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Yap, 2006

Bill Utterback

I was looking for a place to go diving during the summer of 2006 but I wasn’t coming up with anywhere in the Caribbean that I hadn’t gone before.  The Pacific was an area that I had never dove so I thought, “What the heck.  See what you can get lined up.”  A couple weeks of talking to a travel agent yielded the best trip I’ve ever taken!  The best one ever!  It’s been over a half year since my trip but my memories are so strong that I think I’ll still be able to share it with you. 

It’s been said that you can’t get anywhere flying out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but you can get close.  A late afternoon flight to Houston got me ready to begin my journey.  The next morning, my trip began with a flight to Honolulu to Guam to Palau and then onto Yap.  The connections were fairly easy to make since the flights were all within the Continental family…Continental to Hawaii and Micronesia Continental the rest of the way.  Continental flies directly into Yap only a few days a week so I had to be routed to Palau first and then to Yap to get itinerary I wanted.

 The routing, with a layover from 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 midnight in the Palau airport, turned out to be a nice treat since I was able to meet some people that I would be diving with in Yap.  My final flight got me into Yap and to my resort by 5:30 a.m.  My flights totaled 23 hours of flying over 15 time zones and it did nothing to reduce my enthusiasm.

Manta Ray Bay Hotel

I stayed at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel (MRB) and dove with the onsite dive operator, Yap Divers.  MRB’s rooms are decorated with a theme, such as the hammerhead theme for room.  The beds were very comfortable and the tiled floored rooms are comfortably air-conditioned.  A desk, wardrobe, and entertainment center for the television made out of teak by a local woodworker are provided for each room.  The electric outlets don’t need adaptors for those of us recharging batteries or with laptops.  The bathroom was more than adequate with a sink and large walk-in shower.  Don’t count on using the bedside radio for much more than sleeping noise.

A premium is charged for rooms that face the ocean.  I considered asking to change rooms when I looked out and saw that my balcony overlooked construction area used by the workers that seemed to be everywhere on the resort grounds.  A pool close to the shoreline was very accessible.  I spent a lot of my non-diving time there so I never did ask for a change in rooms. 

MRB’s restaurant is located on the Mnuw, a ship sailed to Yap to serve as their on-site restaurant.  My meals were all eaten at the Mnuw because of close proximity and convenience.  It was just a walk up a 20-foot wooden plank and you were there.  It was fairly pricey, but the service and the food quality were both good.  The Mnuw’s reputation on the island is evident, as you can’t help but see people from outside the resort walk through the lobby of the resort and up the plank to the Mnuw for their dinner. 

A 3 to 4 block walk down the road took you past the internet café, a restaurant, and brought you to Colonia.  It’s a stretch to call Colonia a town.  I suppose it qualifies since it does have several stores including one where you can get most things that are available at a local convenience store.

Yapese Culture

A friend was kidding me that I wanted to go to Yap because of the female way of dressing.  He explained to me that it is a custom for women dressed in ceremonial garb to go topless on this island.  I had forgotten about this when I was getting off the airplane.  I happen to look back at the young man and women that had greeted us in native dress when we were waiting for our baggage.  I can remember thinking that they were quite dedicated being at the airport at 4:00 A.M. wearing pretty flowers, handing out leis, and “Yikes, she doesn’t have a top on!”  Her hair and the flowers she was wearing were strategically placed to keep it from being blatantly obvious to people going through Customs.

The Yap culture is very evident with the stone money that was placed along the walking area of MRB, almost serving as a boundary to the cement sidewalks.  The disks at MRB are somewhat undersized but I was told that some huge disks of stone on the island, some over 12 feet tall, still have value and that these disks are still used as partial payment for some major transactions.

At breakfast one morning, I got an insight into the male-female relationships on the island when my waitress was sternly criticized for not paying more attention to me.  In the states, that waitress would have quit on the spot!  She went on with her duties with an outward reaction.

As we went down the coastline to dive sites, the divemaster would occasionally point out a Men’s House, a place where only men could go.  Evidently, every village has a Men's House constructed of wood and thatch where the men meet in the evening to tell stories and educate the boys about fishing, sailing, etc.  We were told that it also helps remind villagers that they are to fish only in their designated waters.  A story was told about a villager that was caught fishing outside his village’s waters.  The punishment was dealt out to the violator during a meeting at the Men’s House.  The divemaster mentioned that dive operators had an agreement with the villages to be able to dive in their waters and their company had paid a fee to dive in their waters inside the reef.

Yap Divers

Yap is known for it’s manta rays and this was very obvious as I toured the resort on my first morning on the island.  A display with 40 different mantas were identified by name, sex, and their unique shading is hung on the wall on the approach to the dive shop.  One might tend to be a little suspicious of their ability to measure these creatures since the mantas are listed as being between 9 and 12 feet wide.  I found out later that these illustrations were very accurate.  The onsite dive operator, Yap Divers, has some equipment for the occasional gear problem but it seems to be mainly there to organize dives and help divers with dive related issues.

My diving in Yap was the first time I really became aware of the impact the incoming and outgoing tides.  The high and low tides are identified and times are posted by the dive shop for the curious.  The moisture on the rock and cement retaining walls along the shoreline can note the height of the tide.  There are many shallow areas where the outgoing tide gathers and then carries sediment as it moves away from the internal parts of the islands through the channels and toward the reef.  When you are diving inside the reef, count on the visibility to be around 20 feet when the tide is going out and much better when the incoming tide is bringing the ocean water inward.  This visibility might trouble divers that are not used to it but anyone diving the Midwest will feel at home with this visibility.  The visibility outside the reef often times reaches 80-100 feet. 

Some of the uniqueness of diving with Yap Divers is that you need to get out to the dive sites each day through channels that were dug by the Germans and then later by the Japanese.  They were mining phosphate and bauxite and made the channels to have an easier way to transport their product.  I found it enjoyable to sit and observe the jungle area as the twin 100s engines on our boat took us out to the dive site everyday. 

Yap Divers sends out a captain and divemaster with each trip and a divemaster is always in the water with the divers.  I was introduced to Betel nuts the first morning as I noted the divemaster open his “man purse” to get the supplies to begin wrapping the nut.  I was a little suspect when I was told it produces a mild intoxicating feeling and that I was going to need to rely on a divemaster with red teeth and bloodshot eyes.  I didn’t notice any problems or inappropriate concern for the divers on the boat due to the Betel nut.  I did notice that the divemaster waited to get out of sight from the dive shop before pulling out his supplies.

The Diving

Diving is done in different areas around the island.  It’s all drift diving with a back roll to get into the water with a ladder to get in the boat.  Yap Divers offered Nitrox but I didn’t feel the need since I was only doing two dives a day.  To give us a chance to sleep in after an early morning arrival, our boat went out for our two-tank dive around 11:00 the first morning.  The boat left at 8:00 on all the other mornings.  The water was a comfortable 83 degrees on all the dives and at most, we had a total of 5 divers on the boat.  We all finished our dives with about 500 lbs. in our tanks.

Our first trip to Mil Channel yielded several reef sharks but the visibility was poor due to the tide going out.  I was surprised with the movement of the twelve reef shark that followed us down the reef at Vertigo site.  They would swim down the reef getting within 30 feet of us and then head back up the reef before turning around and swimming back toward us again.  This spiraling movement would stop when I moved away from the reef to get a picture and begin again as I went back to the reef.  Creatures such as the lionfish, anonomefish, leafy scorpionfish, crocodilefish, pipefish, numerous nudibranchs, and turtles in addition to the typical reef fish remind you that Yap is a world-class location but diving in Yap is really about the manta rays.  .

The Mantas

I was told that the Mantas are incredible and I wasn’t disappointed.  Mantas are usually found at two cleaning stations.  The deeper one is at about 75 feet and the shallower one is about 55 feet deep.  We were, of course, reminded that they couldn’t promise that we’d see mantas but we saw them on two out of three trips to a cleaning station.  Usually you go to the deeper cleaning station wait for some action.  If there is no action, you are led to the shallower.  We saw 5 mantas at Valley of the Rays the first time and another 3 mantas the second visit. 

Every morning, mantas move into channels that are connected to the reef and swim to the "cleaning stations."  In the past, I’ve seen fish being cleaned by cleaner shrimp or a smaller fish but this didn’t prepare me for what I saw.  These cleaning stations are small coral heads (8-10 feet high and 15 feet wide) where the cleaners, it seemed to me that they’re wrasses, pick off the parasites that the mantas picked up while they were feeding.  Everything about these beautiful creatures appears effortless.  They circle the cleaning station, descend within a foot or two of the coral, and then hover motionless as the cleaners leave the safety of these coral heads. 

The divemaster would motion us into position so we could see these wonderful creatures up close.  We were told our positioning was important since the mantas tolerated our exhaust bubbles on their underside but could be spooked by the bubbles ascending in front of them.  It was an incredible experience watching 12 foot wide creatures pass just inches above our head before hovering motionless.  At one point, a manta slapped my back as it eased into position.  The mantas would open their gills to enable the cleaners to get inside their gills.  The “horns” on both sides of its head would act a rudder as the horns were wrapped into a cone shape or opened up flat to maintain its position in the current.  Either these creatures would get a little impatient or a few mantas were dominant.  More than once, I observed one manta descent on top of another.  This resulted in both of the mantas jetting up towards the surface.  It wasn’t long before a manta would soon take position over the coral head and the cleaning would begin again.

One of the measures of a trip is whether a person would go back.  I’d definitely go back.  The hotel has reportedly finished its remodeling project and the diving remains memorable.  As I dried my gear in anticipation of heading to Palau, I thought that I had experienced the highlight of my trip.  Little did I know, the diving in Palau had lots more in store for me!