YAP & PALAU - MAY, 2003
As you may recall . . .
Our initial trip to Yap & Palau in August of 2002 was lovely and everyone had a good time but the weather was less than co-operative, with great weather in Yap but windy weather in Palau (due to the edges of a typhoon that was heading towards Japan) and that prevented us from getting to most of the good Palau sites. So we almost immediately hatched a plan to return to Palau in search of better weather and diving conditions. And we hoped ("hope" being the key word) to have better luck in May of this year.
Our group of intrepid travelers this go-round included myself, Charley & Sherry Dargan, and Cecilia Quigley & Donna Groman starting off in Yap, being joined by John Morgan (who had done the previous trip) and Stefan Mason when we got to Palau.
Let's just say that at the beginning of the second trip, there was strong sentiment to add to my collection of nicknames "Typhoon Ken."
One of the things I've learned about dive travel over the years is that weather, in general, is probably the least of your worries. Rain is certainly not as much a consideration as is wind. And outside of hurricane passing over your dive location, operators will find a way to get you diving. Since we plan these trips so far ahead of time, the best you can do is have an understanding of the general weather patterns for the area and hope that you don't get an anomaly. For instance, during our Australia trip in January 2001, the week prior to our arrival they had a lot of wind. The week we were there, the seas were flat. Two weeks after we left, it was Victory at Sea. Go figure.
I also keep an eye on the weather the week before we leave. On this trip, I knew there was a low-pressure system developing but hoped it wouldn't affect us too much. When we landed in Guam, we were told that the system was developing into a typhoon but that it looked like it would skirt Yap, our first stop.
When we arrived in Yap the next day, we disembarked the plane in a steady drizzle. Unfortunately, this was to be what we'd endure over the next four days. Shades of 2002 danced in my head with fears of it lasting the entire trip.
But our hosts at the Manta Ray Bay Resort were, as always, congenial about everything. And it wasn't like it rained every second. It'd rain for half an hour and then stop for half an hour, sometimes even with the sun - or as we came to call it later, the "mysterious bright glowing orb in the sky" - peeking through. But the rain and accompanying wind whipped up the seas a bit, which meant traveling inside the barrier reef before diving the outer sites.
But that didn't deter our diving. Yap offers some really nice reefs that are in fairly good shape. You definitely see some coral damage and there's evidence of overfishing but it still offers good diving. And manta rays are one of the big attractions.
We had decent luck with the mantas, but not as good as the previous trip. The visibility (lessened due to rain runoff) certainly played into this as on our first dive in the Valley of the Rays the vis was ranging 20-30 feet. Not great for spotting these huge animals on approach. We saw one ray that day, but only briefly and somewhat out in the gloom.
But there's still other great stuff to see here. We watched a nudibranch lay its rosette of eggs (bright red in this case), as well as spotting many of the other usual reef creatures along with some white-tipped sharks that patrol the channel.
Our best manta encounter came on our attempt the following day. There were three groups ahead of us (never a good sign) and so we sat on the boat and bided our time. When we finally entered and settled in at the base of the cleaning station we had an amazing interaction with a solitary ray. Not only did this one come in to be cleaned but, after about 5 minutes, she got curious about the bubble-blowers and started checking us out. At one point I took a picture of her and, as soon as the flash went off, she turned and, gently flapping her 12-foot wingspan, headed towards me. As I'd just fired my last shot (of course - rats!!!), I could only stare in awe as the ray came straight at me and passed not more than a foot over my head. Pretty amazing!!!
The other great attraction in Yap has been the relatively recent discovery of Mandarinfish at a place called O'Keefe Island, only a few minutes from the Manta Ray Bay's dock. Last year we had a fabulous twilight dive with them. This year, the visibility was almost mud (less than 5' in some spots) and the Mandarinfish weren't anywhere near as active as they had been the previous time. But they were still interesting to see, even if the sightings were only fleeting.
All in all, as before, Yap offers decent - and occasionally spectacular - diving with the Manta Rays and the Mandarinfish being the main attractions. We've enjoyed both our stays at Manta Ray Bay Hotel and can recommend them without hesitation. The only "bad" part about Yap is leaving. Once again, we had that God-awful 1AM Saturday night/Sunday morning flight to Palau, which arrives in Palau at 1AM (time zone change) which means you check into the hotel around 2:30AM. But after a semi-decent night's sleep we were raring to go.
I was very heartened to see that the weather was improving. I hoped that the bad weather was going to have been in Yap and the good stuff lay ahead. I was not to be disappointed.
We killed time Sunday in the usual way - early-morning coffee from the Internet Cafe, strolling around Palau and seeing the Supreme Court (where the Chief Justice gave Donna Groman, who is a judge, a private tour of the place), visiting the Palau Aquarium, shopping for souvenirs, and having lunch a Furusato, a great little Japanese restaurant we'd discovered last year. Around 5PM, we were picked up and taken to the Palau Aggressor's dock.
As you'd expect, the Aggressor crew is very attentive and the boat is extremely comfortable. Each room has a lower double and upper single bunk, storage areas, a sink, and a head and shower. There's plenty of storage on the main deck for dive gear and camera equipment, and the second deck is devoted to the galley/salon and an al fresco diving area, with the upper deck being a sun deck.
Diving is done from the 30' long high-speed skiff that sits on a hydraulic lift, level with the main dive deck. Tanks, BC, regs, and weights live on the skiff, and when it's time to go diving, you simply put on your wetsuit, grab whatever else you need, hop on the skiff and it's lowered into the water and off you go (at speeds up to 40mph!!!). Because the skiff is not only fast but also very maneuverable, it's an ideal diving platform when the currents can pull divers either over long distances or in various directions.
But diving is what we came to do and diving is what we did. The short version is that we had much better weather (although still not "perfect" - see the end of this story to learn about one more quest) than previously and got to dive all the sites we didn't get to dive on the first trip. Although the first day weather was a little choppy, forcing us to dive some inside sites, each day got better and better.
Actually, I rather like some of the inside stuff. The downside is that you sacrifice visibility but the upside is that you get to dive some wrecks and see some things that might otherwise go overlooked if you're only diving the more "popular" sites. Three of the wrecks we visited the first day were the Chuyo Maru, the Buoy 6, and the Helmet.
The Chuyo has good growth (but low vis - shoot macro) and nice critters. There are lionfish at the bow and a congregation of glass sweepers off of one side, plus interesting things growing on the kingposts.
The Buoy 6 wreck lies in the middle of a current-swept channel bored by reef on both sides and although the wreck is interesting, I never made it there this time because I found too many other nifty things to look at and photograph along the way. Two juvy yellow boxfish, a bunch of flatworms, nudibranchs, pastel-colored soft corals, anemones with clowns buried inside, and transparent shrimp were only a few of the distractions that caught my eye.
We did the Helmet wreck as our night dive and it did not disappoint. The wreck gets its name from a stack of helmets in the hold and we also found some dishes on the wreck with an unknown logo. In addition, we got the usual collection of night critters with a plethora of eels, shrimps, and crabs.
On that first day, we also squeezed in a visit to Chandelier Caves. Now there are plenty of people who will rave about this dive but I'm not going to be one of the them. I've only dove it twice, but each time it's been ho-hum at best. It's simply a semi-shallow, very dark, dead-end cave. There aren't any animals inside (except for the mythical Bobbit Worm living in the silty bottom), it's really dark (which makes it hard to take pictures), and - IMHO - not all that exciting.
However, the reef in front does offer interesting things to see (though the vis is typically low) so I amused myself by exploring that after spending all of 5 minutes inside the caves. Out there we found nudibranchs, interesting coral formations, lots of gobies, and juvy butterflies.
But one of the goals of this trip was to hit the spots we'd missed before and the next four and a half days got us that in spades. The "big" sites include German Channel, Big Dropoff, New Dropoff, Ulong Channel, and what many people think of as one of the finest dives in the world - Blue Corner (and the adjacent Blue Hole). In looking through my dive notes (yes, I really do log every dive - so should you if you don't already), the word "WOW!!!" appears frequently.
In fact, the first "WOW!!!" designation went to a dive we did at Big Dropoff. The wall itself is almost perfectly vertical and the current sweeping down it supports a profusion of soft corals and sea fans that are simply stunning. Every the shallow parts, which are not so vertical, are fabulous. There were many schools of fish including an amazing amount of Pyramid butterflies and a seemingly endless school of Neon fusiliers. We also found a very large carpet anemone with a porcelain crab hiding underneath. I held the anemones edge up so Charley could get some shots and as I was doing so, I could feel the anemone sticking to my hand to the point that when Charley was done, it took me two hands and almost two minutes to get myself unstuck.
The next "WOW!!!" (my note actually says "YAHOO!!" but the sentiment is the same) came the following morning at New Dropoff. We started the dive with a turtle accompanied by seven sharks cruising the wall (and cruising us). The next note I made was, "Almost too much stuff to see." (Now THAT'S my kind of dive.) We had schooling Sennet barracuda, Blue-lined snappers, dozens of Titan triggers, thousands (maybe millions) of red-toothed triggers (and yes, their teeth really are red), as well as a big male Napoleon wrasse that ALMOST let me touch him. This was one of those dives that leaves you almost speechless.
Who'd have thought that less than two hours later, this dive would be relegated to second place?
The new champ (and probably my favorite dive of the whole trip) was Blue Hole. This is an ENORMOUS cavern that's perhaps 200 yards north of Blue Corner. The cavern's dimension must be a good 100 yards front-to-back, perhaps 50 yards wide, and close to 100' top-to-bottom, with the sandy bottom sloping upwards from the entrance to a passage marking the entrance to a cave system (off limits to divers) in the rear of the cavern.
On top of all of that, unlike most caverns, Blue Hole is bathed in light. There are four holes on the ceiling letting in sunlight (through them you can see waves passing overhead and breaking on the shallow reef), plus two huge openings in the front of the cavern along the wall, as well as a few other holes (easily big enough for two of three divers to pass through), that let in ample light.
The result is that Blue Hole is awash in light and that means there are fish inside as well as some growth of corals and fans. Couple that with the shafts of sun light streaking down through the openings, as well as the immense size of the place, and there's almost a religious feeling to the whole experience. (Personally, I'd suggest changing the name to "Blue Cathedral" or "Cathedral Cavern" or something like that.) But it's truly an amazing experience and a remarkable and unique dive.
After spending perhaps 20 minutes in Blue Cathedral . . . oops . . . Blue Hole, we exited and drifted down the wall to finish up the dive at Blue Corner. There was almost no current at this time so the action at Blue Corner wasn't too spectacular but I did see one of the more amazing things I've seen during my time underwater. First, some background.
In addition to the requisite sharks, there are a couple of regulars at Blue Corner. One is a huge Eagle ray named Pepino. The other two are male Napoleon wrasses, one named Stitch (he's got a crooked tooth and lower jaw) and the other named Sweetie.
Sweetie, to put it simply, loves hanging around divers. On every Blue Corner dive we made, Sweetie would come visit just about every diver, take a good look, and then move on to someone else. Sometime Sweetie would just hang off your shoulder watching the parade of marine life along with you. But more specifically, Sweetie absolutely adores Hector, one of the Aggressor guides. (The fact that Hector frequently has a hard-boiled egg in his pocket for Sweetie doesn't hurt the admiration level, either.) And while at times you wonder if the fish REALLY know who's who, perhaps the rest of this story (now that you have the background) will get you to thinking.
So, we finish our time in Blue Cathedral . . . oops . . . Blue Hole, and we exit, drifting south towards Blue Corner. The vis was excellent (close to 100') and I decided that I'd kick out into the blue and drift, to get a larger view of the wall.
While I was doing that, I noticed Sweetie coming up behind our group of divers. I watched in amazement as Sweetie raced to join the group, then calmly looked at each diver until he found Hector in the middle of the pack, and then fell in alongside Hector all the way to Blue Corner.
Now before you think, "Sweetie smelled the egg in Hector's pocket," I need to add that Hector wasn't carrying any food for Sweetie. Seemingly, Sweetie can just pick Hector out of a crowd, as we saw this happen on subsequent dives. Pretty cool.
So we finished up in Sweetie's company at Blue Corner but without a lot of shark activity (plenty of other fish, though), probably due to a lack of current. One school of thought as to why the sharks are attracted to the currents and upwellings is that, since sharks generally need to keep moving, the water movement gives them a chance to "rest" while gliding into the current and letting the water rush over their gills without having to expend too much effort. And we would see this first-hand merely two hours later as we went back to Blue Corner, this time with the current ripping. Here are my actual notes from our first full dive (current and all) at Blue Corner:
"WOW!!! Lives up to its reputation. Started off w/a Titan trigger making a run at everyone. Then Sweetie joined us to do a dance w/Hector. I managed to kiss him on the lips. This was followed by a drift down the wall w/dozens of sharks all around, plus schools of barracuda and jacks. Finally hooked in and show began. Sharks just position themselves and hang in the current. They come very close to you as well. Current is blasting up the wall and over the top of the ledge so no reef hook means bye-bye. Sweetie stayed w/us too & I kissed him again for Ryan's camera. Saw Pepino the Eagle ray on the back plateau during the hang. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 does not do it justice."
We dove Blue Corner four times during this trip and every time was a treat. In addition to the sharks, there's a lot of activity on top of the wall with lots of Black-and-white snappers and Marble groupers getting cleaned, fire gobies and leopard wrasses darting around, schooling Sennet barracuda drifting around, and Pepino patrolling the back channels. Just off the wall (no more than 10-20') there's a "wall" of Pyramid butterflies that separate every time a shark comes through and the close in when the shark has passed. If you don't find this site high-voltage, it's time to turn in your c-card.
There were two other dives (and one snorkel) that bear mentioning. One was Ulong Channel, which we dove twice back-to-back.
The first time was the proverbial E-ticket ride. It was certainly the strongest current we found our entire time in Palau. But it also brought out literally TONS of sharks. At one point, I counted seventeen (Grays, White-tips, and Black-tips) in my direct field of view. But the full number was probably well over 50 sharks cruising around and hanging in the current.
After 20 minutes of hanging on for dear life at the lip of Ulong Channel, we unhooked and then the fun REALLY began as the current whipped us down the channel, past startled (and sometimes skittish) groupers who were trying to protect nests. At one point, I got the bright idea of re-hook in to hold my position. BIG mistake, as the current was so strong and it stretched the line to my reef hook so tight, that it took me three or four minutes to unhook.
But one of the highlights of the Ulong Channel drift is that towards the end of the channel, there's a patch of delicate pale yellow lettuce coral that's said to be the biggest in Palau if not perhaps Micronesia. It's easily 40 feet tall and close to 300 feet long. Gorgeous and stunning.
We approached our second dive in Ulong three hours later with great anticipation, only to find that the current had reversed, making it absolutely impossible to go up the channel, and also chasing every single shark away. Where once there were 50 sharks, now there were none. It was still an interesting dive, but also indicative of how things can change relatively quickly.
The other dive worth noting was the only dive we did at Peleliu, at a place called Barracks Point. The conditions were simply perfect - exactly what you would dream about if you were describing your idea of an ultimate dive. A pod of Spinner dolphins greeted us as we approached the site, jumping and twirling in the air. The water was 85º, the visibility around 150', and the reef was festooned with purple soft corals, making it absolutely the prettiest site we visited all week. Looking out into deep water, you saw that color of blue that you dream about when you think of an "ultimate" dive. And out in that blue was where we found the animal that made this dive even more memorable.
As we descended, half the group went left (as planned) but half the group dropped down to the right, where a lone Black-tip shark was cruising. As they observed and photographed the shark, they noticed him becoming more and more agitated. Moments later, he bolted. At that point, looking out into the blue, they saw a very large shadow start to emerge.
Charley Dargan says his first thought was, "Hey, that's a Whale shark. I'm kicking out to catch a ride," and he started out. But as the animal approached closer and could be seen more clearly, Charley said to himself, "Oh my gosh!! That's not a Whale shark. That's a TIGER shark. What am I doing out here," and he quickly rejoined the group.
Charley was right. A Tiger shark, rarely sighted in Palau waters, was cruising in from the blue to take a look at our group. We estimate his size (based on John Morgan's excellent video) to be somewhere around 12' or so. He came in, turned to parallel the wall, cruised a bit, and then turned again and disappeared into the blue from whence he came. Needless to say, the collective heart rate of the group was rather high.
On our final day of diving (really a half day) and mindful of the fact that we were flying at 2AM and wanted to get a minimum of 18 hours of surface interval in, we scheduled a final early-morning (7AM) dive at Blue Corner which was an absolute treat as we not only had the requisite sharks and Sweetie, but also got one of our best encounters with Pepino the Eagle ray, who was quite happy to hang with us for an extended period of time.
That was followed by a trip to Jellyfish Lake, which is like going back in time. As you walk up and over the hill that guards the lake, it's almost like going through a time machine as the landscape in front of you probably hasn't changed much in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And the jellyfish seemed MUCH thicker and more numerous this time. It truly is like swimming in a vat of living Jell-O. It was surreal as ever, topped off only by the discovery - once I got my slides back - of the now infamous "Man-Eating Jellyfish" shot.
After Jellyfish Lake, it was time for the traditional end-of-trip high-speed skiff ride through the Rock Islands, ending up back at the Aggressor dock in time for lunch and then a free afternoon to shop for souvenirs or just pack up.
One logistical change for the better this year was our departure. The routing back is Palau-Guam-Honolulu-LA and there's only one flight each day, leaving Palau at 2AM. Last time, we made the mistake of spending Saturday night on the boat, checking into a hotel for the entire day Sunday, and then leaving Sunday night/Monday morning, arriving back in LA on Monday morning at 5AM. This year, we decided to leave Saturday night/Sunday morning, which would put us back into LA at 5AM Sunday morning. (Thank you, International Dateline.) It's a brutal schedule back no matter how you do it but this way, we now had the entire day Sunday to recuperate and it was a good decision.
So all in all, this was a very good trip. We certainly had much better weather in Palau than previously and got to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. No matter what the conditions, Yap & Palau offer some truly unique diving opportunities for both the newbie and the veteran (and others in between). It's certainly not cheap, but it's money well spent.
But being a perfectionist . . .
We'd still like to hit that "perfect" combination of weather in both Yap AND Palau. So we're going to see if third time's the charm. We've booked the Aggressor again for March of 2004 (March 14-21 to be exact.) We'll visit Yap prior to Palau. If you're interested, this could be done as a Yap/Palau combo (around $5500) or a Palau-only (around $4500). We're told that March offers even more reliable weather and that there's a good chance we get glassy seas and no wind. So if you're interested, give us a call at 310/652-4990 and we'll talk.
Or you could just wait for the next trip report and live this all vicariously. It's certainly cheaper than actually going, but I can guarantee you that the memories will last a lifetime.