YAP - March 2012

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

Let's get the complaint out of the way first: On Friday, there were only four mantas and they only stayed with us for half an hour. (I'm glad I got that off my chest.) You know you've had a great trip when what you just read above is your biggest complaint.

This was our seventh trip to Yap and it seems like each trip is better than the last. Or at least we learn something from each trip and make subtle changes to the itinerary and it all seems to work out. (Which is the argument for going back to places where you've already been, and liked. You can make the trips even better.)

Our group this year consisted of eight divers: Susy Horowitz, Denise Levien-Lawrence, Rachel Cappocia, Pat O'Brien (who celebrated her 1,000th dive on this trip), Britt Evans, Ric Aceves, Laurie Kasper (who celebrated her 50th birthday on our last day in Yap), and me (Ken Kurtis). As always in Yap, we stayed at my absolute favorite-best-dive-resort-in-the-whole-world, Manta Ray Bay Resort.

But we started with some sad news after we arrived and learned that one of the longtime Yap Divers guides, John Chomed, had drowned in an off-duty after-hours free-diving accident a few days before we got there. Needless to say, and especially because Chomed had worked at Manta Ray Bay for well over 20 years, many of the staff felt like it was losing a member of the family. So things were occasionally a bit subdued as we all shared fond memories of Chomed over the course of the week. He was buried on his home island of Rumung the day we departed. Sad as the news was about Chomed, it didn't put a dent in our diving the reefs that he loved so much.

One of the things I love about Yap is the diversity of the diving once you know what's available. For years, Yap was an "add-on" spot for people going to Palau or Truk (Chuuk) or some other western pacific locale. And that meant they would only come for three or four days and then move on to their prime destination. And because Yap has for years been known as the premier manta-watching spot in the world (more on that in a bit - it got even better), people on these short trips would concentrate on manta dives every day. That gave the impression that mantas were the ONLY reason to go to Yap and it also meant they missed going to some of the other reefs.

But in 2007, I extended my trip to a full week and it really opened my eyes. I really liked Yap diving before, but after spending a full week, I REALLY liked Yap diving. Because now I didn't have to pace everything around the mantas and whether or not we saw anything (which sometimes limits the site choices for your second dive).

Mantas, IMHO, are both Yap's blessing and curse. The manta dives at the cleaning stations can be nothing short of spectacular once-in-a-lifetime dives. And a lot of times, people leave Yap thinking that's all Yap has to offer. But there's so much more. The island has some excellent reef sites (especially to the south), a great shark site (Vertigo) where there's also a weekly shark feed, great muck/macro diving (less than a 10-minute run from Manta ray Bay), and the nightly opportunity to watch Mandarinfish mate is something not to be missed. So Yap's a lot more than just mantas.

But we first want to once again sing the praises of Manta Ray Bay (MRB) and Yap Divers. Just to be clear: I am NOT on their payroll. Everything I say really comes from the heart. And it's like I always tell people: I wouldn't keep going back if I didn't like the place.

I think the resort itself is simply fabulous. The rooms are all spacious and comfortable, some with an ocean view, some with a "garden" view (nice way of saying "parking lot"), but all a great place to spend the week.

My favorite rooms are always 306, 307, 308, and 309. They're among the largest rooms, all have ocean views (the view out of 309 is limited), and are all nicely appointed. I think 308 is probably the nicest dive resort room Iíve ever stayed in. King-size four-poster bed, glass on the east and south sides (it's a corner room), plenty of storage, a nice bathroom (great water pressure from the shower), and an Internet connection (all the rooms have that).

In fact, I like these rooms so much as stay in them so often that Bill Acker, owner of MRB, went ahead and named that wing after me. There's even a sign. So when you book your trip to Yap, be sure to ask for rooms in the "Ken Kurtis Wing". (And let me know if the sign got taken down . . .)

Diving with Yap Divers is always a pleasure. Jan Sledsens, the dive operations manager, makes sure everything goes off as scheduled. They were running three different boats/groups while we were there (we had a boat to ourselves) and Jan has it all scheduled so that the departure times are staggered which means everyone's not trying to get rolling at the same time. Everyoneís got a dive locker for hanging gear out at the end of each day, there are fabulous tiled rinse troughs for gear and separate ones (lighted, even) for cameras, and there's a large camera area with six individual camera stations inside the dive shop.

Once again our guide was the inimitable John Pekailug who's really good at spotting small critters, big critters, and everything in-between. He was assisted by dive boat captain Willy Seiwemai who always has a smile on his face and is ready to help with whatever you need.

Our general plan was for a three-dive day with two boats dives in the morning (they serve tea and homemade bread between dives), then come back to MBR for a lunch break which meant a 5-minute walk to ganir, another Yap favorite of mine. It's a Philippine-style restaurant where I've gotten addicted to a bowl of ramen and a Pepsi for lunch each day. It's cheap too: $5. After lunch we would do a third tank dive. Except for the Mandarinfish dive (more on that in a bit), we don't do any night diving in Yap. You can schedule it if you like, but it's just something that we've never done.

Still, the big attraction for Yap are the mantas and boy, did we get mantas this year!!! I've had really good manta interactions in the past. But for the past few months, Bill Acker and crew have been telling me about this "new" cleaning station they discovered and they were excited about taking me to it. Two words: Oh my.

We dove it on four different occasions. On Sunday, Monday, & Wednesday, we probably had anywhere from 8-15 mantas cruising the place. In fact, on our very first dive Sunday, we were assembling at the bottom of the mooring line maybe 20 feet deep, where two mantas passed by and gave us a glance as if to say, "Follow us and we'll take you there."

One nice thing about this cleaning station is that it's very shallow. It's basically a huge coral mound, sort of like a big table, and the top area where the mantas get cleaned and pirouette, is about 15 feet deep. When observing the mantas, you hang off the sides in maybe 20 feet of water. In fact, there was one hour-plus dive we did there where I think my max depth was 24 feet.

I asked John how they had discovered this cleaning station. He said they were at the regular cleaning station in M'il Channel (a few hundred yards away) and they were noticing some splashing occurring. So they sent some snorkelers over to see what was going on. The snorkelers came back to report a dozen mantas getting cleaned. So they decided to try diving it and were blown away. For reasons not clear to me, they named the site Stammtisch. the name is appropriate. Iím just confused on why they chose a German name.

The word Stammtisch is not easily translated into English but it means something like "regular's table" or "regular get-together". Another interpretation of it is that a Stammtisch is a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week. So, while we didnít do a detailed census, the thought is that you've got the same group of mantas coming in over and over again.

Whether it's really the same bunch or not, it was pretty impressive. They're coming in to get cleaned and, this time of the year (March), there's some mating behavior going on, most commonly following each other in a straight line almost nose-to-tail. Given that the wingspans on these animals was averaging about 15 feet, when you get five or six of them in a row, thatís a pretty impressive formation. (You can get abetter appreication of all o fthis by looking at the Yap video Iíve got posted on my SmugMug page.)

Knowing how this site was discovered also makes you wonder if there are other undiscovered cleaning stations (or just regular dive sites) around Yap, let alone at other dive destinations. One of the "problems" with any destination is that there are usually a set number of places to dive and a schedule to keep and there's either no time or incentive to go out and do exploratory dives looking for new sites. That's especially true if you've always got guests with you because what vacationer wants to go out on a dive that turns out to be crappy just because it was exploratory. So it's a conundrum.

Another great thing about diving Yap is that there are some really good macro/muck sites and they're not only close to Manta Ray Bay (no more than a 10-minute run) but they're also inside the bay itself, so they're protected from any rough weather you might encounter outside the fringing reef.

The sites are called "1 to 2" named after a magnification ratio used when shooting macro critters) and "Slow & Easy" (which is also their advice on how to do the dive). Both sites are relatively shallow, although there are a couple of spots at each where you might slide out deeper. We didn't do any dives at "1 to 2" but did three dives at "Slow & Easy".

One of the highlights of the dives was a Mantis Shrimp right at the end (or beginning when we dove it "backwards") of the dive. The unusual thing about this guy is that (1) he's huge (as mantis shrimps go), (2) he lives in a sand burrow, and (3) he's white, so he's REALLY tough to photograph. But John managed to coax him up by dropping small rocks in the burrow and the shrimp comes up as if to say, "Who's doing that?" and then tosses the rock back out.

The thing to remember about any Mantis Shrimp is that they have the fastest strike in the animal kingdom. Their claws are bent (like a praying mantis - hence, the name) but when they want to flick the claw out, it's REALLY fast. Supposedly, the can be perched at the mouth of their burrow and are quick enough to slice a fish swimming by in half.

Their strike is not only fast, but also strong. And when you're photoing, you need to be careful not to get too close because there are plenty of stories of photogs getting too close to the mantis shrimp, the shrimp strikes the dome port of the camera, it cracks, the camera floods, and the shrimp is heard laughing as it slides back into its burrow.

But the best part of the dive was when John motioned us to follow him down to a small reef at about 80 feet. There, we found a small group of White-banded Cleaner Shrimp. John leaned in close, took his reg out, opened his mouth and . . . the cleaner shrimp eagerly jumped out and started flossing him. It was really amazing to watch, especially when you remember that John, as a native Yapese, is a big beetle nut chewer so the cleaner shrimp were getting a taste of that and youíve got to wonder if they were maybe getting a little buzz from cleaning John. (Thereís a picture of this in the slide show and on the photo page.)

The third time we dove the place, I decided I'd give it a try and (to be clear, I'm not a beetle nut chewer) sure enough, they jumped onto my teeth the same way they jumped on John's. It was a really weird feeling. You can definitely feel them probing and picking along your gums. It doesn't hurt and it doesn't tickle. I'm not sure how to describe it but you're definitely aware of the presence of the shrimp. And when youíre done and need a breath, a quick shake of your head let's the shrimp know it's time to vacate and life returns to normal.

We also did some reef dives. I've talked before about how spectacular the southern reefs can be. This time, we had some weather issues so conditions weren't as good as we've had during previous trips but the dives were still nice. But two dive sites stand out.

The first is O'Keefe Island better known as The Mandarinfish Dive. This is the spot (I'm sure there are others but this one is only a 10-minute run from MRB) where every night just before sundown, Mandarinfish come out of hiding and start roaming through the shallow corals. They nibble on polyps and, as it gets darker, they turn amorous. Eventually, a male and a female will pair up, go cheek-to-cheek, rise up a few feet off the reef, and there's suddenly a small explosion of white which is the release of sperm and eggs, and then the two drift back down to the reef and go their separate ways. A committed relationship it's not.

But it is fascinating to watch. And because it's so shallow (I donít think I went deeper than 20 feet and most of the time was around 10 feet), 90-minutes dives are the norm. On our trip, it's also marked the 1,000th dive for Pat OíBrien and she was presented, underwater, with a special laminated certificate from Manta Ray bay to commemorate the occasion.

The trick to this dive is to find a Mandarinfish and start following it. Eventually, it works its way up to the higher parts of the reef and that's when you start watching for mating behavior. If you're following a female, keep an eye out for a male. If following a male, look out for a female. And if you're lucky, you'll see the male chasing the female, the female eventually gives him a little peck on the cheek which is the "Hey there handsome" signal, and off they go. Rather than try to visualize it, take a look at the video I posted because that clearly shows one of the two mating sequences I observed. (I thought I'd shot the second one too, but the camera never went into "record." Damn!!!)

The other great dive was at Vertigo, which is the site of the MRB shark feed. We dove that one twice and the first time, John had the boat circle a couple of times to sort of let the sharks know we were there, even though on that dive, we didn't have any food. By the time we descended, there were probably 30 sharks cruising out in the blue, occasionally coming in to take a look at the divers (or see if there was any food) but generally just doing what sharks do: patrol the ocean looking for things that are dead or dying.

The second time we went back, on Friday, it was a slightly different story because this time, we came with lunch in the form of fish parts that are frozen around a piece of rebar which is then hooked to a steel cable. The cable is brought down to the reef (there's an eyebolt permanently mounted there), a float at the surface holds it taught, and the sharks (probably 50 this time) begin to feed.

It's an amazingly orderly process. It's not the mad feeding frenzy that you might picture if you've never seen something like this. Now don't get me wrong, there's still a lot going on. But if you really start to watch things, you'll see there's a definite pecking order to who eats when, and you'll see sharks backing off and waiting their turn, and stuff like that. But the most exciting thing happened about halfway through.

The whole dive lasts around an hour and they use two frozen baitballs, each lasting about half an hour. After the first one was finished they ran the line back up to the surface support boat for the second bait and as they were pulling that one back down . . . the steel cable broke and the frozen fish ball floated back up to the surface. Jan immediately grabbed the broken end of the line and started towards the surface to re-attached it. But the amazing thing in all of this is that the sharks didn't take off for the surface in a crazed mass. Instead, they just sort of hung around the regular feeding spot (about 40 feet deep) and waited for the line to be repaired and for the second bait to be brought down. They were actually rather polite about it, and it certainly dispels the notion of the food-crazed sharks who will do anything and go anywhere to eat.

Overall, this was another amazing Yap trip for us. Our only complaint was a little rough weather and a bit of rain (but mostly overnight) but the manta experience at Stammtisch more than made up for that. In fact, I'd almost say if that was the ONLY diving we did, it would have been a fantastic trip.

Will we go back again? Of course!!! Will we stay in the Ken Kurtis Wing??? Of course!!! Will you be joining us??? We hope so.

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