YAP - March 13-24 2019

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

How could you not love a trip that produces not one, but TWO Lifetime-Top-10 dives . . . ???

We have just returned from our annual trip to Yap, part of Micronesia, on the western edge of the Pacific (southwest of Guam). This was again our 11-day extended “Yap Immersion” version, which gives us plenty of time to dive, do some workshops (fish ID, manta ID, photo ID) as well as take a little time off from diving to do a half-day land tour of the area as well as “immerse” ourselves in some of the Yapese culture.

This year we were a very compact group of four: Marlow & Audrey Anderson, Mike Scott, and me. But small size has advantages too as it allows us to move fairly quickly and gives flexibility any time we needed to change or alter plans.

As always in Yap, we stayed with our good friends at Manta Ray Bay Resort & Yap Divers (henceforth referred to as MRBR). And, as always, service and treatment was absolutely first-class. Bill Acker, founder of Manta Ray Bay, has a very simple concept about requests from guests: We train our staff to hopefully never have to say no. To paraphrase General Manager Ruud van Baal: “We try to accommodate general requests right away. The impossible ones just take a little longer.”

Case in point was the first night there (and for those wondering, yes, we stayed in the third floor “Ken Kurtis Wing” again - since I always ask for the same rooms, Bill named that area after me a few years ago and even put a small wooden sign up), I felt the mattress in my beloved room #308 was less-than-ideal, so I sent a quick note to Hotel Manager Numi Acker asking if there was anything that could be done. By the time we got back from diving in the afternoon, Numi told me they’d swapped out the mattress and to let her know if there were any issues with the new one. (There weren’t.) And even though I certainly have a “special” relationship with MRBR, I’d like to think they would have done this for anyone else as well. Point is, if/when you go there, you’ll be well taken care of.

Our general day went like this: Breakfast (included in all of the dive packages) around 7AM on the lower deck of their majestic restaurant, the 143-foot old Indonesia sailing ship Mnuw. We generally left the dock (not on the Mnuw but on one of their fast 30-foot dive boats) for our first dive around 9AM (some boats left at 8:30, a few at 8AM - they try to stagger the departure times a bit) and would do dive #1, have hot tea and snacks on the boat during the surface interval, do dive #2, go back to MRBR afterwards, walk to Ganir Restaurant for lunch (where I get their wonderful regular ramen and a Pepsi for $5 + $1 tip), and then do dive #3 around 3 or 4PM. Late afternoons were then open for the aforementioned workshops. We’d have dinner on the top/third deck of the Mnuw around 7PM, and by the time that was over, everyone was ready for bed. Rinse and repeat each day.

There were also two days when we did what they refer to as a “supersize” day which  is a 3-tank dive day with lunch on-board. This saves the time needed to run back in to MRBR and increases your options for which dive sites to hit. The lunch on the boat adds $10 (billed to your room) and they have not only a decent lunch menu from which to choose (cold sandwich and a small salad) but, rather than using Styrofoam as they used to, they’ve switched to reusable Fit & Fresh containers, which have a cold pack built into their lids so everything stays cool and fresh. (Very innovative products - www.fit-fresh.com.)

Using eco-friendly containers is just one way they’ve tried to lessen their environmental impact over the years. They’ve gotten rid of the diesel engines on the dive boats and switched to more efficient ones, they’ve installed a huge solar-energy array on top of the hotel, and there are placards in your room to leave on your bed if you can live without them changing the sheets each day you’re there (saves on laundry water). Every little bit helps.

Bill Acker dove with us two days (he says even though he’s officially “retired,” he still tries to do at least one day with each visiting group) but our regular crew was ace dive guide (and Dive Shop Manager) John Pekailug and boat captain Willy Seiwemai. Willy would be the one to always serve the between-dive snacks, the first offering of which was always these little sweet bananas they get. Willy refers to them in a wonderful way (his accent adds to the charm) and we were always happy to hear his cries daily of “Monkey food!! Who wants monkey food???” (BTW, the “monkey food” is accompanied by various types of soft bread/cake, all of which are made fresh daily in the MRBR bakery on the second floor of the resort.)

Getting to Yap is not that difficult but is simply long and tedious. From LAX, we flew on United Airlines at 8:30AM to Honolulu (6 hours) with a 3-hour layover at HNL, then on to Guam (8 hours) with a 5-hour layover there, and then 90 minutes down to Yap, arriving shortly after 1AM local time. You can also fly in through Manila, Seoul, or Tokyo, but will still need to go through Guam to get down to Yap. One bright spot on our routing is that the bags are checked all the way through to Yap from LAX so you don’t have to do bag schlepping at each airport stop.

Access to the United Club, especially in Guam for the long layover, is quite helpful. United has recently stepped up their game in most of their clubs. It used to be that they only served cheese and crackers along with beverages, but now they have a fairly decent compliment of food plus the beverages. If you don’t have Club access, you can usually buy day passes for around $50. Also be aware that on the LAX-HNL and HNL-GUM legs, United doesn’t serve a meal in Economy so you either need to bring something or pay for it on-board.

Because we arrive in the wee hours of the morning, I schedule an afternoon half-day of diving for Day 1. That allows us time to sleep in a bit, unpack, set up gear, and then go out and do a check-out dive at one of the close-in reefs. (We started at O’Keefe Passage, which is about a 10-minute run from MRBR.) Following that dive, we met in the classroom for the 90-minute Manta ID Class (sanctioned by PADI - you can have a PADI card issued if you complete it) so that we’d be ready the next morning for our first manta dive.

Overall, the reefs in Yap seem pretty healthy. They are mainly hard corals that form a sloping reef, and there are some really impressive coral structures that have developed over the years, too massive to be properly represented in a photo.  We finished many dives marveling at the reef structure. This was especially true for Mike, who’s a relatively new diver and who had never been to Yap before. I noticed very little coral bleaching (a good sign) and this was the first trip I’ve done where I didn’t see a single Crown of Thorns starfish - they basically eat the reef - on any of our dives.

Although Yap isn’t known for soft corals, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The soft coral spots are mainly found along the southern sites, which are much more traditional walls and more exposed to the type of currents on which soft corals depend. Places like Yap Caverns, Lionfish Wall, Gilman Wall, and Yellow Wall, are well-represented in the soft coral arena. As you move more northward, both along the east and west sides of the island, the soft corals become fewer and fewer.

I have never described Yap as a particularly “fishy” place (like the Maldives) . . . BUT . . . there are plenty of spots when you will be inundated with fish. Some of that is luck and some of that may be dependent of time-of-day. At the outset, I mentioned two Lifetime-Top-10 dives on this trip and both were conducted in the late afternoon, which may have been a factor.

The first happened seven days in and was M’il Channel. M’il is one of the signature dives in Yap and, depending on the current, can be done as west-to-east, ending at Tzimoulis Ridge (aka Manta Ridge - the “old” cleaning station area), or east-to-west starting around the ridge, or even further in by the underwater Stone Money piece and then over the ridge and down the channel (east-to-west still) towards open ocean.

Because M’il is near the major cleaning station at Stammtisch, they’re frequently done in combination. We had checked M’il a couple of times during the week and it was either too choppy (we experienced a fair amount of rain and wind our first few days in Yap) or too murky/green. But this day - Tuesday, March 19 - it looked diveable so we decided to give it a shot, dropping in on the west end and heading east down the channel towards the ridge. What a good decision that turned out to be. I even tagged it in my dive/photo log as “Best Dive Ever.”


It was 54 minutes of non-stop action. Dive guide John carries with him what I call a jingler - a small metal tube with two steels balls inside - that he shakes and rattles when he needs to get someone’s attention. He was working overtime with the jingler on this dive.


We started out fairly benignly, dropping in behind a protected corner at 5:03PM, according to the time-stamp from my camera. Ran into a nice Titan Trigger about two minutes later and then were meandering along. Six minutes into the dive, the first of SEVEN different mantas appeared, coming down the channel from the cleaning station and heading towards open ocean. After that, we saw the lead fish in what would become a huge school of Whitetongued Trevallies. Then another Titan followed by a Flagtail Trigger. Then the second manta, followed two minutes later by the third. Then an iridescent blue Goatfish I’d never seen before, followed by some Whitetips in the sand, over whom were circling a small school (about a dozen) of juvy Gray Reef Sharks. A little later on, there was a huge Map Puffer getting cleaned, some Blackfin Barracuda passed by overhead, a few more mantas came down the freeway, then we ran into an enormous school of Bigeye Trevallies and in the midst of them were concealed a small squadron of Eagle Rays (maybe a dozen), which morphed into a large school of Humpback Wrasse. A couple of more Whitetip Sharks passed by, followed by a large school of Black Snappers, then a few more mantas flying down the sides of the channel, our big school of Whitetongued Trevallies (whose outliers we had previously seen), more Black Snappers, more Bigeye Trevallies, some Longbar Goatfish, a large aggregation of One-Spot Snappers, some Humpnose Bigeye Bream, and then it was all topped off by a final manta fly-by while we were at our safety stop.


Did I mention this was a pretty outstanding dive?


The other Lifetime-Top-10 dive happened a few days later at a place called Land’s End on the southeastern side of Yap. Once again, we started the dive late-afternoon (4:16PM according to my camera time-stamp) and once again, we were rewarded with magnificent sightings.


This time, it seemed like we hit the Afternoon Bite. That’s the time late in the day when fish are trying to find their last meal or get their last cleaning before tucking themselves away for the night. So the pace of life on the reef can get pretty frantic. And we were there to witness it.


Our first treat - and not part of the frantic nature of things - was sighting our second Crocodilefish of the trip. But right after that, we noticed a lot of commotion happening around and above us in the water column. This was mainly due to a large school of Yellow-Spotted Trevally zooming around (plus a few Bar Jacks in their midst). There was also a large school - hundreds - of Rainbow Runners making the rounds. There were joined by a few Jobfish, a Dogtooth Tuna, a school of Skipjacks, and a small school of Scrawled Filefish (who I didn’t know schooled).

Then the squealing began. That emanated from Audrey, who had spotted another squadron of Eagle Rays perched atop a small ridge. She said she tried to count them but lost track after 25. But we learned three things with all of this:
(1) Squealing - at least Audrey’s - can be heard underwater over quite a distance
(2) Eagle Rays don’t particularly like squealing, as Audrey’s sent them into a frenzy/panic
(3) Spooked Eagle Rays swim REALLY fast and can turn on a dime

But it was a truly marvelous dive that we all enjoyed immensely. I had hit the Afternoon Bite once before on a dive in Palau and all I can say is that if you ever get the opportunity, take the plunge. Truly a remarkable experience.

The other side of those two wonderful dives were three dives we did on St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17. As I mentioned, our first days in Yap were punctuated by rain and wind, sometimes quite fierce. It didn’t force us to cancel any dives, but it altered some of the sites we could go to and it certainly created a choppy ocean which made for a rough ride at times.

The other thing sustained wind can do is alter water quality or composition. Generally, warm water stays high and colder water stays lowers in the water column. This is why when you run into a thermocline, it’s going to be colder, not warmer, as you descend. And if the wind blows that top layer of warmer water offshore, it can create an upwelling, where colder - and sometimes more nutrient-rich waters (which also could have factored into our Land’s End dive four days later) - rises up from the bottom once the warmer water is out of the way.

So when we rolled in for our first Sunday dive at Magic Kingdom, we immediately noticed it seemed a bit colder than normal. “Normal” in Yap had been a fairly consistent and comfy 81-83º. This definitely wasn’t that. Bear in mind that (1) I was doing this dive in my 1.5mm suit and was wearing a 3mm hood, and (2) Water conducts heat 25 times faster than in air, so you’re going to notice a water temperature change rather quickly, even if that change is small.

Because of where the temperature gauge is located within my dive computer, I knew it was going to be a good 5-10 minutes before I’d get an accurate reading of what the temp was. As we passed 30 feet, I felt we hit another thermocline and the water got even cooler. John and I exchanged shivering signals but pressed on.

As we descended further, passing 60 feet gave us ANOTHER thermocline, almost to the point that I thought I’d have to see if PADI or NAUI would issue “Polar Bear Club Diver” certifications. Now it was REALLY cold, almost to the point of discomfort. Everyone else ascended a little bit to get above 60 feet but I decided to tough it out because now, I was really curious to see what the temp was.

So I kept an eye on my dive computer and the temp indicator as it kept falling, falling, falling. After about another 10 minutes below 60 feet, it seemed to bottom out. The temperature I read: 73º. So this was as much as 10º colder than what it should normally be. (And I’ve had years here where the water temp in Yap was as high as 86º.) To put this in perspective for those of you who still dive California, 73º is a few degrees warmer than what we’d expect our warmest SoCal waters temps to get in September/October. And I was diving this in a 1.5mm suit. Brrrrrrr!!!!

After that dive was over, the main topic of discussion was the water temp. (Audrey dove it in a t-shirt and shorts, sans wetsuit.) Poor John was frozen stiff. He and I compared temp gauges and we both read within a degree or so of each other so we’re pretty confident the number was correct.
Of course, the cold water also made us not-so-eager to do the next dive. We wondered if maybe this colder water was only on the west side of Yap. We moved a bit further south to Spanish Wall. Slightly warmer, but essentially the same with maybe 75º being the lowest temp.

Fortunately for me, I had decided to bring my 3mm wetsuit with me because this was a Supersize dive day, which meant we weren’t going back to MRBR between dives and I thought I might be cold by the third dive. Lucky decision. The 3mm, plus the 3mm hood, at least made the second and third cold dives tolerable.

For our final site we headed north to Buena Vista (also on the western side) and found the same waters temp there. We also were smart enough this time not to go much below 40 feet or so and to stay in the warmest water we could find. When we got back to MRBR, we compared notes with the other dive guides and we all experienced the same thing. The following day for us was our non-dive day and by the day after that, everything was pretty much back to normal temps. But that was one coooooold Sunday.

In 2008, Yap declared itself a Manta Sanctuary. This was first in the world and at the urging of Bill Acker. (Palau declared itself a shark sanctuary in 2009 and other nations have followed the leadership of both Yap & Palau since then.) Depending on what time of the year it is, there are three different well-known and oft-visited manta cleaning stations where you’ll go to watch the mantas getting serviced. In the summer months, that’s on the eastern side of Yap at Goofnu. But this time of the year, it’s either at the M’il Channel station or - more likely - at Stammtisch, which is a shallow flat patch of coral, far inside the lagoon that’s adjacent to M’il, and where the mantas can be observed in about 12 feet of water.

So we were quite excited on Thursday, March 14, to be able to hit Stammtisch because we’d already completed our manta ID class. We had three specific mantas in mind that we were looking for (their unique belly markings are how you tell who’s who). The water was a bit murky but calm, and we settled into position with great anticipation for our upcoming hour-long dive.

And we got skunked.

Fortunately, it was the ONLY time we got manta-skunked. (The group that visited Stammtisch a few hours after us said they had five different mantas going in and out.) But even when there aren’t any mantas around, that doesn’t mean Stammtisch is idle. The cleaner fish are still finding smaller fish to clean, and it seems like everyone’s finding things to do, zipping about, waiting for a manta to show up so they can go to work. A lot of times, these fish will come over to where the divers are to see if WE need to be cleaned. So there are plenty of fish-encounter opportunities to be had.

During our stay, we did two more dives at Stammtisch. On the next one, we had two mantas changing places and getting cleaned over the course of an hour. And they were still at it when we left. On the third visit, we had one or two mantas on the shallow cleaning station. Then John came over and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me there’s a second cleaning station which they call the “deep” station. Now bear in mind that Stammtisch itself is only about 10-12 feet deep. The “deep” station is literally right behind and below the shallow one, and is a whopping 23 feet deep. So “deep” is definitely a relative term. But we had three more mantas utilizing the services of the deeper station and what’s nice there is that on the shallow station, you’re a bit lower than the mantas are so you see lots of bellies but no backs. On the deeper station, you’re slightly above the mantas so you see the backs but have to work a bit to see the bellies.

Two of our other favorite signature must-do dives in Yap are the Mandarinfish Dive and the Shark Feed.

The Mandarinfish Dive is a dusk dive since the little critters come out each night around dusk to forage a bit on specific corals and to see if there’s any mating action to be had. It’s done on a site called Rainbow Reef that’s a 5-minute ride from MRBR. And it’s shallow, about 10 feet deep. The DMs park you above your very own patch of branching coral and you then start looking for either the male or female Mandarins scurrying about. Once you find one, you keep your light on it and keep following it (it’s actually a lot harder than it sounds) in hopes of seeing some mating.

If you’re lucky/successful, what you’ll see eventually is the male chasing the female, she will eventually decide that he’s her type, she gives him a peck on the cheek, then they rise side-by-side above the coral and . . . POOF!!! . . . you see a little cloud of white that are the sperm/eggs mixed and released into the water column to drift. If the eggs don’t get eaten by the Cardinalfish and others hanging around, then the eggs drift and settle and become little Mandarinfish who will start this life cycle again. I personally had many Mandarinfish spotted but didn’t see any mating this year. But others in our group (and other divers on different nights as well) did.

The other high-voltage dive is the Shark Feed at Vertigo, which is on Yap’s west side near the entrance to M’il Channel.  This is a near-vertical wall where sharks tend to hang out routinely. I’m not going to get into the debate over shark feeding but will say that MRBR only does the feed once a week (and not every week) so I really don’t think the feed alters the natural behavior of the sharks. But it’s like the chicken-or-the-egg argument: Are the sharks here because they know they’ll eventually get fed, or is this a good feed spot because there are always sharks around?

The DMs position the divers around a rocky outcropping (there were about 20 divers during our feed) and then a rope is threaded through a permanent pulley that runs up to the bait boat, which is waiting on the surface. They hook up the frozen bait to the line with a buoy attached as well, so that when the line is pulled back down, the buoy floats and pulls the line taut, which means the bait floats just above the rocky outcropping around which the divers are positioned. This gives the sharks easy access to the bait without colliding with each other as well as provides a great viewing opportunity for the divers.

Many divers are quite content to be far away from the center of the action but they usually let me get fairly close to the bait (maybe they’re really trying to get rid of me). We also put Audrey (who didn’t squeal this time), Marlow, and Mike close to me as well. Great vantage point and you can really see a pecking order: Large sharks come in and eat when they want, smaller sharks wait for a good time to move in, smaller reef fish (Red Snapper, Sergeant-Majors, etc.) hope for pieces to break off so they can steal a meal.

I have no idea how many sharks we had overall (I have one picture where I can count 20) but my guess would be 30-40 in total. They are generally a combination of Gray Reefs and Blacktips. They’re relatively polite to each other and they really focus on the bait, not the divers. On this dive, I shot the first half with my GoPro, then swam back to our boat while the bait, now depleted, was changed for a second hunk of frozen fish goodness, and the sharks couldn’t have paid less attention to me as I surfaced, swapped out cameras, and then came back down. I love doing this dive and it’s really a good chance to see apex predators up close and in action.

Over the course of our time in Yap and 25 dives, we had numerous wonderful encounters but probably our favorite (and you’ll see this on the SmugMug page) was a very cooperative Cuttlefish we found at Cabbage Patch. We are guessing this was a female guarding eggs because she didn’t move. She just hovered over a coral mound while we gazed on in awe. She was about two feet long and didn’t go through a lot of color changes (which might signal distress) as we approached. Interestingly - and this is very clear in the pictures - she always held two of her ten arms out in front of her, much like a Praying Mantis. (Maybe she was praying we’d go away.) But she tolerated our presence for a good 10 minutes and I was able to position everyone behind her to get a Cuttlefish-And-Me shot.

Other cool stuff we saw during our dives in Yap included all manner of Clownfish (including Tomatoes), lots of Spadefish, Rabbitfish and Squirrelfish, tiny little shrimps and crabs, all sorts of damsels and anthias, plenty of turtles, every color and hue imaginable of Christmas-tree worms, plenty of butterfly and angelfish (including the elusive Flame Angel - hard to shoot but one of my favs), as well as schools of barracuda, trevally (many different species), chub, and more. You can see all of this in the 150-image SmugMug slide show.

In short, Yap is simply a wonderful place to visit, dive, and relax. There’s no doubt you’re off the beaten path but it still feels like home since pretty much everyone speaks English, the dollar is the local currency, and the Yapese are among the friendliest people on earth. Plus, you’ll get well-taken care of at Manta Ray Bay Resort.

We’ll definitely be going back (gotta make sure they don’t take my sign down) so you can travel with us or get there on your own (and I can help you with that as well. If Yap’s not on your bucket list, it should be. And if you’ve been there before, it’s probably time to think about going back.

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