- JULY 12-31, 2023
We are now on our way back from spending three weeks in one of our favorite places in the world, the magical island of Yap, with one of our favorite dive operations Manta Ray Bay Resort & Yap Divers (henceforth referred to as MRB). I’ve literally started writing this as we’re on the plane at 35,000 feet over the Pacific heading from Guam towards Hawaii at 634mph. It was an interesting and enjoyable trip for a number of reasons but also a trip that had some issues that affected what we could and couldn’t do. To paraphrase Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of weather.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Yap, it’s part of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in the western Pacific, between Guam and Palau and east of the Philippines. To get there from Los Angeles, it’s generally LAX-HNL-GUM-YAP. Going takes about 24 hours total and the return is about 20 hours (due to shorter layovers between flights).
Bear in mind that, because of COVID, this is our first Yap trip in four years. Yap, as well as other parts of Micronesia, really clamped down on visitations by foreigners and didn’t allow anyone back in until earlier this year. On top of that, United Airlines, which used to fly to Yap twice a week, cut that down to once a MONTH for a couple of years, and only recently – in March I think – reinstituted the twice-weekly schedule. And so whether we wanted to go to Yap or not, for quite some time it was impossible to fly there.
WHY WE CHOOSE TO GO WHERE WE GO
Lou Weisberg did only Week 1. Rachel Capoccia & Les Harriel, Tamar Toister, and Harry Kreigh all did weeks 1 & 2. Gayle Chin, Tom & Katy Burns, and Glenn Suhd chose to do all three weeks. Tony Hanna was only able to do week 3. So we had ten divers week 1, nine divers week 2, and six divers week 3.
AT THE MRB RESORT
According to Bill, the resort’s motto is, “The answer is YES. Now what’s the question.” They will bend over backwards to accommodate your every need. For the first two weeks, that meant giving us two boats with Rachel/Les/Tamar/Harry/Glenn on Eagle Ray, and Lou/Katy/Tom/Gayle on Seagull. Bill and I would trade off which group we dove with each day.
The advantage here was that the boats never felt crowded and everyone had plenty of space. The MRB boats are nothing fancy but are really well-suited for these dives. They have eight custom-designed boats overall – a few were out of the water getting post-COVID refreshing and overhaul – and the ones used most often for our diving were around 30’ long and perhaps 8’ wide. And they’re fast, zipping along at 20-25mph and well-suited for the type of diving Yap offers. Unless the seas slowed us down, none of the dive sites are more than a 30-minute ride away.
The other thing I really liked – and which I wasn’t sure of initially – is that their standard dive package is now three dives/day with a cold lunch served on the boat between dives 2 & 3. You order lunch the night before from a menu and then it’s prepped in the morning and packed in nifty little plastic containers where the lid has an ice pack to keep everything cool. My only “complaint” about this setup is that the food’s really good and they give you a lot of it so I’m afraid to step on a scale when I get home.
The other advantage of this new dive plan is that it actually makes more sites accessible. In pre-COVID days, the package was 2 dives/day. I’d always add a third dive for our trips but what it meant was that we came back to MRB after dive 2, had lunch on shore, and then went out for dive 3. That meant that most of the time dive 3 was a relatively nearby spot. Under the new scheme, if you’re down south doing some of the spectacular wall sites there, it’s easy to do a third dive there as well.
Another nice touch, and they’ve been doing this for a while, is that when you arrive, you’re assigned a space for your gear inside the dive shop area. Throw your stuff in your space and that’s the last time you’ll have to touch it. The dive staff will load your gear onto the correct boat each day and at the end of the day, will wash your gear and put in back into your assigned area. They call it “Valet Diving.” My gear has probably never before been so well-taken care of.
Normally at this time of the year, the weather in Yap is idyllic. It’s generally hot and humid – sweating could be their national sport – there’s very little wind, you get occasional brief (10-15 minutes) rain showers every now and then, and all the dives sites around the entire island are accessible.
Not this year.
When we arrived on July 12, it was indeed as described above. It was the same July 13 as well. And that was the last day that we saw the sun until July 30. July 13 was also the last day there wasn’t any wind. Yikes!!!
It seems there was a highly unusual and large tropical depression that was southeast of Yap and moving to the northwest. It eventually became Typhoon Doksuri which did a lot of damage to the Philippines and mainland China. As far as Yap went, the storm produced wind and rain as it drew air to it from all areas of the Pacific (it was actually fascinating to watch the wind patterns on Windy.com) as the storm meandered to the north of Yap. But what it meant for us on a fairly regular basis was that we got a LOT of rain and a fair amount of wind.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, as the first storm passed out of range, a SECOND tropical depression formed and produced similar weather on Yap as it travelled through the Pacific. We couldn't catch a break.
This doesn’t mean it rained every second of every day. But it did rain generally off and on through the day. And there were torrential outbursts lasting 15-30 minutes (seemingly at times just as we were loading up the boat to leave the dock), followed by clearing, then maybe some gentle rain for a little while, then it stopped and it was overcast, then it might rain again for a bit an hour or two later. The pattern wasn’t really predictable but it was constantly there in one form or another.
DEALING WITH THE RAIN
But you learn to cope. Here are two possibilities. First is Tony Hanna who is truly wearing a garbage bag as a raincoat. The goal here is to avoid the little stinging sensation of the raindrops pummeling you when the boat’s at speed.
The second option is what I’m doing on one ride back. The orange towels are provided by MRB on every trip and they have a pretty tight weave which makes them somewhat wind-proof. So you turn your back to the direction from which the rain comes, wrap the towel around your head and hold on tight (protects the back of your neck as well). It actually provides pretty good protection, even though I feel I look like the stereotypical picture of a Russian peasant woman wrapped tightly in a headscarf.
You could also take Glenn Suhd’s approach:
HOW RAIN AFFECTED THE DIVING
WATER TEMPS AND VIZ
Sometimes reef recover from bleaching events, sometimes the reefs die. (While we were gone, this was driven home with stories of Florida reefs recording temps of 100º and bleaching/dying almost overnight.) With the exception of one reef, the bleaching we saw in Yap was very sporadic and didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary.
HOW THE WIND AFFECTED THE DIVING
But these storms moving around changed that because as the storm travels, it changes the direction of the winds it’s producing. One day the winds are out of the northeast but the next day they’re out of the northwest. Depending on the strength of the wind, the ocean can get whipped up quickly but it can also calm down somewhat quickly once the wind abates. The winds these storms produced generally were 10-15mph but we had two days where the wind speeds were being clocked at 20-30 mph. That latter speed is problematic and during those days we were limited to diving around Goofnu Channel. The extreme wind even caused us, on our final dive day, to cancel the planned second shark feed at Vertigo (NW side of the island) because of dangerous ocean conditions.
A lot of times during these conditions, the secret was simply to get in the water as quickly as possible. Because when we were underwater, we had anywhere from 50-100 foot visibility, and fairly calm waters (no surge), sometimes a mild current and sometimes nothing. In either case, we either drifted with the current or moved however we wanted and when the dive was over (although MRB doesn’t impose a time limit, most dives were 60 minutes long), we’d surface, the boat followed our bubbles, and was there to pick us up.
Sometimes, as mentioned above, even a few minutes makes a difference. We were heading to the Goofnu area one day (NE) during low tide and got stuck on a shallow reef. Nico & Ferr had to get out to see how we were stuck – water depth was MAYBE a foot or so – and what the options were. Nico even lost one of his shoes, which then became a running joke for the week because if we found a shoe underwater on the reef, we’d bring it up and ask Nico if it was his.
Once at the dive site, it was generally suit up on the boat, a backroll into the water (I still doing my patented standing front-roll that many of you have seen), gather together on a mooring line or under the boat, get and give an OK from/to the DM, and off we’d go to see what we could see.
Everyone was diving Nitrox32 but with computers set at 28% to give a little safety margin. We also suggested that everyone do a five-minute stop at 15 feet rather than just three minutes. In this case, more is definitely better. This has especially hit home for me personally because while I was away, two people that I know well have gotten bent, seemingly without committing any egregious deco errors. One has recovered but the other is having to relearn how to walk. I take nitrogen and decompression illness very seriously, especially when far away from home, and hope you do too.
End of the dive, the boat would be there – or would be nearby – to pick us up. Most people hung on a line that ran down the ladder (left) side of the boat side, removed weights, handed up tanks, removed fins, and came back on board. Once on board, they were handed a foil-wrapped “burrito” which is really a hot-to-warm (depending on time of day – the foil holds in the heat) foil-wrapped face cloth and it was nice to give yourself a once-over after each dive.
Also between the dives, the boats carry both cold water and hot tea, there’s MRB-made banana bread as a snack along with bananas after dive 1, lunch as mentioned previously after dive 2, and then tea/water after dive 3. You won’t go hungry or thirsty during the diving.
WHAT DID WE SEE – THE MANTAS
Because of the weather and channel visibility, we didn’t/couldn’t do as many cleaning station dives as we normally do but we still had some good encounters, although one time we got skunked at Goofnu in low visibility (less than 20 feet) with a raging current. (It helped to have a reef hook . . . and a vivid imagination o f mantas flying by your head.) On our first full day of diving, we had a three-manta fly-by – and they flew by three times – in Goofnu with good viz. On top of that, once we got to the cleaning station, there was yet another manta there waiting for us, but with much lessened visibility. And because of that, and where people were positioned around the cleaning station, half the group saw the manta and half the group didn’t realize he was there.
Some days later, a similar thing happened but to me. I was on the down-current side of the cleaning station getting some good belly shots of a manta – in case you didn’t know, belly markings are unique to each manta and how you ID who’s who – and once the manta left, I stayed in place waiting for him to hopefully circle back. The rest of the group was slightly up-current from me, probably no more than 40-50 feet away, and staring hopefully down the channel. What I couldn’t tell because of the viz, was that there were four mantas hanging in formation in the channel another 30 feet or so in front of them. They could see them clearly but I was just far enough further back that they were invisible to me. Such is the nature of the visibility beast.
Overall, based on belly markings, I recorded seven different mantas that we saw. They actually keep a database in Guam so we’re in the process of determining who we saw and if any of them were not seen before. The manta researcher who tracks all of this told me in an e-mail that, post-pandemic, they’ve been spotting new mantas in Yap and a lot of them are adults, so it may be evidence of new mantas joining the resident clan. Bear in mind that Yap and specifically MRB didn’t re-open to visitors until March of this year. So it’s been three years since the mantas saw any divers and vice-versa. They certainly seem curious about us and we certainly are curious about them.
We first did this dive with MRB back in 2002 and have continued to do so each year we’ve visited since. MRB now has two sites where they find Mandarinfish and on this trip, we dove both of them one night, and one of them a second night. We had mixed success both times. Everyone saw at least a couple of Mandarinfish – I didn’t had better luck the first night than the second – but a couple of people were on the right coral at the right time and saw plenty of flirting and even some mating. The nice thing about these dives is that they are shallow – generally 20 feet or less – and close – no more than a 5-minute ride from MRB.
There are two ways to dive Vertigo. One way is with a “tube” which is a piece of PVC tubing that has fish stuffed in it and some holes cut into the PVC. The holes allow the fish scent out and to drift along with the current which attracts the sharks, but the sharks can’t actually get at the food inside the tube so there’s no frenzy. But they tend to hang around to see if anything better pops up.
The other way is a full-on feed. In the past, that meant a large chunk of cut-up frozen fish – think of those plastic red utility tubs you get at Home Depot with rope handles that are good for icing drinks – with rebar frozen in the middle of all of it. The rebar is then attached to a line so that the frozen food floats just higher than the reef drop-off but about eye-level to where the divers are, so the sharks can easily hit and maneuver around the frozen bait while the divers get a good view and outstanding photo opportunities.
I was very interested in seeing how many sharks would show up. After not being fed regularly for three years, would there be any around? Or had they perhaps moved on to other places? On our tube dive, the sharks were definitely around but not in the numbers that they used to be. When we did these feeds in the past, I have pictures where you can count as many as 50 sharks (mostly Gray Reef and Blacktips). This time we got . . . . seven. Not the frenzy that normally get but not totally skunked either.
But when we did the first full-on feed – and there were definitely some issues with how much frozen bait we had – we also got a grand total of seven sharks. So it may simply be that the sharks that used to know that Vertigo was a reliable free meal have gone somewhere else. It’s certainly possible that if the regular feeds start again, they will come back.
Because what was also interesting was that on another day and further south along the western side, between dives, we spotted shark fins on the surface which implied a baitball underneath. We motored over to investigate and that’s exactly what it was. (Some people plopped in on snorkel to take a closer look.) What was most interesting about that was that there were at least two dozen sharks visible on the videos. So the sharks are certainly in the area, just maybe spread out a bit more and not all at Vertigo. By the same token, I’ve been told these are most likely Silkies, so more oceanic, and NOT the same Grays and Blacktips we get at Vertigo. So while there may be two distinct shark populations in Yap – oceanic and resident reef – there are definitely sharks there. And we saw individual sharks on some of the other dives as well.
ALONG WITH . . .
Some of this may be due to reef structure, which seems very resilient and healthy in all the areas we dove. Lots of hard corals and giant coral mounds. Along the eastern side of the island, it’s mainly sloping corals into the depths while along the western side of Yap, it’s more wall-like. But the eastern side also has some mini-walls like at Tradewinds and the entrance to Goofnu Channel and those can be dramatic and interesting.
The reefs are abundant with an amazing variety of Parrotfish, Butterflies, Angelfish, Anemonefish, Wrasses, schooling Barracuda, Damselfish galore, and more. One thing I noticed, and which surprised me, was how many Two-tone Dartfish there were. I’m talking thousands of them on a single site and it seemed like almost every site we visited had an abundance of them. And we saw turtles – both Green and Hawksbill – on most dives.
Amongst the Angelfish, one of my favorites is the Flame Angel, usually shy and hard to shoot. They flit in and out of the reef and as soon as they realize you’ve spotted them, they seem to dart off under a coral, only to reappear a few seconds later to see if you’re still there. In places like Hawaii they are rare because they have been collected commercially for the home aquarium trade. And while I’ve seen them many times in Yap, usually it’s only been on the southern reefs. This time they seemed to be everywhere. They’re stunningly colorful as you can see:
I also got very excited because I saw some species that are new to me and which I’ve yet to identify. But one in particular I found to be very striking and which I learned is an Arrowhead Soapfish. Although Soapfish in general are not very colorful, this guy was distinguished by an amazing dorsal fin and matching ventral fin, with a bright spot on his caudal peduncle, and a stripe pattern on his body. They’re only a few inches long and I think I spotted three of them over the course of our time there, including this one who sat patiently and posed for me, with his dorsal in full display:
As most of you know, I could go on and on about the fish I saw and photo’d but a better idea is to suggest you visit my SmugMug page and view the Yap slideshow. I don’t ID each slide (a LOT of work) but if there’s something you’re curious about what it is, just shoot me a note.
A QUICK WORD ABOUT THE HOTEL ITSELF
And a final nice touch was their new Hyundai County Deluxe bus that’s used to pick guests up at the airport and which is also used for their land tours. It’s air-conditioned, seats about 30 people, rides well, and is a great way to be taken around the island. They used it for us for our airport transfers, our ½-day land tours, and another non-dive day where we visited a village and did a beachside BBQ.
Two words about the ½-day land tour: Book it. Since you can’t dive the day you’ll be flying out, it’s a great thing to do on that day. You’ll see some World War II historic sites, visit a stone money back, go inside a traditional Men’s House, and will get a taste of local Yapese culture. It’s a quite worthwhile thing to do for the end of your trip.