YAP 2018 TRIP REPORT - JUNE 10-20, 2018

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

It was like going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and getting a glimpse of them hauling it away. There’s plenty of other cool stuff to see but . . . damn!! . . . I wanted to see the Mona Lisa!!! That’s sort of what we experienced this time in Yap. Mantas are what they're known for but our experience with them was limited.

Our group this year was seven strong: Tabby Stone & Linda Takvorian, Sharon DePriester, Annette Lohman, Jennifer Ingram, Simone Avram, and me (Ken Kurtis). We ended up not with the trip we expected but nonetheless one that had plenty of highlights and a couple of unexpected twists (and lessons learned), as you shall see.

As usual in Yap, we stayed with our good friends at Manta Ray Bay Resort & Yap Divers (henceforth called MRBR), operating under the direction of founder and Diving Hall of Fame inductee Bill Acker. Bill now says he’s “retired,” but he's still around and interacts a lot for a guy who’s not supposed to be working anymore. (And that’s certainly a good thing.) And, as usual for us, our guide was the knowledgeable John Pekailug and our boat captain with the ever-jolly Willie Seiwemai.

We can’t say enough good things about MRBR and would always recommend them highly. They’re a wonderfully functional and comfortable hotel, a great dive operation, plus they feed you well morning, noon, and night. We stayed (as always) in the rooms up on the third floor in an area Bill designated the “Ken Kurtis Wing” (yes, there’s a sign) where the rooms are spacious and offer a lovely view of the bay, the Mnuw (their Indonesia sailing vessel that serves as their restaurant), the pool (an infinity pool with two mantas depicted in the bottom tile), and the dive area.

Diving is done from one of eight very fast flat-top twin-engine boats. Nothing fancy but highly functional and certainly a perfect size for the number of divers in our group plus the boats always carry water, hot tea, and fresh bread & fruit (for between-dive snacks). The speed of the boats means that no dive site is more than 45 minutes away and most of the runs are 30 minutes or less. (Three spots are within five minutes of the resort.) Entries are done via back-roll off the side and at the end of the dive, you take your tank off in the water and hand it up, and then come up a ladder near the front of the boat. Although there’s a mooring system in Yap and that’s generally where you start, most of the diving is drift diving, so the boat follows the bubbles of the group and is there to pick you up when the dive is finished. No long swims. And with that many boats, the groups stay small, sometimes even just two or even one diver on a boat. No cattle boats.

Another nice diver-friendly aspect of MRBR is that, while most of the dives were generally an hour (with a 1-hour surface interval when we did a 2-tank dive), the official policy is that there’s no time limit. If you’ve got gas and available bottom time (everyone in our group dove nitrox for the extended bottom times), you keep diving. In fact we did one shallow dive that was 90 minutes long.

And that underscores the general overall attitude of the place, and one of the reasons I’ve always liked going back. You rarely hear the word “no”. If you’ve got a request – dive-related or otherwise - they’ll do everything they can to try to make it happen.  In the rare instances when they can’t do what you want, they'll suggest an alternative.

This trip was our 10-day “Yap Immersion” where we try to “immerse” you in everything Yap has to offer, from diving to culture. We got an unexpected bonus this year as the second weekend we were there was “2018 Summer Fest – Celebrating 30 years of Diplomatic Relations between FSM and Japan.” There were demonstrations, dances, and other activities. Not quite on the scale of the Rose Parade, but a big deal for Yap and an interesting side note to our trip. (Pix of some of this is on the SmugMug page.)

Our general plan was for a 2-tank morning dive (sometimes a manta cleaning station dive followed by a reef dive and sometimes two reef dives), followed by a trip back to MRBR for a lunch break where we went to my beloved Ganir (just down the street) when I always feast on their regular ramen and a Pepsi. Tasty and you can’t beat the price: $5 plus I leave a $1 tip. Then we’d go back to MBRB for a 1-tank afternoon dive, either a reef or one of their macro/muck sites that are inside the bay. Lower vis, but lots to see.

Speaking of visibility, we had anywhere from clean 100+ feet to a milky 40-50 feet out on the reefs and at the manta cleaning stations. Water temps were generally running around 86ºF and in a few places, it was 5ºF warmer within 5 feet of the surface. According to a Yap weather almanac I checked, these are some of the warmest temps Yap has ever seen this time of the year. I'm not sure how the warmer water affects things in the long run.

Diving in Yap, as is the case in many other places, is very tide-dependent. Yap gets tidal swings of as much 6 feet which means that at low tide, there are huge expanses, sometimes acres and acres, of exposed reef. Sometimes that affects the visibility but it also underscores the enormous amount of water that flowing in and out on a regular basis.

That same tidal flow affects the manta dives and we simply have no idea what happened this year. There are three known manta cleaning stations in Yap. M’il Channel on the NW side, Stammtisch which is close to M’il, and Goofnu Channel and Valley of the Rays (or in our case, Valley of the No-Rays) on the NE side. June is a month when, because the winds have shifted and their food source – plankton – moves around, the mantas should generally be found around Goofnu and the NE side of Yap. Not this year as far as we saw for the time we were there.

We didn’t get skunked totally. In fact, we started out quite promisingly. When we did our first manta dive at Goofnu, as we were descending the mooring line, a manta was gracefully gliding by and stayed with us for a few minutes. We then made our way across the channel to the cleaning station proper – a coral mound that rises up from 60 feet to about 20 feet where the mantas park themselves and get serviced – and there was already a manta there getting cleaned. We were able to observe him for about ten minutes until he glided away. Then in the afternoon when we were diving M’il Channel, we had yet another manta cruise on by us.

So with three different mantas in one day, let alone our first full dive day, I was optimistic that this would be a productive trip, especially given that part of Yap Immersion includes a Manta ID & Awareness class, and everyone was primed to spot and identify mantas. Alas, my optimism was misplaced as those were the only mantas we saw the entire time.

We were not the only ones getting skunked. Although we didn’t do manta dives every day, there was always at least one boat going to the manta spots and no one else saw mantas the time we were there. Our working theory is that the plankton has either moved very far offshore or perhaps is situated more on the north end of Yap and that the mantas are hanging out there. Since we never spotted any, and none of them have any sort of a tracking device on them, it’s impossible to know. And it’s always important to remember that this is nature, not Disneyland. The animals don’t show up and perform on demand.

But what we do on any manta dive is only plan on 20-30 minutes at the cleaning station. If there's activity, we stay longer (like we did last year). But if/when there's no activity, instead of spending the rest of the dive there twiddling your thumbs and perhaps getting skunked entirely, we’d drift down the channel – which is really an interesting dive in itself – to see what there is to see.

For instance, there’s a fantastic rubble field in the center of Goofnu Channel that's chock-full of Peacock Razorfish and Rockmover Wrasses as well as many other species of fish. Plus there’s a decent school of very large Bumphead Parrotfish in the channel and they’re usually hard to approach. But one day we got lucky as an enormous individual had wedged himself into a crevice to get cleaned and as we came over a ridge, he was still there and had to swim right by us to rejoin his flock. (His pix is on the SmugMug slideshow page.) So that was pretty cool and unusual. In M’il Channel near Tzimoulis Ridge, there are skittish Whitetip Sharks lounging g in the sand, plus large schools of Black Snappers and Midnight Snappers plus a huge school of Black Jacks u in the water column. So there’s plenty to see.

The variety of things to see is one thing divers sometimes misunderstand about Yap. Because the island has been marketed over the years as Manta Heaven, you may have the mistaken impression that Mantas are the only attraction there. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you could spend time on Yap and go manta-less (as we effectively did after Monday) and still have a fabulous, wonderful time.

First of all, the hard corals all around the island are immense, prolific, and healthy. There are also differences to the reef structure depending on what part of the island you're diving which also affects the fish you might see.

The southern reefs (Yap Caverns, Lionfish Wall, Gilmaan Wall) are must-dos for any Yap trip. They're simply spectacular and festooned with fish, especially Anthias of every color. You can do a swim-through tour of Yap Caverns (one of Bill Acker's favorite dives) and then either turn left for Lionfish or right for Gilmaan. Along these walls, you'll see soft corals, and occasionally big fish out in the blue. One time, dive guide John found six different Leaf Scorpionfish for us in front of Yap Caverns. There are also schools of Humpback Wrasses, Black Snappers, and this trip we found a yellow Leaf Scorpionfish at the front part of Yap Caverns.

In general terms, the dives sites along the west side of Yap (Yap Corner, Vertigo, Cherry Blossom Wall, Spanish Wall, and others) are more wall-ish while the sites on the east side (Gapow, Peelaek Corner, Sakura Terrace, End of the Land, Eagle's Nest, and others) are more slope-ish or ridges-and-channels.

The southernmost sites are probably the fishiest. One thing a number of our divers commented on was what they perceived as a relative low density of fish on many of the sites. It's not like the sites are devoid of fish (like they were at Easter Island) or that you can't find plenty of subjects to look at or shoot if you're a photog. But you're not going to be bathed in clouds of fish as you might hope for.

What's puzzling about this is that it's not like the Yapese have fished out these reefs. Unlike in poorer countries (like the Dominican Republic for instance) they don't collect or gather-for-food the smaller reef fish and simply fish those areas out because the people have to eat. I'm not sure why the reefs aren't more heavily fish-populated. But that doesn't mean there's not plenty of stuff to see.

The Parrotfish population seems especially healthy, and I saw a couple of species - Bluepatch, Red (not Redlip - IP phase), and a couple I haven't yet found - that I've never seen before. There are Wrasses everywhere and an amazing amount of cleaning going on, which usually offers good photo ops since sometimes fish which are elusive (like the aforementioned Bumphead Parrotfish) can be captured on an SD card while they're getting groomed.

And the Clownfish (aka Anemonefish) are abundant. There are Pinks just about everywhere you look, a lot of Orange-Finned (who are really hard to shoot without over-exposing their blue bands), and a bunch of Tomatoes (who live in Bubble Tip anemones). We also had numerous Angelfish, including the ever-elusive Flame Angel (hard to shoot but spectacular when you get them), lots of brightly-colored and gorgeous Butterflyfish, and numerous Titan Triggerfish, many guarding nests, including one who zipped in and had the nerve to bite me on the back of my ankle when she thought I got too close. Ouch!!!

I could go on naming fish left and right but it will likely be more productive to encourage you to go to our SmugMug page and check out all the photos.

We also don't want to overlook what was happening on terra firma while we were there. Because the theme of this trip was "Yap Immersion," we also did a 1/2 land tour going through some of the history of Yap as well as its culture. But we got a surprise bonus this year when we discovered that our visit would also coincide with "2018 Summer Fest" which was celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations between the Federated States of Micronesia (called FSM and consisting of Yap, Kosrae, Phonphei, and Chuuk - aka Truk) and Japan. This is especially interesting when you remember that the Japanese occupied these islands (Truk/Chuuk being the most significant and well-known) during World War II. And this celebration was important enough that the Japanese Ambassador to FSM was in attendance.

It was two days of songs, dances, demonstrations, and the like, put on mainly by the Yapese but also by some Japanese. Especially interesting to us was the Women's Sitting Dance that took place on Friday night (yes, they were all topless, as is tradition in Yap, but also wearing leis and garlands around their necks), a Stone Money Carriage on Saturday, and a co-ed Bamboo Dance, where they basically seem to be beating each other with sticks and you pray that no one forgets the choreography because they whack those sticks REALLY hard. Very interesting to watch all of that and you'll see a few photos of that on the SmugMug page.

Our trip also included a little land-based drama that can hold valuable lessons for all of us.

I have long held to a theory that the clientele of any given dive shop will closely mirror the age, economic, and demographic of the owners and staff of that shop. Certainly Reef Seekers has been no exception. As I have aged, so have the people who travel with me. Gone are the days when everyone was 25 years old. I turned 67 this year and, on this particular trip, the average age was 66.5 years old. As it pertains to Reef Seekers, in addition to my demographic theory, it also makes sense that our base of travelers will get older because those are now the people who have the time and money to afford these kinds of trips (this one was a little under $6,000 all-in), and they're no longer scraping to get by and saving every penny for a trip, hoping that "the boss" will grant them that specific week off. Age has its benefits.

But advancing age and older clientele also come with some pitfalls and they surfaced on this trip.

After our first dive of the trip, which was a fairly benign "checkout" dive at O'Keefe Passage, one of the divers felt she was having some heart palpitations after the dive. They seemed to calm down soon after the dive and we chalked it up to let lag and travel. She took it easy that afternoon and said she was fine the next morning. She was able to do the three dives on Monday but by Monday night, the palpitations came back. At her request around midnight, she was taken to the Yap hospital by Jude Pedrosa who is MRMR's go-to guy for medical problems. (Just to be clear, the hospital is the only medical facility on Yap. You go there if you have a cold and you go there if you have a serious illness and everything in-between. It's also less than a mile from MRBR so it's convenient. So "going to the hospital" in Yap doesn't have the same connotation as it does here in the United States.)

At the hospital, they couldn't find anything obviously wrong with her but they did run some blood tests and noticed some readings affecting her thyroid which they thought could be serious and which merited more attention but which was above the level of care they could provide in Yap. D.A.N. was consulted as well and the collective recommendation was that she not dive further and either go to Manila for better tests or go all the way back home to Vancouver so she could see her own doctor. She chose the latter.

So with the help of Jude, and in consultation with D.A.N. and D.A.N. Travel Assist, we were able to get her plane tickets changed and had her fly back home Tuesday evening. (Bear in mind that there are only two flights a week - early A.M. Wednesday or early A.M. Sunday - out of Yap to Guam where you can make other connections.) She was able to travel on her own (she stayed in touch with us via e-mail along the way) and got to see her doctor in Vancouver who did a deeper exam and discovered that the thyroid issue wasn't all that severe, but that there was an underlying treatable cardiac condition that they will be addressing.

There are a number of lessons to understand here.

#1 is, whether or not you carry D.A.N. or other dive insurance, D.A.N. will always do a medical consult with any physician or diver who calls in (and they accept collect calls).

#2 is that if you DO carry D.A.N. insurance, don't forget that it also includes D.A.N. Travel Assist which is designed to help you with diving as well as non-diving medical issues that might involve evacuation, trip cancellation or modification, etc. Bear in mind Travel Assist in and of itself is not insurance. They're co-ordinators. But they're there to help.

#3 is that while you may carry diving insurance, does your regular medical insurance cover you for overseas medical problems? I thought about that a while back when I turned 65 and went on Medicare. Technically, Medicare A & B coverage stops as soon as you leave the United States or its territories. So it would apply in Hawaii and Guam, but not in Yap. If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan (C) or a Medigap Plan (F), then you MAY have coverage outside of the US proper. But you need to find out. And you can always certainly buy some form of travel insurance (I personally have the plan through D.A.N.) that's in addition to your diving insurance, but which will cover you for non-diving medical needs as well as cover things like trip interruption, extra expenses for evacuation, lost luggage, and things that might arise from a medical and some non-medical problems that occur during a trip.

Dan Orr, former president of D.A.N., told a story at the Scuba Show this past weekend of two divers diving outside the United States, both of whom suffered a bends hit and both of whom had to be evacuated and treated. Total cost for each diver was something like $146,000. Diver 1 had insurance and paid very little out-of-pocket. Diver 2 had no insurance and now has to contend with that bill. Given what it covers, insurance is pretty cheap. Better to have too much of it than too little. And especially as we age, it's wise to be prepared and really understand what's coved and what isn't.

The other lesson here is, especially if you're an "older" diver, get a diving medical regularly, ideally every year. Make sure that it includes a check of cardiac and lung functions, maybe even a stress test. I have to do such a yearly exam as a diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific. And once you're on Medicare, there's a free Annual Wellness Exam that Medicare pays for. Take advantage of all of that. I don't know that this particular problem would have been discovered (although I suspect it might have been) but wouldn't you rather deal with these types of things on home turf on your own schedule that to discover these things 7,000 miles away and have to ruin your vacation?

We had two other hospital visits on this trip which can also provide some lessons. The first was pretty minor and it involved me. I had splashed some defog or something into my left eye and caused a low-grade infection. I e-mailed my ophthalmologist in Encino (Dr. D. Michael Colvard - highly recommended if you have a need) who e-mailed me a prescription but - don't forget Yap doesn't have a CVS on every corner - they didn't have that particular antibiotic eye drop at the hospital pharmacy. They had a similar one but they wanted me to come by and have the doctor look at my eye before they'd give it to me. So Jude made his second trip to the hospital with me in tow and after the doctor looked at my eye for all of five seconds, I was given the other eye drops from their pharmacy, and the whole thing set me back a whopping $11.

But we weren't out of the woods yet. Later in the week, one of our other divers thought she might have bruised her eardrum as it felt full. I told her I had Mucinex, which is what I use for ear bruises and she asked if she could have one. No problem so she took one that evening. She didn't feel too different in the morning and asked if she could have another. Happy to oblige. She also decided to take the morning off since her ear was bothering her and she was a bit tired.

When we got back at lunchtime from the diving, as I was walking through the lobby to go to my room, I heard "Oh Ken . . . !!!" and they told me that while we were gone, she started feeling rather tired and woozy, and now Jude had made his THIRD trip to the hospital where they were looking her over (as well as consulting again with D.A.N.).

It turned out that she was also on a prescription medication that they think had a bad reaction with the Mucinex. They told her to stop diving for a week or so until everything flushed out of her system which meant she not only didn't do any more dives in Yap, but that she also had to cancel the week of diving in Chuuk that was going to follow the time in Yap. Moral of the story: Not all drugs play well together so make sure you know what's what before you go popping pills, especially if you're on some prescription medication.

The overall lesson in these last paragraphs is, where you're a young punk or an old fart or in-between, whether you're a newbie or an old salt, medical complications that aren't necessarily the bends or embolism can arise during the course of a dive, and ESPECIALLY when you're in a foreign land where the level of care might not be up to the US standards you take for granted, pay close attention to what seem like routine medical issues so they don't worsen. And if they do, understand what your insurance options are.

Despite all of this, we had a really nice trip. I'm admittedly prejudiced, but I don't see how you can NOT have a great time in Yap. With three flights and lots of time to get there, and just the general layout of the place, there's no doubt you're in a foreign land. The Yapese people in general but especially the staff at Manta Ray Bay Resort are friendly and accommodating. The resort itself it wonderful and comfortable. And the diving, even without mantas is certainly world-class. (Reminder: Look at the pix on the SmugMug page.)

We will definitely make plans to go back again next year, maybe even pairing it with a week in Chuuk or something like that. But hopefully Yap's on your bucket list and hopefully you'll have a chance to do it with us.

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