YAP - March, 2013
(Mantas, Mandarinfish, & more)

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

I first became interested in Yap when I was five years old . . .

True Story. I remember being given a book - perhaps by Thor Heyerdahl but I'm not sure - but I distinctly remember that there was a story about a place where their money was made out of big stones. And I also remember that there was an illustration of some people with a thick stick or small log and they were using it to roll this huge piece of stone money that was round with a hole in the middle of it. So at the ripe old age of five, I said to myself, "I've got to go see that."

2013 marked my eighth (I think) trip to Yap. It's a place that I've really come to love on a lot of levels, from the stone money, to the people, to the diving, and to the general ambiance and atmosphere.

Of course, there's stone money everywhere. And it's all very valuable. But the value comes not from the size of the stone, but in the difficulty of getting it from the quarry in Palau where it's created to Yap, a distance of about 300 miles away. The better the story - which unfortunately usually means knowing the number of people that died getting the stone to Yap - the more valuable it is. Every stone has a story and the stories are frequently known by the various village elders and passed on. The stones are rarely moved but are displayed in stone money "banks" along the side of roads in various villages. Stone money is still used today but because it has great value, is used for things like land purchases, dowries, and the like.

And while stone money is what got me interested in Yap in the first place, diving is what keeps me coming back.

This was one of the largest groups we've taken to Yap, 12 people in all: Mark Geraghty, Jay Wilson, Tom Turney & Jill Boivin, Bob & Laura Mosqueda, Marlene Patterson, Audrey Anderson, Dana Rodda, Geoff Chadwick & Gina Artavia, and me (Ken Kurtis). Audrey had been to Yap once before but everyone else was a first-timer.

We once again stayed with our good friends at Manta Ray Bay Hotel (MRB), diving with Yap Divers, the resident (and owned) dive operation. I simply can't say enough good things about the entire operation. Nothing's ever perfect but they do their best to get it as close as they humanly can. I think it's the nicest dive-dedicated resort I've ever stayed at and the dive operation is top-notch as well.

Yap Divers has a fleet of 8 boats which range in size from 21 to 38 feet long. We alternated between their big boat, Popou, and one of the larger small boats, Eagle Ray. Both more than fit the bill for our needs and both were fast. The nice thing about the Popou is that itís really comfortable for 12 people with ample room for everyone and then some. Eagle Ray has the advantage of being a bit faster (a little under 30mph compared to a little over 20mph for Popou) and being able to go through a channel that runs up the middle of the island and which is a shortcut to the manta cleaning station. (Popou is too tall to fit under a bridge that spans the channel at one point.)

Speaking of mantas, thatís one of the prime attractions of Yap. It's probably one of the best places in the world for reliable manta encounters and we got that in spades this year, just like we did last year.

You may recall that in 2012, we went to a "new" cleaning station called Stammtisch. That's a German word for a gathering place of regulars, and thatís what Stammtisch seems to have become. In the old days, we'd either go to Manta Ridge in M'il Channel or Valley of the Rays in Goofnu Channel. But even on good days, the encounters there were generally brief. Part of that was because the place where the rays would get cleaned was shallower than the spot where you'd have to park to watch the rays. So you never had a really good view and many times couldn't get very close. Not so at Stammtisch.

Our first day there (Monday) was a "slow" day. We had four mantas overall, but "only" two of them stayed around us consistently and even so, they would occasionally glide off from time to time and then come back. But it was still pretty spectacular as I'd estimate the wingspan on these animals at 8-14 feet. And when they drifted near you, or sometimes behind you, they appeared to make eye contact every now and then. But Monday was simply the appetizer for our second visit on Thursday.

We thought we'd have the place to ourselves when we arrived just before 8:30AM (the mantas seem to prefer the morning high tide for the cleanings) so we weren't too pleased to see two other boats already on site. But we opted to take our time gearing up and sat on our boat for about 15 more minutes to let the other use up more bottom time (and air) before we arrived. That proved to be a good choice because the other groups basically got the mantas warmed up for us.

When we got to the cleaning area (the site's about 20 feet deep, is a fairly flat area, and you park yourself in a circle along the edges), the mantas were already there and the other groups were moving out. Mantas can be identified by their belly markings (itís unique, like a fingerprint) and I recognized a large female as being the same one we'd seen on Monday. So we settled in, hoping for the best.

I'd decided on this day that I was going to do an experiment with my GoPro. As you may recall from our Australia trip in November, I got a small tripod for the GoPro so that I can set it up and just let the thing run, and then can speed up the playback to make it into a time-lapse type of a thing.

So when we got into position, I put my still camera aside for a few minutes, set up the GoPro in what seemed to be a good position, turned on the two Sola 1200 lights (in case the mantas got close), and hit the record button. Oh my.

All we can assume is that the mantas must have noticed the Sola lights and been attracted to them. Either that or they're really related to the Kardashians and will preen anytime a camera is spotted. Because these mantas started making pass after pass after pass in front of my little GoPro, which put them in perfect position for me to shoot stills and for everyone else as well.

A lot of times when you set up static video shots, you run the risk of the subjects being out of the frame because you're not moving the camera at all. So you generally set the camera to shoot fairly wide and just hope for the best. With these mantas, they almost always perfectly centered themselves in frame, made sure they didn't interfere with each other, posed for the camera, and generally gave us some great photo opportunities. Really amazing. I almost expected to see the makeup people coming out after them, although I guess you could argue that that's equivalently what the cleaner fish are doing for the mantas.

The great thing about our Thursday experience was that we once again had FOUR mantas but this time they were often all there at once so there was plenty of stuff to watch and photo. And our dive guide John Pekailug (our regular guide in Yap) was really great about letting the dive run long, so we spent close to 90 minutes with these gentle giants.

But Yap is much more than just mantas. In fact, one of the marketing issues Yap has is that they are SO well-known for their mantas that people think that's all there is to see and they book Yap for only a couple of days instead of a full week and only as an add-on to an already-booked weeklong trip to Truk or Palau.

We used to do that too. But in 2007, we were doing Yap following Palau and I decided to extend my Yap stay to a full week. What a difference that made in terms of diving options. That's because the island is roughly the size of Catalina (about 20 miles tip to tip) and the manta spots are towards the north. So when you dive those, the southern spots (which can be gorgeous) are off the menu as a second dive spot because it's just too far to run. So many times when people only come for two or three days, they do manta/manta/manta and miss out on other sites.

The advantage of doing a full week is that you've now got a lot of flexibility in how you schedule things. We generally do manta dives on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That leaves Tuesday and Thursday for "non-manta days" and the opportunity to explore some of the southern reefs. And this year, the manta activity was SO good that we decided it couldn't get any better than what we had Thursday (we originally planned on doing Monday, Thursday, & Friday as our manta days), so we made Friday a non-manta day.

The other advantage of staying a full week is that you don't feel rushed. On a 2-day or 3-day trip, you feel like you HAVE to maximize all your manta and diving opportunities and then you've got to pack up and head off to your next destination. Too rushed for my taste. On the full-week plan, you really feel like you can take your time with things.

Among the sites that now become available to you is one of my personal favorites: Yap Caverns and Lionfish & Gilman Walls. The caverns themselves are so-so in my book, but it's sort of fun to swim through them (they're very open and generally well-lit - they barely qualify as an overhead environment) and the sandy area in front of the caverns can really be excellent. In that area, we found a number of juvenile Peacock Razorfish and some juvy Rockmover Wrasses on this trip. Plus there are numerous anemones with Clownfish, cleaning stations, and really clean water when you look out into the blue. And at the top of the reef, under where the boat sits when attached to the mooring there, there must be a million or more Anthias of all colors pulsing with the ebb and flow of the slight surge. It's REALLY pretty and mesmerizing to watch.

Another site more towards the southeast (near the mouth of the harbor entrance) that made an impression on everyone was Sakura Terrace, which was our last dive of the trip. We actually dropped in at O'Keefe Passage and the current carried us north to Sakura. Wow. Itís an impressively healthy enormous stretch of hard corals with a lot of blue-green plate corals. In fact, that's one thing you learn about the reef structure in Yap when you have time to explore the entire circumference: The reefs on the eastern side are sloping hard-coral reefs while the reefs on the western side are more traditional walls and even have some soft corals. And that means it changes the type of fish life you find on each side.

In fact, one of the wall-type dives is another favorite and standard for us and that's Vertigo which - as the name implies - is a fairly vertical wall. It's also the site where MRB (and others) do a daily shark feed so even when you're not feeding them, the area I usually populated with sharks. These are mostly Blacktip and Gray Reef sharks, although you do get the occasional Silvertip coming through.

But the shark feed in and of itself is very exciting because (1) well, it's a SHARK feed, and (2) you're not in a cage. So - within reason - you can get as close as you like to the action. They run a line down from the surface (a buoy keeps it semi-taut) through a shackle that's anchored to the reef rock, with the bait (fish heads frozen around a piece of rebar) attached to the line maybe ten feet above the reef. This gives the sharks plenty of room to maneuver and the divers plenty of up-close opportunities.

But this year was even a bit more exciting as the sharks managed to rip the rebar right off of the line early on and the bait feel into a hole right by the shackle. So you had sharks, some as long as nine feet, diving head-first into this hole and clamping on to the bait, while their tails stuck out of the hole and writhed and wriggled all the while. Definitely not what we'd seen before.

And after a while, the sharks managed to drag the remaining bait, still frozen around the rebar out of the hole and then they sort of played keep-away with each other just off the reef in blue water with many of them struggling to wrest it out of the mouth of whoever had it at the time. High-voltage stuff indeed and you can see the short video of it on our website (most of it shot with my GoPro by dive guide John, who grabbed my camera and took off after the sharks).

The other signature dive in Yap is the Mandarinfish dive, which can be done pretty much any night of the week. These small, colorful Dragonettes (males about the size of your index finger and females the size of your pinky) come out around dusk and forage through the polyps of some specific finger corals and, as their bellies fill, their thoughts turn from the main course to dessert, which would be another Mandarinfish with whom to mate. The dive takes place in very shallow water only a 10-minute ride from Manta Ray Bay at O'Keefe Island. The site itself is called Rainbow Reef since the Mandarinfish are so colorful.

Everyone gets spread around and parked at their very own coral head and then you start trying to find Mandarinfish. Once you do, you continue to follow it with your light (you rarely have to move more than a few feet) and look for it to find one of the opposite sex. If you get lucky (and only a few in our group saw mating this particular evening), you'll see the male and the female go through a little courting ritual which ends with her giving him a peck on the cheek and then they rise together out of the finger coral. When they're a few feet above the coral, you'll see a small white "POOF" of sperm and eggs that go drifting off in the current (if they don't get eaten by the lurking Cardinalfish) and the two lovers drift back down to the reef and go on their merry way. It's not exactly a long-term commitment. But it is very cool to observe and sometimes the fish will mate three or four times during the hour or two in which all of this takes place.

But no matter how good the diving, no matter how magnificent the creatures, no matter how exotic the location, a dive trip can be made or broken by how well the people you diving with treat you. And in this area, Manta Ray Bay and Yap Divers excel.

I think a true test of an operation is how they function at both ends of the spectrum: When they're empty and when theyíre full. Most of the time when we've been at Manta Ray Bay, they're been pretty empty. In fact, once I was the ONLY guest at the place for a few days. But their attitude is that if only one person wants to go diving, they will run a boat. And that's commendable.

This time, the place was fully booked so I was curious to see how they would handle the 60+ divers they were dealing with each day. And the short version is that they performed admirably. There are always going to be small glitches like the day we had problems with the turbo-charger on Popou (but it was fixed by the next day) or the reg that had a slight free-flow and which was swapped out by the next dive.

But overall, the operation ran like clockwork under the watchful eye of not only owner Bill Acker, but also Dive Operations manager Jan Sledsens. We had three large groups diving along with some individuals but Jan would schedule and stagger the departure times and destinations so that it never really felt too crowded on the dock and each group had their own boat just for their group. (It got a little tight on the last day when not only everyone had their gear hanging out to dry and a group of Latvians insisted on using all the BC hanging racks for things like booties and wetsuits.) There were always plenty of tanks to go around (they were filling upwards of 200 tanks each day), ample space in the pre-assigned gear lockers in the dive shop building near the dock, and even the six photo stations never seemed overly jammed with photogs or gear (Dana and I had the biggest cameras so took up the most space).

The other thing I love about Manta Ray Bay is the non-diving portion of the resort, including the hotel and food operations. The rooms are simply stunning, especially the ones we get in the "Ken Kurtis Wing" (yes, it's really named after me) which are 306, 307, 308 (best room in Yap IMHO), and 309. Bob & Laura were also quite pleased with room 300 at the opposite end of the hall as it's one of the Deluxe Ocean View rooms and this one features a special wooden floor, stone shower, and stunning view of both the bay and the hills. Any of these rooms (including 302 and 303 which we also had) will well suit your needs.

We all had breakfast (included in all packages) each morning on the Mnuw, a traditional three-deck Indonesia schooner that serves as a social hub. And we spent many evenings on the top deck which is where the bar is and where dinner is served (you can also eat on the second deck) and we also had a great view of the huge (8x16 feet) screen mounted on a forward mast that allows everyone to see slides, movies, or whatever else is being projected.

In short, I canít say enough good things about Manta Ray Bay and Yap itself. Aside from the long journey to get there, you really get the feeling that youíre not in Kansas anymore and that you've stepped into another world that while vaguely familiar feels comfortably foreign nonetheless (they all speak very good English and the US dollar is the official currency).

Will we go back again? You betcha. Will the mantas be there? Thatís pretty much guaranteed. Can we make the magic happen again in 2014? That's the plan. Who wants to come along for the ride?

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