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July 2005 Vol. 20, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Yap and Palau, Micronesia

two on land, one at sea

from the July, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Divers,

While most divers visit Yap for reliable manta encounters, I see articles and advertising selling it as a primary destination; they praise the wall diving, superb visibility, and indigenous culture. Now, I know Palau is a diving wonder of the world, so I visited both this spring and, believe me, I’m glad I visited Yap and two major diver operations there first. Micronesia is a long ways away.

Yap’s Pathways Hotel bills itself as an eco-tourism resort nestled in the jungle -– see the web pictures -- but it’s right off the main road around Colona Bay next to a grocery store and near a building supply warehouse. Constructed in the local style using logs, bamboo reed patterns and thatched roofs, the buildings have a lot of local charm, but it’s not overcome the damage from April 2004’s typhoon. Blue tarps cover many structures. Trash and storm damage litter the jungle between the cabins. That the maid tossed the contents of my wastebasket into the jungle doesnt’ help its eco tourism status. My experience was a mixed bag of wonderful interactions with local folks in a funky, cost-effective property, and a disturbing lack of awareness of the island ecology.

My cabin, like the others, was up a rickety set of wooden stairs and rope bridges from the main building. I was charmed by the style and spaciousness of my A-framed cabin. Until I realized that while the air-conditioning was pumping out a steady stream of cold, hot, muggy air poured through the slat glass windows. With no ceiling fans to help, my cabin was barely a refuge from the 80° to 95°F days.

Yap and Palau, MicronesiaThe next morning I ordered the $4 American breakfast: eggs, toast, bacon, garlic rice, and coffee, where I was joined by a young Czech named Peter, the only other guest at the time, He gave me a rundown of the highlights of Yap, told me the sites we’d be diving, the menu at the restaurant, who was dating the waitress, and other pertinent information.

Dave Vecella, a gentle giant of a man, started Beyond the Reef thirteen years ago. While his dive shop had a slightly disheveled look, his rental gear was in good condition, aluminum 80’s were pumped to 3000psi, there was a secure gear storage locker and separate rinse tanks for cameras. His three 22ft twin engine speedboats are a center console design with Bimini tops, dry storage, cell phone, first aid and oxygen kits and complimentary rain coats for the passengers. He rolls out with no more than four passengers and a crew of two. His staff let competent divers follow their computers for hour + dives, and standout dive guides, like Gordon, could find most of the residents mentioned in their dive briefings. Dave was always chewing a hefty load of betel nut, which may have contributed to his mellow persona.

My first dive at “1:2” (that’s one to two, like the macro camera setting) was a gentle drift across shallow coral bommies with Dave showing me a couple of lazy lionfish, a few weird nudibranchs, a flatworm or two, mating pairs of pipefish, schooling anthias, beautiful butterflyfish, opal sweepers, and vampire triggerfish. I asked to see a brilliant Mandarin fish, so after a brief stop at the dive shop, Dave sent the two of us out at sunset with a couple of his crew to the middle of the bay and Rainbow Reef. In finger coral in less that 30ft. of water, little Mandarin fish pass their days in relative protection. At sunset they sit on the coral, fluttering their pectoral fins in a bawdy display. The trick is to spot one and follow it at a discreet distance as it maneuvers hither and yon around the coral until it stumbles across a female. They sort of nuzzle each other and flash their fins, often taking several minutes to get in the mood. The actual spawning was over quickly, and the milky slurry of gametes was quickly feasted upon by other residents of the reef, hopefully leaving a few eggs to hatch.

The next morning Pete and I and two new arrivals from Norway headed out on the two-tank trip to Manta Ridge. Cruising a scenic cut through the mangroves, we arrived at M’il Channel and joined three boats from Manta Divers and a fancy new boat from Traders’ Ridge. Long story short: all the boats got skunked! Lying on the sandy bottom in the 82F water, we stared into the 30-ft. vis. waiting for a manta. A single whitetip shark resting in a sand channel was the most noteworthy sighting. After our surface interval, some boats went in search of better diving elsewhere; however, the four of us took a second shot. The mantas didn’t come. The folks from Norway, from what they had read, figuring mantas were an everyday occurrence, were only there for a single day and were disappointed. Knowing I’d have other opportunities, I waxed philosophical.

For my final day with Dave, I asked him to take me to the southern tip of the island, and despite there being no other divers, he sent me with a three-man crew. During my two hour-long dives, we sailed along both Gilman and Lionfish walls as well as cutting in and out the interesting formations of Yap Caverns. While these dives are considered some of the best Yap has to offer, there was a blandness about the coral wall, a surprising lack of color and texture. There weren’t many whips, sponges, soft coral, or fans. Rubble in the flats seemed to indicate major storm damage. While there was always something to look at -- a couple of bumphead parrotfish here, a whitetip reef shark there – we didn’t find any knock-your-socks-off schools of fish, nor turtles, rays, or other pelagics.

I had opted for only two dives a day, here, so afternoons, I hung out in their restaurant sipping rum and cokes and shooting the breeze with the staff. It was the kind of relaxed place where everybody knows everybody’s business. Then a nap and dinner, inexpensive and excellent fresh fish, delivered daily, prepared in various grilled and blackened configurations. One lunch of fresh tuna sashimi and garlic rice was a good one. The Pathways could be a decent hotel, if they cleaned up the trash and fixed the airconditioning. But, it seems to laid back for that. Maybe the folks just chew too much betel nut.

Next day I took a cab across town to the Manta Ray Bay Hotel. Founded in 1986 by mustachioed Bill Acker, this venerable dive resort was deep into major construction during my four-day stay: a new seawall, free form outdoor pools, new guest rooms above the dive shop. The shop was well organized and the staff efficient. The hotel seemed freshly painted, all utilities worked flawlessly. The rooms were spacious and furnished with hand-carved beds from Bali, and even a color TV (although there were no longer any stations on the air). But excellence has a price. Food and drink at Manta Ray Bay was twice as much as at the Pathways. The menu at the Mnuw, Bill’s floating restaurant/bar, was limited, bland, and expensive. Drinks were $4.50 for a single, $9 to “make it a double.” I’d been paying $2.50 at the Pathways and getting an afternoon of betel nut, Yap music, and some tuna sashimi thrown in. I often skipped the hotel dinner and went a block down the road to the “Ganir Restaurant,” which had a varied menu, excellent grilled fish and very reasonable prices.

Their seven dive boats were similar to Beyond the Reef’s, and ranged between 21 and 38 feet in length. They had a well-stocked dive shop, could rent or repair most gear, pumped Nitrox at $10 a tank, offered a full range of diver certifications, and booked cultural tours. Somehow, it seemed like cook book operation. Taking out groups of eight to ten divers, they were likely to have two or three boats headed out to Manta Ridge every morning. Third dives were scheduled at “1:2” site each afternoon. One diver who on a week long three-dive-a-day package loudly complained when he was taken there three days in a row. I paid extra for the evening Mandarin fish dive and skipped “1:2.”

The next morning we hit Mi’il Channel along with the flotilla and struck paydirt when four mantas took turns settling down on the cleaning station. The mantas were open-mouthed with their gills flared wide while divers snuck up toward the coral mound to get into the prime photographer’s spot, then retreated to let the next shutterbug have a chance. Sticking around for a second try, we were rewarded by deteriorating vis. and one short manta encounter.

On my third diving day with Yap Divers, I asked them to take me to the best stuff they’ve got and we headed back to Yap Caverns, Lionfish, and Gilman Walls.

Making Yap a single destination on a Micronesian journey would be waste. Diving is sometimes good, but not great. Make it a 2-4 day side trip but don’t expect mantas right away, every day. They’re not guaranteed and spending a lot of time in M’il Channel without mantas is no fun. Although they’ve got nice walls and good drift dives, they’re not comparable to Palau. All dive shops share the same few sites and do a decent job. If I were to go back -– a long shot -– I’d dive with Dave at Pathways.

Divers Compass: The Pathways & Beyond the Reef cost $702 for four nights single occupancy with a 3 day/6 tank package...They would rate three stars if they cleaned up and replaced aging utilities. (www.diveyap.com)...At Manta Ray Bay Hotel (www.mantaray.com) it was $535pp for three nights with two days of 2 tank diving. Our evening dive with the Mandarin fish was an extra $50...I booked through Reef & Rainforest. Good service with no document hassles. www.reefrainforest.com (800) 794-9767. Continental Airlines is the only carrier: it was a 37-hour journey from Atlanta involving multiple stops and a night in Guam.... you can reach Palau or Yap from Tokyo, Hong Kong or Manila, but, again, only on Continental.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After an hour flight to Palau at 10 p.m., I was met at the airport by a couple of the crew of the Big Blue Explorer, who whisked us to Malakal harbor and out to the 167-foot ship on a 30ft dive tenders. The size is impressive, but it’s got a lot of wasted space from a diver’s perspective. Then again, it’s at least $400 a week less than other liveaboards here.

A converted Japanese communications ship, the vessel feels like a utilitarian/ work boat. Rust spots poked through the paint, tiny passageways and short watertight doors hinted at the original Japanese crew, and much of the upper decks and the entire stern were taken up by antennas, winches, cranes, and other equipment. Basic liveaboard amenities like the sun deck were surprisingly small for a vessel of this size. On the other hand, the covered but open-sided outdoor salon/ dining area was spacious, the two dive tenders were both large and well laid out, the compressors and Nitrox membrane were immaculate, and there was a hot tub and a deck mounted, rotating, twin ocular tourist telescope.

Big Blue boasts a well-trained crew of 16 who provided knowledgeable skiff handling, effortless cruising, prompt meals, and a friendly atmosphere. Marius, an Aryan Hercules, gave complete dive briefings in his thick Germanic accent; Gat was supposedly the man in charge, and his irreverent humor kept me in stitches. Jim, from the US, was a relaxed, sensitive soul who stretched out with the passengers on the sun deck, and endeavored in earnest to find our group all of the fascinating macro creatures we requested.

Meals? Lots of quantity and variety, multiple entrée choices, but bland. Full American style breakfasts were offered each morning along with mixed fruit and other continental fare. Lunches included chicken and fish dishes, beef stroganoff, an interesting Asian-style ravioli, and deli sandwich platters, served with pasta salads, soups, green salads, and rice. Yap and Palau, MicronesiaDinners offered different beef, fish, shrimp, and chicken entrées served with side dishes similar to our mid day meal. Standard desserts and between meal snacks were not exciting. Alcohol was available at additional cost; with bottled beer, Australian wines, and middle shelf liquor sucked up during our late night gab fests.

Big Blue has nine cabins for 18 guests. Our load of 16 mostly experienced divers included two German couples, two American airline pilots, a French Canadian, a Chinese photographer, a NY computer nerd, a couple of dive shop folks from the Midwest, an Australian, and three support staff from Scuba World Inc., the Philippine company that owns the ship. My buddy and I had booked a standard double cabin on the A deck. When we boarded around midnight, the crew had us unpack our bags to stow on deck because our room would not hold two big Americans and all our stuff. Our tiny, triangular shaped cabin with its 18inch wide floor space barely allowed both of us to stand up simultaneously. Bunk style beds with short hard mattresses, a couple of tiny shelves screwed to one wall, and a single minuscule closet was it. The toilet, sink, and shower were wedged together in a narrow, tiled, sliver of space along the outer hull. I had to move the toilet paper outside when taking a shower. I often had to sit on the toilet and hold the handheld shower as low as possible to get a tepid flow strong enough to rinse my hair. No doubt we should have drop the $200/person extra for a deluxe cabin on the B deck, which afforded significantly more floor space. My room was so hot that sleeping in the top bunk was impossible the first night. At 1:30 I dragged my sheet and pillow to the downstairs salon to sleep. In the morning, I got an apology for the “old A/C system” and a little desk fan that I rigged up to aim at my bunk, making it tolerable.

Ahh, but the diving was superb. Walls, caves, wrecks, current cuts, and shallow coral gardens -- this place had it all. Early in our week we made the trip down to Peleliu Island at the southern tip of Palau. Currents from the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean fight for supremacy here. Cruising along the wall or hooked into the reef edge, I was treated to incredible schools of trevally, snapper, rainbow runners, surgeonfish, wrasse, and dozens of blacktip and gray reef sharks. One hundred foot visibility allowed me to slide off the wall and look for pelagics in the blue. Almost on cue a fast-moving school of tuna, a pair of dolphin, or a large “alpha” shark would reward my persistence. Dives like Blue Holes or Turtle Cove featured reef top entrances to coral encrusted tunnels and chambers that eventually dumped us out along the wall, either into a thick pea soup of nutrients or crystal visibility. More than once I emerged into a dance of life by a huge school of jacks or chevron barracuda. Another time we surprised a lone manta looping around in the plankton stew.

Then there was Blue Corner. This drop-off into infinity is often cruised at 70 to 80 ft. along the wall, then “hooked” into the plateau at 40 ft. Once I dropped into a swirling mass of barracuda, dropped to 125 ft., and turned upward to shoot the spinning doughnut of fish silhouetted by the sun. Each time this site was different: once virtually no current, once a washing machine ride of epic proportions, and once it was so perfect that I just hooked in and gazed in wonder as the show went by. Napoleon wrasse, yellowfin tuna, mackerel, thousands of jacks, and literally hundreds of sharks paraded by our perch. The fourth time we kicked into a stiff current for a couple thousand psi. Most of the group bailed, but three of us made it to the plateau and were rewarded as the current shifted and the incredible parade of predation started again. It was shark mating season, and at Ulong Channel I watched as males grabbed females by the pectoral fin and rolled them onto their backs. Biting and thrashing, they tried to maneuver their claspers into the female’s orifice. Receptive gals appeared ripped and shredded. It wasn’t a good time to be a female reef shark. On the wreck of the Iro, 115 feet to the sand, I penetrated deep into the ship and popped out a narrow ventilation shaft. The kingpost was covered in coral, huge mussels, and giant clams. In Chandelier Caves, max depth 30 fsw, we surfaced in four different air filled chambers and felt the reverence of a cathedral while surrounded by stalactites and other limestone sculptures, and Jellyfish Lake was truly the unique and wonderful experience it’s cracked up to be.

Diving restrictions were lenient: no more than an hour, come back with 300 psi, dive your computer, stay with your buddy, no deco diving, nor deeper than 130. But they winked at those of us who went solo, went deeper, or stayed longer once we’d proven our competence. No one checked our profiles. During my early March trip air ranged from about 78°F in the morning to around 92°F in the afternoon with gentle sea breezes that kept it pleasant. Water was 81°.

Although renowned for its walls, Palau has incredible coral gardens and nudibranchs, gobys, jawfish, angelfish, anthias, and hundreds of species of butterflyfish. Compared with Yap, the coral and sponges along the walls and canyons of Palau were much less battered with greater species diversity. Long whips, large sea fans, massive sponge aggregations, Tridacna clams with electric blue mantles, colorful soft coral – this was the Micronesia I’d pictured.

Of course, Palau is one of the top worldwide destinations for divers. Most experienced divers prefer liveaboards and the Big Blue is the least expensive. The shortcomings are all in the craft. You can spend more for other liveaboards and improved accommodations, but the crew of the Big Blue got us the schooling sharks, manta rays, Napoleon wrasse, big pelagic tuna, amazing schools of chevron barracuda; the WWII wrecks, and the best of Palau. If price is important to you, put the Big Blue on your list. But get the bigger cabins.

Yap and Palau, MicronesiaDivers Compass: 8 day/7night trips w/six days of 4-5 dives/day starts at $1,999, deluxe cabins are $2,199 ($400 less than the Aggressor and $800 less than the Ocean Hunter)...Aluminum 80’s were pumped to 3000 psi, Nitrox was $150 extra...E6 processing was available although there wasn’t a “photo pro” aboard to run the lab. Complete diving gear sets were available for rent as well as dive computers, still and video cameras, several sets of manifold doubles, even an Atlantis Rebreather. Use of sea kayaks, reef hooks, and safety sausages are all included.

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