YAP & PALAU - JULY/AUGUST, 2002

Anytime we plan a trip or you plan one on your own, your visions are of sunny skies, calm seas, a light tropical breeze, an ocean teeming with fish and marine life, and an idyllic time. Unfortunately, reality sometimes cruelly clashes with that vision.

The short version of this is that we had a dandy time (and we absolutely LOVED Yap and the Yapese) but, from a conditions standpoint, we didn’t have the weather that we all would have liked to have experienced.

For the uninitiated, Yap and Palau are among a cluster of world-class dive destinations in the western Pacific just above the Equator. Yap is part of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) which also includes Truk (now known as Chuuk), Kosrae, and Pohnpei. Palau is an independent country with a Compact of Free Association with then United States. What it basically means is that in both Yap and Palau, they speak English, use American currency, and you can mail a letter home for 37 cents.

Geographically, you fly from LA to Honolulu, then on to Guam, hang a left (south) and a few hundred miles later will come to Yap. Palau is an additional 300 miles or so southwest of Yap.

The first leg of the trip had us spending four days (three of those diving) in Yap and, after an overnight in Guam, arrived in Yap without any problems at 8:30AM. We were met at the airport by the van for Manta Ray Bay/Yap Divers and off we went to begin our dive adventure.

The Manta Ray Bay Hotel is a very nice, 3-story hotel with 23 air-conditioned rooms. Nothing fancy but certainly comfortable. We had two huge rooms (304 & 204, in case you plan a trip there on your own - if you really want to splurge, room 302 comes with a private staircase leading to your own roof-top Jacuzzi) that provided us with ample storage, comfortable beds, a refrigerator, a TV (which only gets the hotel informational channel) and a VCR, and nice bathroom area. Be forewarned the hotel does not have an elevator so if climbing stairs is going to be an issue, get a lower-story room.

The hotel butts right up to the water, and located dockside is Yap Divers. They’ve got a gear room area where you can keep all your dive gear during your stay, as well as the requisite rinse tanks and gear-hanging areas. There’s even a bathroom/outhouse in the dive area which was a convenient touch.

Yap Divers was running three of their five boats when we were there, and we had a boat all to ourselves. Again, nothing fancy. The boats are roughly 25-30’ long, have a top that provides shade, and the boats carry water and between-dive snacks. Best of all, these suckers are FAST!!! Twin 100-hp outboards means you go sites around 30mph. So distance is not a big deal. We dove both ends of the island (the main island of Yap is about 40 miles long - Manta Ray Bay is pretty much in the middle) and never had a run longer than 40 minutes.

Although Yap offers some pretty good diving (more on that in a bit), the primary attraction is manta rays. Depending on who you talk to, Yap has anywhere from 50-100 resident mantas frequenting the channels of the Yap barrier reef. The mantas seem to remain year-round but why is not known. One theory has it that Yap, being surrounded by deep ocean trenches, is simply a convenient place for them to stay since travel to the next nearest land mass involves quite a long journey over deep ocean.

But the other thing to know about manta encounters (at least while we were there) is that they’re early-morning ventures. Every morning, the mantas cruise in from the open ocean to frequent cleaning stations and rid themselves of parasites and other nuisances. This is the best time to see them and get a close encounter. So "manta mornings" meant getting up early and leaving the dock by 7AM so we could be in the Goofnuw Channel and the Valley of the Rays around 7:30AM. But we were amply rewarded for our early morning rise. (In contrast, the two other groups staying at the resort while we were there rarely got off the dock before 8AM and got, at best, fleeting glimpses of mantas.)

Simply put, the two manta dives we did were (#1) good, and (#2) spectacular. On the first day, we sat patiently in the channel about 60 feet deep waiting for the mantas to show up. When, after about 20 minutes, one finally appeared, SOMEone in our group (okay, there may be some video evidence to suggest it was me) got a little too excited and moved in too close and basically spooked the manta away. Lesson learned.

On the second morning, we planted ourselves around the same cleaning station and didn’t have to wait too long for the first manta. Then the second. Then the third. Then the fourth. Mark Thorpe, the resident photo pro/DM joined us for this dive and estimates we had 7 different mantas coming in. Wingspans were estimated at 8-14’.

It was fascinating watches these gentle beasts come in. They’d glide down the channel (visibility was probably 60-80’), aiming for a rocky mound, which we surrounded, that served as their cleaning station. The mantas would glide over the mound, come to a stop and hover, and then perhaps a dozen cleaner fish would dart off the mound and start working the manta over. The cleaner fish would pick at the skin, inside the gills, and even inside the mouth of the manta. And the ray would sometimes shake them off, glide around for a moment, and then come back to continue the cleaning.

Best of all, we enjoyed this action for about 45 minutes. It was so interesting that we almost forgot about the eagle ray who swam with us over to the cleaning station. And you forgot to notice at times that there were white-tip sharks sitting in the sand, wondering why you weren’t paying any attention to them.

But Yap diving is not all mantas. We had some really nice dives (nine in all, including the two manta dives) over other Yap reefs. The fish life was okay (but not spectacular), the reefs were in decent (but not phenomenal) shape, but the lettuce coral was truly amazing. Just patches after patch after patch of it. And we did have three spectacular dives in Yap.

The first was at a place called "1 to 2" which is not more than a 5-minute run from Manta Ray Bay. It’s so-named because of all the macro life you find here and is very reminiscent of diving the Lembeh Straits in Indonesia. On this dive, we saw juvy lionfish, nudibranchs, flatworms, tiny crabs, pipefish, an octopus, cardinalfish of every variety, and a resident white mantis shrimp that blends in perfectly with the sand.

We also had an incredible dive at Yap Caverns/Gilmaan Wall. Although we didn’t spend too much time in the Caverns, we swam out to a vertical wall that was simply teeming with fish, and as we swam along, sharks would pace us just slightly off the wall into the blue. We ran into Napoleon wrasses, barracuda, and an adorable persistent spadefish who adopted our group for about half the dive and would dart from diver to diver to see what we were looking at. The dive ended as a school of rainbow runners, a few thousand strong, surrounded us in a swirl, and then went on their merry way.

Although I rated that dive a 10+, even that wasn’t the highlight of Yap, as far as I was concerned.

The highlight came when Mark Thorpe casually asked if we were interested in seeing Mandarinfish. Since that’s an animal on my "must-see" list (they’re about the size of your pinkie and very shy & elusive), my ears were positively burning when he added, "Because I know a place where every night around 6:30, they come out and mate." What followed was simply an unbelievable dive.

They took us to a location inside Manta Ray Bay (again, about a 5-minute ride), and showed us where to start looking. And sure enough, after only a few minutes. There were Mandarinfish . . . EVERYWHERE!!!

The fish peruse staghorn and other branching coral. They go around nibbling on polyps and looking for food scraps. The males are bigger than the females, and have a large dorsal fin, which they flash, to attract a female’s attention. The males cruise the coral, nibbling and keeping an eye out for females and, when they spot one, start to chase her around the coral. (Why does this sound like a typical Saturday night at a watering hole???) At some point, the female either decides the male is a suitable suitor (or she’s just getting tired of getting chased) and she pecks him on the cheek and settles on to his pectoral fin. They then rise together from inside the coral and when they’re a foot or so above the coral, still pec-by-pec, there’s a small explosion of sperm and egg, and they both dart back into the safety of the coral and go about their merry way.

To say that this was fascinating would be an understatement. Best of all, because we were shallow (no more than 20’ deep) and the boat was nearby, I was able to shoot a full roll of macro with my 105mm lens, go up, change film and lens (28-105mm) and then go back down and shoot another roll.

But by 7:30, almost as if the end-of-the-day whistle had blown, there was not a Mandarinfish in sight. The window of opportunity lasts about an hour, but what a window it was!!!

After our final day of diving in Yap, we had a full day to kill since our flight to Palau didn’t leave until after midnight and that left time to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid which was go see the Stone Money of Yap.

As you may know, Stone Money, even to this day, is legal tender in Yap. Ironically, it’s not quarried in Yap, but in Palau, and the value of an individual piece is based upon not only it’s size, but also the craftsmanship of the piece and the difficulty of bringing the piece back to Yap. Because some of the pieces of Stone Money can be as much as 12 feet in diameter, you don’t just slip them into your pocket. Much of the money is kept in "Stone Money Banks" that line the road with the Stone Money propped up. Though ownership may change hands over the years, the Stone Money rarely is moved. Everyone just "knows" who owns what. (And no one chips off little pieces for "change.")

So, after breakfast, we set off for the village of Ruhl, about a 20-minute walk, to see the Stone Money Bank there. What a treat! There must have been over two dozen pieces lining the side of the road. We talked to a couple of the locals who lived there about the money and they obliging took the requisite tourist photos of us with the Stone Money.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that there is no such thing as counterfeit Stone Money. I asked why not and was told it just had never been an issue because, as mentioned earlier, everyone "knows" who owns what, as well as the story behind it, so it’d be hard to create and pass off a counterfeit piece.

But our time in Yap had come to an end and now it was time to get to the airport for our 1:45AM (yechhhh!!!) flight to Koror, Palau. Upon arrival in Palau (it’s only a 1-hour flight and you pick up an hour due to time-zone changes, so you also arrive at 1:45AM), we went to a hotel for a good night’s sleep as we had most of the next day to kill before boarding the Palau Aggressor.

Upon awakening the next morning, I noticed two things that would portend the week we were about to have: (1) It was overcast, and (2) It was windy. Not just breezy, but fairly windy. I was already aware (thanks to the Internet in Yap) that there was a low-pressure system, which was later become typhoon Phanfone that hit Japan August 18 (the day we left Palau). And seeing whitecaps in the bay adjacent to the hotel didn’t help ease the feeling I had that we might have weather problems during the week.

Palau itself was very different from Yap. Much more developed, and it seems like not only does everyone have a car but that they’re all on the road at the same time. Although Palau only has a population of a little over 19,000, they must all come to Koror for the weekend to go cruising.

But we still had a nice time walking around, discovered a fabulous little restaurant (whose name escapes me at the moment - but it’s catty-corner from the Gymnasium), found some nice shops, visited Fish ‘N Fins dive shop, and had a great time at the Palau Aquarium.

That afternoon, we boarded the Aggressor. Although it’s showing it’s age a bit (and is due to go into dry-dock and be overhauled in November) it was still everything you’d expect an Aggressor to be: spacious dive deck, great camera table, nicely-appointed rooms, great lounge and dining area, spacious sundeck, and fabulous food (thanks to chef Andrew Monks, who’s now off to be the chef on the Tahiti Aggressor).

The weather, unfortunately, was not to be as accommodating. Anytime you go on a trip like this, you picture the type of weather we had in Yap: sun-kissed skies, calm seas, blue ocean, and an idyllic setting. The entire week we were in Palau, we never saw the sun (certainly not the fault of the Aggressor), the wind blew a pretty steady 20-25mph with gusts to 40mph, whitecaps were just about everywhere, the seas ran anywhere from diveable (2-4 feet) to we-can’t-go-there (10-15 feet) and we endured occasional downpours (well, it IS the tropics after all).

But the good news was that, even with rough seas, there’s always someplace to go dive. (Just not the more famous of Palau’s sites, located on the outside of their barrier reef, and we never even contemplated going south to Peleliu.) Given the structure of the Palau and the famous Rock Islands (which are not just a small collection of islands as I originally thought, but are 300 strong, scattered from Koror south to Peleliu), you can always find a calm area to dive that will offer wondrous things to see.

The Palau Aggressor has an interesting way of diving. Their 40-foot dive skiff is mounted on a hydraulic lift that lets it rest even with the dive deck. Most of your gear (tanks, BC, regs, weights, mask & fins) stays on the skiff. For each dive, you simply slip into your wetsuit, grab your camera, and step on the skiff. Then it’s lowered into the water, and away you go. And given that the skiff travels (shades of Yap) at close to 40mph, it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. The big boat moors as close as possible to the dive site and the skiff takes you the rest of the way.

The general plan was four dives each day. Due to the weather conditions, the Aggressor couldn’t get close to many of the sites so, since the skiffs ride would be longer than normal, we planned on a morning dive (8:30), late morning dive (11:00), mid-afternoon (3:00), and night dive (6:30) each day. (In calmer seas, you’ll probably get 5 per day.) Although the dives are guided, you’re not required to stay with the guide and the only limitation the Aggressor puts on you is a maximum bottom time (including safety stop) of one hour.

Even with the lousy weather, we didn’t miss a single dive, getting in 21 dives (plus Jellyfish Lake) over the course of our 5½ days of diving. Visibility wasn’t too swift on most sites given the weather, and there was a lot of particulate in the water (making it a photographic challenge to say the least). We mainly faced 40-foot vis (instead of 140-feet) with an occasional 20-foot but also a couple of dives where the vis exceeded 100 feet.

Despite all this, a very good time was had by all. (And kudos to the group for having a good attitude about all this.)

Probably our favorite dive was our first dive at German Channel (one of the few "famous" spots we hit) and the most spectacular thing we saw were the sharks coming in to be cleaned.

We went down the mooring line and settled in the channel about 80 feet deep. In front of us was a large coral mound, rising up to perhaps 50 feet, that served as a cleaning station. We watched in amazement was shark after shark (most gray reef and some black-tips) would glide in, hover motionless over the mound, dip their tail down so they were at a 45º angle, open their mouths . . . and then scores of cleaner fish would dart up off the reef, jump into the sharks’ mouths and basically floss them!!! Truly incredible.

We also found (in German Channel) a very cooperative crocodile fish and an anemone that the Aggressor crew refers to as the "flaming" anemone because it seems to glow red under natural light. Take a picture of it with a flash, however, and it comes out greenish-brown. Go figure.

Throughout the week, we saw the usual collection Palau’s underwater inhabitants: countless clownfish, lionfish, butterflies of all description, octopi, barracuda, wrasses (including a fair number of male and female Napoleon’s - but no close encounters with them), cardinalfish, glassy sweepers, squid, nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps of many varieties, parrotfish, grunts, turtles, schools of jacks, needlefish, sharks of all varieties and sizes, trevallies, clown triggerfish (including the cutest little juveniles I’ve ever seen - very vibrant colors), trumpetfish (including one golden trumpet), crabs, scrawled filefish, scribbled puffers, squirrelfish of all sorts, every kind of sweetlips you can think of, clams, damsels, pipefish, basket stars (at night), crinoids, angels (including the lovely yellow-mask and the delightful blue-girdle), Moorish idols, and a host of others.

We even saw Mandarinfish at (aptly-named) Mandarinfish Lake. We did the same thing as in Yap: entered around 6PM and waited for them to come out and start the mating ritual. And sure, enough, right on schedule, there they were.

The corals in Palau were in relatively good shape, but bear in mind that most of our experiences comes from seeing the inside reefs, which you’d expect to be a bit more beat up since they’re exposed to more human pressure and less nutrients than the outer reefs would be. I’d assume the outer reef corals are healthier. We saw a little bit of coral bleaching but not much. And although we didn’t see as many soft corals as I would have expected, I think that was more due to diving the inside areas where current as less prevalent and soft corals and less likely to find a home.

One advantage of our modified diving plan was that we dove a number of World War II wrecks, sunk during "Operation Desecrate" in 1944. The Iro, and the Chuyo Maru were good, as was a wreck called "Buoy 6." But perhaps our favorite wreck was the Helmet Wreck. It’s a stone’s throw from the Aggressor dock and although the vis isn’t very good (we did it as two night dives), the macro is incredible with nudibranchs, crabs, shrimps, sleeping fish, and you can explore the holds and see depth charges, gas masks, and shells. (We never did find the helmets, though.)

But the highlight of the trip had to be our journey to Jellyfish Lake. Even though it’s a snorkel, it was our favorite "dive".

To get there, you jump on the dive skiff and motor at high speed through and around the Rock Islands (which is, in itself, a thrill). The boat drops you off at a dock and then you have to hike up and over a tall hill. There’s a stone path with a rope to hang on to, but good shoes are required and on a hot day, you’re going to work up a sweat. At the base of the hill on the other side is Jellyfish Lake. There you’ll find another dock where you gear up and enter. Only snorkeling is allowed in Jellyfish Lake, partly because to lug scuba gear up and over would be punishing, but mainly because there’s a toxic bacteria that lives in the lake below 50’ (which the jellies thrive on at night), and which could cause long-term respiratory damage to humans with even only a few minutes exposure.

Jellyfish Lake is perhaps 400 yards long and 200 yards wide. It doesn’t look like anything special from the surface, but once you stick your snorkel in your mouth and put your face in the water . . . wow!!!! Although there was a die-off in 1997-98 attributed to El Niño, the jellies are back with a vengeance. I have no idea if a jelly census has even been done, but if someone said the population in the lake was one million, I’d be willing to believe them.

Within a few yards of the dock, you’ll start to see a few jellies (mainly mastigias and some moon jellies), some as small as your thumb and some as big as your fist, with every other size in between. As you continue out into the sunny portions of the lake (the jellies tend to flock to the sunny areas - and we actually got some sun during our 90 minutes here), the number of jellies begins to multiply until you feel like you’re in the middle of jelly soup. And all of them (stingless, thank goodness) are pulsating away, bumping in to you, going around you, and doing whatever it is that jellies do every day.

We also had time to explore the shallower areas that are home to an anemone which traps straying and unwitting jellies, and a little black/brown fish that darts out and takes a nip of jelly anytime one gets close enough. These two critters are the only predators the jellies have in the lake.

To say that this is somewhat surreal would be an understatement. What’s really cool is that as you snorkel around with your head in the water, you occasionally hear a "Whooo!!" from your fellow snorkelers as they are delighted by their jelly encounters. And it provided a fitting end (we did one short dive after the jellies) to a memorable trip. After a farewell dinner with the other divers and crew, we spent another day in Palau and then winged our way home, through Guam and Honolulu.

Was Palau everything we’d expected? Yes and no. "Yes" in terms of showing us spectacular marine life and some sights that can be seen only in Palau. "No" in terms of the topside weather. But therein lies a lesson to be learned as well.

Too often, I hear divers complain when they go on trips to fabulous locations that the weather was lousy so they didn’t have a good time. But even with lousy weather, there are still fascinating things to be seen and, although you may not make it to all the sites you’d planned, and you may not come home with a perfect tan, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to have a good trip. It’s all in how you want to perceive it. And again, to our band of intrepid travelers (Kevin Brooks, John Morgan, Helen Elson, and Sandra Kline), I take my hat off because they had a good attitude about the whole thing. Our collective motto became, "It is what it is. Now let’s go diving!!"

Will we go back to Palau? Absolutely. In fact, we’re already looking at something for next year when the weather’s a bit more reliable (perhaps somewhere March-June). Will we have a good time again? No doubt about it. You wanna come join us? Well, it just takes a phone call (and a deposit) to become part of our next adventure.


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