Palau for a week first, and still do Yap for a week afterwards. Just take the Saturday late-night (really Sunday early A.M.) flight from Palau-Yap, dive for a week, and then take the early Sunday morning flight to Guam and then on to Los Angeles as above.

But whether you do it for a few days or for a week, you've got to get yourself to Yap. It offers great hospitality, is definitely off the beaten path, great diving, and magnificent creatures to boot. What more could you ask for? We’ll be going back and maybe you’ll think of joining us the next time.

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