YAPPING ABOUT YAP - 2017 TRIP REPORT -
JULY 8 - AUGUST 1, 2017
Any person - let alone a country - who can put up with me for an entire month solid would have to go on my all-time favorites list. But that's not the only reason I love going to Yap. I truly have enjoyed over the years Manta Ray Bay (MRB) where we stay, their staff, the diving, and all the locals we’ve run into over the during our stays. So while it may seem that I'm a bit favorably prejudiced towards this island-state in the Federated States of Micronesia, it's not without good reason.
Our most recent visit to Yap (July 7 - August 2) was an experiment and departure from the "normal" Reef Seekers trips. We had previously done two back-to-back trips before, last year to Isla Mujeres in Mexico for the Whale Sharks. But we've never been gone for a month.
On top of that, most of our trips are one-week affairs where you get in five-and-a-half days of diving. This time, because of the wealth of dive sites and even some of the non-diving activities Yap has to offer, we expanded the trip to 13-days, which allowed for eight dive days and two non-dive days. And we called it all "Yap Immersion" because you were going to have enough time to immerse yourself in all the experiences Yap has to offer.
From a personal standpoint, the experiment got even more unique. Because of the United Airlines schedules (they only fly into Yap twice a week, and only from Guam), it meant there would be a four-day gap between when the first group departed and when the second group arrived, giving me my own "mini-vacation" between the two groups.
From a logistical and trip-organizer standpoint, I think it was a hit. We had six people (plus me) in Group 1 (Don & Melinda Dietrich, Di Krall, Shirley Parry, Patti Wey, & Bruce Arnheim) and seven (plus me) in Group 2 (Wil & Linda Lemley, Ceci Alleguez, Carol Behrmann, Sue Krauth, Selo Imrohoroglu, & Marilyn Lawrence). And each group had one snorkeler/non-diver. The nice thing about all of this was that the groups were small and we easily accommodated everyone on one of MRB's fast boats. I also certainly enjoyed having four days with no group, which meant MRB owner Bill Acker and I got to do some dives on our own which included a couple of exploratory dives, one looking for new manta cleaning stations (we didn't find one), and the other visiting a site called Turtle Cove that they don't dive anymore (and deciding it wasn't worth visiting again - at least not where we dropped in).
I have said for years that getting a certification card is a license to learn and that you learn something new on every dive you make. That being said, I normally don't like to formally teach classes during our trips. Part of the reason is that it eats into either dive time or down time for you, and part of the reason is that it eats into relaxation time for me. I also know that a lot of times, dive shops have marketed inexpensive trips but then try to make it all back by selling classes (like nitrox, Advanced, etc.) that are run during the trip but which are an add-on cost. I've never felt right doing that and that's another reason we've always shied away from it.
But this time, we decided we'd throw in a number of classes that could be done relatively informally and which would weave in and out of the timeline of the diving. We started with a free nitrox class for anyone who needed that. At MRB, there was a PADI-sanctioned manta ID course (which the MRB staff taught). I also threw in a modified Fish ID class, plus a Photo Tips class that was paired with informal Photo Workshops.
All of the photogs (and we had plenty of each trip - camera rigs ranged from GoPros to small point-and-shoots to DSLRs) seemed to benefit from the photo workshop stuff and I enjoyed doing them too, so that's something we'll likely add on future trips not only to Yap but other locales as well. It certainly was nice that MRB has a conference room with a video projector that we could use, so we'd block out some time, plug in my laptop, load a few images from everyone on to my computer, and discuss what we saw with suggestions on how to make the images better. And then on the next day of diving, everyone would try to incorporate those suggestions. We probably did this every two or three days, and all the photogs said their shots at the end of the trip were better than their shots at the beginning of the trip.
The photo workshop also gave us opportunity to talk a bit about post-processing, and specifically a very simple free program from HP that I've been turning people on to for years, plus the much more sophisticated and versatile Adobe Lightroom (V6.1.1 for me). And it was quite helpful to be able to load a shot on to my computer, project my laptop screen on to the big screen, and then everyone could see as I tweaked and explained what I was doing, and how you could "save" a marginal picture and make it look actually quite passable. (Of course, it's always better to shoot it right the first time.) So this might be something we'll incorporate more into future Reef Seekers trips if there's a demand/need for it.
The other thing I was interested in - and I've already written about this somewhat both in the monthly newsletter and the weekly TWARS - is what effect weather would play on the experiences and differences between Group 1 & 2. Yap is a place that's very tide-dependent. You plan mantas dives around the tides (incoming is best as it approaches slack). There's a channel through the middle of the island that becomes impassable at low tide. (On one of the Bill-and-Ken days we had MAYBE six-inches of clearance as we came through the shallowest part and a few days later, one of the boats got stuck and had to wait two hours for the tide to rise.) Some of the southern sites have soft corals which are open when there's a current but closed when there's not so you try to go when the current's running. (This is not unique to Yap. Palau is the same way as is the White Wall in Taveuni, Fiji.)
Because the groups were exactly two weeks apart, the timings for high and low tide each day were almost identical. And the general dive schedule for each group was the same as well: four days of diving, day off for a land tour, then four days of diving, with the various classes and workshops interspersed throughout. So they should have had pretty much the same water conditions and the same experience, right? Nope.
What we hadn't counted on was a series of storms that really affected things during the stay of the Group 2, as well as my fours dive days between groups. There were a couple of storms moving west in the Pacific between Guam and Saipan. Those storms forced a bit south a storm that was off the coast of Japan. And then there was some blowback from a storm that was moving NW into the China Sea and on to mainland China.
What that all meant was that a lot rain came out way. Now, it's the tropics so you expect rain almost daily. But usually what you get are 5-minute light showers and then the sun comes out and re-frys everything like it never happened. But what we got with these systems were torrential downpours that sometimes lasted for a hour or two. More significantly, we got wind. And the wind not only chopped up the seas, but also made most of the west side of Yap undiveable.
The reality is that you can always find good diving in Yap and the fallback if EVERYTHING is chunked up is to dive the macro sites (Slow & Easy and 1-to-2) because they're inside the fringing reef and protected from swells. But the vis is usually low and, while there are cool critters to be found, you don't want to have to do ALL your dives there.
Fortunately the eastern manta cleaning station at Goofnu Channel is fairly protected and that's where the mantas are this time of the year. But you can generally break the diving options down this way: East, West, South, Manta, Macro, Mandarinfish (also protected), Dock (protected but usually VERY low vis). Here's how it broke out for both groups, both of whom did 23 dives:
GROUP 1 GROUP 2
The western and southern sites are generally (IMHO) a bit better and fishier than the eastern sites, which are much more hard-coral based, but with less fish. You can see that with Group 2, we did a lot more sites on the east and a couple of more manta dives because some days, that was our only choice. So they didn't see the huge Barracuda school at Buena Vista or Cabbage Patch. But because they did more dives at the cleaning station, they had better manta encounters, including one day where we had five at once. (But that's just luck of the draw.)
The point of this is to underscore, in very concrete terms, how weather affects the site choices over a given range of days. This applies to all dive trips, not just Yap. In fact, for Group 2, and based on the weather forecast, we changed our land tour non-diving day from Thursday to Tuesday and we were very glad we did because the diving on that Tuesday wasn't very good but the topside weather was sunny all day for our tour. And on Thursday, it POURED from about 7-9AM which would have made our land tour a muddy mess but that was also the day we had our phenomenal five-mantas-at-once dive as well as it's when I got "trapped" up on the cleaning station as I was setting up my GoPro and stayed in place and shot five straight minutes of the manta getting cleaned literally five feet away from me. (This is the "Manta Morning at Goofnu" video I posted on YouTube.) So the weather giveth and the weather taketh away.
The reason I'm emphasizing this is that I sometimes hearing people complaining about how some place isn't good to go to because the weather's bad or something like that. It's the luck of the draw. Even as I write this now, a hurricane has just churned through the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, passing near Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Last year at this exact week, we were at Isla Mujeres diving with Whale Sharks and had perfect weather. This year, it's obviously different. Does that make it a bad place to go to? No. It just means you rolled the weather dice and came up snake eyes. (Or in this case, hurricane eyes.)
Back to Yap and Manta Ray Bay. Anytime I look at things post-trip, I'm looking not just at the diving but at all the factors that may have an effect on your enjoyment of the vacation. It's like when I went to Midway island back in 1998. The diving was OK but the Gooney birds were phenomenal and it was a place few people go tot go and that all added up to a very memorable trip.
For Yap, there's no question getting there is a challenge. United Airlines is the only carrier into Yap (through Guam) and they only fly twice a week. (You can also come in on United from Palau once a week.) From LAX, it's three flights of roughly 24 hours total travel time with layovers coming and going. Both groups made it in and out without any issues.
But the smiling faces of the Manta Ray Bay staff are at the Yap Airport to greet you no matter when you arrive, they very quickly handle your bags once you've cleared Customs, and direct you to their air-conditioned bus where they also provide water and a cold, moist towel during the 10-minute drive to the resort. Once at MRB proper, you'll get a quick orientation while the guys take your bags up to your room and then it's time to crash.
If you've read my previous Yap reports, you know I adore Manta Ray Bay. I think it's the nicest dive-dedicated resort I've ever stayed in. Each room is somewhat unique in design and each has either two queen beds or one king. Of the 35 rooms at MRB, 22 have an ocean view of the bay and 13 (slightly cheaper) are garden view, looking out over the front of the hotel. But all the rooms are pretty nice.
One thing to understand if you stay there is that there is no elevator in the three-story hotel. That's not an issue for dive or camera gear since it all lives the entire time in the dive shop area near the boats. But if you have any knee or back issues (as three of my people did), then you'll want to try to get a room on the first floor if possible and avoid climbing stairs throughout your stay.
As I mentioned, all the dive and camera gear lives in the dive shop area (it's locked each night when diving is completed). There are six waist-level photo stations for photogs (and they're finishing up building six more), all of which have storage areas, a nice flat area for camera/housing assembling, and two small raised shelves with plugs for charging.
For your dive gear, choose the "VIP" option when you check in. You'll be assigned a dive cubicle (all inside with an open-air wooden slated cubicle for reg/BC/booties/mask/fins with a center area for hanging wetsuits) and after you arrive, put your gear inside the mesh bag MRB provides. That's the last time you'll need to touch it. Each day, the staff will take your gear and haul it out to your boat, and at the end of the day, they'll take everything off the boat, rinse it al inside your mesh bag, and put it back in your cubicle. Nice touch.
Their dive staff took great care of us. Our “regular” DM is John Pekailug, who’s also the Dive Operations Manager and schedules everyone (not just us) on their various boats. We generally did three dives each day, two in the morning and then came back for lunch (most of the time at the wonderful Ganir down the street where I could get my daily dose of regular Ramen with a Pepsi - still $5) and then followed that up with an afternoon dive. John’s usual partner/captain on the boat is Willy Siewemai. But over the month there we also dove with john’s son Bruce, Brian (Willy’s nephew), and Charles. In fact, each day we had a snorkeler on board, John arranged for a second DM/guide to go with the snorkeler. Nice touch. And MRB owner (and Diving Hall of Fame inductee) Bill Acker tries to dive with each group at least once or twice during the course of their stay. Bottom line is no matter who you dive with at MRB, they’re going to look out for you.
As you might expect, the diving itself was varied, affected by weather, dive location, and other things. I think overall the Group 1 got the better conditions but that doesn't mean Group 2 didn't have good dives too.
When we jumped in on the first Group 1 dive of the trip (O'Keefe Passage), I was quite pleased to see that the visibility was approaching 100 feet. And our first day of Group 1 diving at Goofnu Channel - where I've NEVER seen blue water - also had really clear conditions. We had fairly good visibility off and on through out the week. But that doesn't mean we didn't have our share of Group 1 weather drama too.
We had one day where there were whitecaps in the bay as we headed out. Not a good sign. (In fact, I thought we might cancel at the dock.) And it was raining. Not a good sign. And it looked a bit rough as we arrived at the mouth of the channel to make the turn south. Not a good sign. But we have to hand it to our captain Willy, because he had to really watch the waves and time things right. There were even a couple of times when Bill Acker and I looked at each other as the boat hit a 45º angle and exchanged the "I-hope-we-don't-capsize" knowing glances. But we didn't. And once we got to the dive site (Yap Caverns) and underwater, it was fine (although a little dicey reboarding the boat.)
I'd say overall on Group 1, the visibility ranged from 60-100 feet (not counting the macro dives, which are considered muck dives, and where you don't expect more than 20 feet of viz). For Group 2, the viz was down slightly, maybe 50-80 feet, but still not bad.
What was true for both groups was that the water temps were the highest I think I've ever seen in Yap, generally running around 86º instead of the more-normal 82º. There were even a couple of spots where we read 90º within a few feet of the surface. Whether this is due to climate change, global warming, or what, I don't know. But in the long run, if the water temps get up too high, you've got to be concerned about thermal stress on the corals which could trigger a bleaching event. I didn't see much bleaching so it's certainly not happened yet nor does it appear imminent, but it's something to watch out for.
As I said, both groups had great diving. Because it's summertime, the mantas are found on the east side of Yap which is the Goofnu cleaning station, rather than on the west side at Manta Ridge in M'il Channel or the more well-known Stammtisch. I dove Goofnu 11 times while I was there and I think we only got skunked two or three times. A couple of times we only had mantas for a few minutes, or they'd go away and come back later, but a couple of times were magical.
With the Group 1, we had one dive that was close to 80 minutes long where the manta would come and in and get cleaned, drift off the station and then circle around, and would come back to continue the cleaning, all the while seemingly taking a good look at all the divers. And the nice thing about all of this is that, as the manta is there longer and longer and seemingly more comfortable with noisy bubble-blowers, you can move in closer for a better look. And since there are multiple areas around the cleaning station where you can be - it's basically a very large coral mound with the top around 20 feet deep and a bottom around 50 feet - everyone can get a good look at what's going on.
Probably the best day we had was with Group 2 when we had five mantas at the Goofnu station, taking turns getting cleaned over the course of our 90-minute dive. We know it was five mantas because the way you ID them is by the unique spot pattern on their bellies. So by comparing photos post-dive, we not only confirmed who they were, but could also check the manta ID board that MRB has posted and see who was who. We also, because of the manta ID class included at no extra charge for both groups, made an extra effort to find out who we saw.
When you go to the Goofnu or the other cleaning stations, it's a mistake to think it's a manta make-or-break dive. I've seen people sit there forlornly gazing up at the manta-less cleaning station, totally ignoring everything else going on around them. There are plenty of other fish coming in to be cleaned, there are sharks resting in the channel, we kept finding juvy Rock Mover Wrasses flitting about, there were some nudibranches spotted, and even a couple of Eagle Rays on quick fly-bys. So there's plenty non-manta stuff to see.
In fact, Group 2 did a dive where we started on the outside of Goofnu Channel and intended to drift all the way into the cleaning station (a distance of maybe 300 yards at most). but we saw so much cool stuff in the channel and were stopping all the time to take pictures, that it took us 60 minutes to get to the cleaning station (which was manta-less at the time). We had a huge school of Blue-Striped Fusiliers, juvy Clown Coris, a large Yellow Boxfish, numerous eels, small triggerfish, a number of Razorfish, a pair of Longnose (aka Harlequin) Filefish (amongst my favorites), and lots more. We even had a manta fly-by and he had a remora under his wing, the only manta/remora combo I saw all week.
We even, with both groups, made a foray over to the Stammtisch cleaning station, knowing full well that the chance of seeing a manta there was remote at best due to the time of the year. By the same token, no one goes there this time of the year because everyone "knows" that the mantas aren't there. But if you never go look, how can you "know"? So, in the name of science, we were willing to be sacrificial divers. And we were not disappointed.
That's because, as with Goofnu, there's still a ton of stuff going on. Even without mantas there, there are still hundreds of cleaner fish and they've got wrasses, angelfish, parrotfish, and more all coming in to be cleaned and doing it right in front of you. And it was here with the Group 2 that I saw a very odd-looking yellow fish with a very high dorsal and a very high ventral fin who turned out it was a juvy Sailfin Tang, which I'd never seen before. (You can see a pix of him, along with an intermediate, and an adult on the SmugMug page.) And with Group 1, as we left the cleaning and headed back to the boat, what did we see but . . . a manta heading towards the cleaning station. He obviously didn't realize he wasn't supposed to be there and even though we followed him back and tried to let him know, he got a quick once-over touch-up cleaning and took off before we could point out the error in his ways. Like I've always said, you never know if you don't go look.
You may have caught on that I've mentioned some long dive times here. Although the dives generally were an hour, the policy at MRB is to dive as long as you've got gas and are still within your computer limits. And since they provide nitrox as part of the package to those qualified, and since I had a number of people who were VERY good on air consumption, that meant a lot of extended dives. The "record" was on the Group 2 Mandarinfish dive at one hour and forty-three minutes. The dive ended only because everyone else was up on the boat and getting a bit cold and hungry so Willy banged on the boat ladder as a signal to come up, and the offending diver (who happened to be me) complied. In my defense (1) I didn't realize everyone else had gone up, (2) I still had plenty of Mandarinfish going through their rituals, and (3) I still had 2200psi since the dive's only about 12 feet deep. C'est la vie.
Speaking of divers being hungry, we had a slight problem with that and dining on the Mnuw, which is Manta Ray Bay's 170-foot Indonesian schooner that serves as their restaurant and social center. The "problem" is that - at least in my experience - the food's too good and you end up eating more than you night have planned. (So yes, this is NOT a complaint.) Breakfast is included in the standard package and that's served buffet-style (with eggs-to-order) each morning on the first deck of the boat. In the past, their bacon has been a bit soggy but they've got a new breakfast cook and he was cooking that bacon to crisp perfection. It may not be good for the waistline but it sure felt good going down.
The other "problem” we had with the food were the chicken wings. You could get an order of 5 (small) or an order of 10 (large) and they came with cucumber slices and dipping sauce and they were also WAAAAY too tasty but awfully hard to resist. My understanding is that they get them from somewhere in Saipan and my only regret is that there are now many wingless chickens running around Saipan and it's my fault.
In all seriousness, I think the food's pretty good. The only "complaint" (and this is somewhat legit) is that the portions are really large so it's easy to over-eat. What I ended up doing in Group 2 was drafting a food buddy (Marilyn Lawrence) and we'd split a main dish. That worked out better for both of us. Some of the favs were Yaki Soba, spaghetti bolognase, and fried rice with chicken. The hamburger was OK, but the bun was huge. And the pizzas (go with the thin crust) were all excellent. So you definitely won't starve to death while you're there.
We ate up some of the local culture too, by taking a day off from diving (both groups) and doing a half-day land tour of the island (four hours). This was very interesting and slightly different each time since we had Theo Gumang the first time Richard Falow & Lee the second time. In both tours, we visited a number of World War 2 sites which included a couple of wrecked planes that have been partially restored, a Japanese Zero, a Betty Bomber, and a U.S. Hellcat which is complete with a memorial to the pilot, who died in the crash. Yap was not a strategically significant part of the war, but - since there was a Japanese airfield on the island - it got daily bombardment from U.S. planes during the last year of WW2, from mid-1944 until September of 1945.
As part of both tours, we visited some Stone Money banks, went through some villages (Richard actually took us to the village where he lives and he cut down coconuts to give everyone fresh coconut milk), saw some Men's Houses (cultural center of any given village), went to the top of Mount Taabiywol (584 feet) for a panoramic view of Manta Ray Bay and the southeastern part of Yap, as well as the perfect spot for our groups photos, and a couple of folks even tried chewing betelnut. (All of which you can see, along with some land tour photos, on the SmugMug page.)
Over the almost four weeks that I was in Yap, I did a total of 53 dives. The nice that about doing that many dives (other than diving all the time) is that your eye starts to filter out the usual and you see the unusual. So I started seeing a lot of fish that I've either never seen before or have never been able to photograph before (or just haven’t gotten a good shot). Things like the aforementioned juvy Sailfin Tang, along with a juvy Starry Dragonet, Dotted Butterfly, Yellow-Spotted Trevally, yellow- and white-phase Slingjaw Wrasses, Slingjaw Wrasse with his mouth extended (like he’s yawning), Yellowtail Fangblenny, Black-Banded Snapper, IP Red Parrotfish (very striking), many different types of Bird Wrasses, Two-Spined Angelfish (not unusual but almost impossible to shoot and which took me most of the trip to finally get a good one), Flame Angelfish (same issue), and others. They're all on the SmugMug page for the trip (although I didn't label them - you may need to do some cross-referencing).
All in all, they were both good trips. And it was a nice interlude in-between. As this was a test run to see if this type of a trip was both marketable and doable, I think the resounding answer to both is "Yes." I am hoping to do this trip again, perhaps as early as next year. One of the things Bill Acker and I discussed was scheduling it as a 10-day, but offering an option to go home after 7 days if you can't take 10 days off. But the nice thing about the extended time is that when you're spending $2,000 for the airfare, you'd like to get as much bang for your buck as possible.
But whether you go with me or do it on your own, Yap is a place you should really go visit. You'll have some great manta encounters, you will see Mandarinfish mating, you’ll see sharks in the wild, and you'll simply have a wonderful time overall.
But go easy on the bacon and chicken wings.