Trip Report: Micronesia, prepared by Steve Schalk

This "report" covers a dive trip made 14-28 March 1998 through the islands of Yap, Chuuk (Truk), Koror, Peliliu (Palau). The first section will cover most of where we dove and what we saw; the second part will cover the underwater photography portion of the trip. We had 11 diving days (I dove 10) and logged 29 (28 for me) dives totaling 27 1/2 hours of bottom time. I got through it all without a flood or damaging any equipment. I can't say the same for all on this excursion.

My "tips" are at the end of this report. I shot through 21 rolls of slide film: Kodak Elite II 100 ASA, Fuji Sensia 100 ASA, Kodak Dyna 200 ASA and Kodak Kodachrome 400 ASA. My primary camera setups included 1: Nikonos V/Sea&Sea 15mm, dual SB105 strobes, OBS strobe arms, 2: Nikonos V/28mm, dual SS50 on Ikelite arms. Although they don't get rave reviews from other U/W photographers, I used Ray-O-Vac Renewals without incident or delayed strobe recharge throughout for all of my strobes.

I traveled and dove with 4 others; the other divers were Ray Simon, Dave Burch, Mike Cook, and Maumi Krause. Our group included a PADI Course Director, a PADI Master Instructor, a PADI OW Instructor, and a PADI Divemaster. The "ring leader" (or the one that deserves credit for making all of the travel/dive arrangements through Trip N Tour) is Ray Simon, owner of The Scuba Center at Camp Pendleton, CA. The reason I mention the experience level of the divers is not to toot anyone's horn, but rather to indicate that all of the divers in the group are extremely experienced and with that in mind, that's how our dives were planned. I was extremely please with the way Trip N Tour established our itinerary. With rare exception, all hotels and dive operators were aware of our reservations, and in the unlikely instance there was a lost "reservation" our vouchers (make sure you get them!) got us through.

My particular travel plans were a little unique compared to the others as I began my travel from Okinawa, Japan. Because Continental Micronesia was not yet flying to Guam, I used All Nippon Airways (ANA) and traveled through Hiroshima, Japan to Guam. For those traveling from the Far East, Continental Micronesia begins flights to/from Guam/Okinawa beginning 5 April 98. Many flights continuing from Guam arrive very late at night and have lengthy connection delays. Guam's airport has been, and continues to be, remodeled, and during the interim, there are no lockers available. The airport has a single snack bar that stays open 24 hours, but other than that, services are limited. All of the other divers traveled from California and went through Honolulu on the way to Guam. We used Continental Micronesia for inter-island travel. Be ready to go through customs at almost every step of the way. There isn't any problem with customs if you stay in Micronesia proper (FSM), but Palau is an independent government and you know what that means. There are two different departure taxes: $20 in Koror (Palau), $10 in Chuuk. I traveled (as always) with all of my equipment in a Rubbermaid Action Packer; it gets a lot of attention, but doesn't present any problems. I hand carried my primary camera gear (camera bodies, lenses, strobes) and sent the rest as checked baggage. I didn't use any Pelican cases on this trip, but others in the group did without any problems.
Our first dive destination was Yap, via Guam. The airport (as are many in Micronesia) is rustic but functional. Be patient while waiting on your luggage as it is transferred to the terminal via hand loaded truck. The arrival area is small and gets very congested; be ready to move large, heavy bags away in a hurry without the benefit of a cart. Movement through customs/immigration flows smoothly and won't add any delay. We stayed at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel. Hotel staff met us at the airport and assisted us with the transfer of our bags/equipment to/from our hotel rooms. This is a first class organization; the hotel is clean and very convenient. There is a restaurant on the third floor (that serves great food), a full service photo center and dive shop on the first floor, and the boat dock and equipment storage locker are right out in back of the hotel. Depending on your arrival time, you may be able to dive on arrival day. Plan ahead.
We dove three days in Yap through Yap Divers conducting 8 dives in all. Most divers go to Yap to see the Mantas; just don't get distracted and miss the other attractions. Being close to the Mantas is a unique experience. They aren't artificially attracted to the dive site in any way, instead, they frequent the channels because of the food and cleaning stations available. Be prepared to try and deal with 6-8 at a time. They get within inches and provide endless photo opportunities. As with anything else, there are rules: Don't touch! There is also great wall and drift diving that will provide plenty of opportunity to see sharks, large schooling pelagics (tuna, etc.), wahoo, dorado, turtles, and according to our dive guide, an occasional marlin.
The smaller boats (22') are comfortable and dry and are used to dive the closer destinations such as Mi'l Channel. There is a larger, more spacious boat (a Munson 35' aluminum), that is used for diving the outer reefs where travel through large swells and choppy seas is common. Our dive guide and boat captain throughout was Sesario and William. They were most gracious in accommodating our diving needs at Mi'l Channel, Lionfish Wall, End of the Reef, Yap Canyon, and Gillman Wall. During our first dive we were given depth and time restrictions to "check us out", but during later dives we were left pretty much to create our own profiles. There are snacks and hot tea provided on the boats. The snacks are mostly pastry items (lots of instant energy) and the hot tea, although not always recommended because of dehydration reasons, tastes great and provides warmth. One might be surprised at how much warmth is needed after 90 minutes in 83 degree water. There is a large rinse tank at the dock, and a storage locker in which to safely store dive gear overnight (for hotel guests) which precludes having to dry gear in the hotel rooms and further having to transfer equipment to and from the dock and hotel. As previously mentioned, great food available at the hotel, but there are also a few good restaurants available. The cost of food is reasonable. Before drinking it, check the origin of the water; if it was obtained from a local well, it has probably been chlorinated and is safe to drink. If not, drink bottled water.

Our next destination was Koror in the Republic of Palau (via Yap). The airport is more spacious and has "airport amenities" such as a snack bar and gift shop. There are also carts available to move large bags/equipment. Movement through customs/immigration was speedy. We stayed at the Desekel Hotel; their staff also met us at the airport and assisted us with transferring our bags/equipment to our rooms which were clean although not real spacious. There is a funny "quirk" attached to the rooms; when they are cleaned, the cleaning person turns a switch located by the door that shuts off the power to the room (this saves money when not occupied). If power is needed in the room during the day (battery chargers, etc.), just inform the front desk and they will make arrangements to leave the power on. There isn't food available at the hotel, but there are many good restaurants available, and the hotel is situated on top of a grocery store. The cost of food is reasonable. The water is safe to drink in most locations, but if in doubt, drink bottled water.
Our diving in Koror and Peliliu was conducted through Sam's Dive Tours. I CAN'T SAY ENOUGH ABOUT HOW WELL WE WERE TREATED! We did 5 days of diving making 16 dives. We dove locations such as New Drop Off, Blue Corner, German Wall, Siae's Tunnel, Blue Holes, Ulong Channel, Ulong Coral Beds, Turtle Cove, Chandelier Cave, 2 wrecks, and Orange Beach on Peliliu. Sam's is a full service facility offering retail merchandise, souvenirs, and Nitrox for those who want it. Our first day of diving was led by Fernando ("Fern"), and all others were guided by Doug. Our boat Captain throughout was Poker. Sam's has a nice fleet of boats available for it's customers. On most days we dove from a 26' Sea Cat, and on others we dove from 22' boats powered by twin 90/120 HP engines. The dive locations require longer travel (through what can be fairly bumpy ocean) than the locations in Yap, but the boats provide a relatively dry ride (especially the Sea Cat). Lunch (sandwiches) and drinks are provided daily. The night before, you pick what you want for lunch and it is made fresh the next morning. We were transferred to Sam's each morning by our dive guide in a spacious van. Dive equipment is securely stored at Sam's in a large gear locker. Whether on a drift dive or lazy wall dive, our guides led us to vast numbers of sharks, huge Napoleon Wrasse, tuna, turtles, huge groupers, eagle rays, giant tridacna clams, and schools of Jacks, Barracuda, and various baitfish. Diving at most (but not all) of the locations is ADVANCED diving and dive arrangements should be made with this in mind. Severe currents (5-7 knots), and tricky upwelling/downwelling currents are encountered daily, and one should not consider diving without a "safety sausage" and "reef hook". The safety sausage will allow you to be located at the surface in the event you are separated from your group, and the reef hook will allow you to stay in one place to watch the goings on at these spectacular dive sites. None of the sharks are baited; it is a totally "natural" experience. There are a LOT (hundreds) of sharks. You can either swim in their midst or watch them swim by. Our plus: we were lucky to encounter a lot of mating Grey Sharks at New Drop Off. I could go on and on......
If time is available, make it a point to visit Peliliu and do a WWII battle tour. Part of our reason for making the journey to Peliliu was to rededicate a USMC flag at the 1st Marines memorial which is dedicated to, and remembers the 8000 US casualties suffered in the forgotten battle for the island. It was even more sobering than being at the Arizona memorial in Hawaii.

Our last dive destination was Chuuk. We had to travel back to Guam from Koror and remain over night before getting there. We stayed at the Mai Ana hotel the night we remained on Guam. Guam's airport is larger than Yap but not as large as Koror's. Other than airline representatives, there are no services available in the "terminal". Few carts are available to move large bags/equipment. Movement through customs/immigration was speedy. We stayed at the Truk Stop Hotel; their staff also met us at the airport and assisted us with transferring our bags/equipment to our rooms which were clean and extremely spacious. There is also a nice restaurant and gift shop within the hotel. There is a long dock (much like a pier) where the dive charter services make pick ups and drop offs. There are also lockers for securing dive gear, but they don't provide the locks. 5 dives were conducted through Blue Lagoon Dive Shop. One note: none of the dive shops on Chuuk are "shops". They provide services only; no retail merchandise.
The boats used by Blue Lagoon were 22' and underpowered with twin 40 HP engines. Steering was an art as the engines were not connected and were operated as separate entities. Some of the tanks in use were as much as ten (yes, 10) years out of hydro. Our dive guide was Caleb who, although didn't have dive tables or a computer to reference, was a master of dive tables. He made all the long, deep dives we did and always seemed to know when to ascend and how long he needed to make a safety/decompression stop. The wrecks we dove were: Kensho Maru, Fujikawa Maru, Sankisan Maru, and the Betty Bomber. A few of the group made on extra dive on the San Francisco Maru. Chuuk is a wreck divers paradise, but be ready. Computers and/or Navy Dive Tables and extensive dive planning with back-up DECOMPRESSION scenarios are required. Most of the dives are deep, and although the guides are aware of this and take extended surface intervals, no-decompression times run out fast on deep, repetitive dives. My advice: if you use only one computer on a dive, take (and use) US Navy tables to plan dives and rely on your computer as a backup. I dive with two computers and still referred to US Navy tables for added safety. Tip: Keep track of dive computer battery consumption. If it's (or any of the other batteries you use for that matter) is an "off beat" size (say 9V lithium), take extras. Remember, a battery failure without adequate backup means staying out for at least 12 hours.
If you are looking for night life (outside of diving), you won't find any on Yap or Chuuk. As a matter of fact, you can't even get a taxi after 6:00 PM on Chuuk. Palau has a few cozy bars to check into, but there is a midnight-4:00 am curfew.
The underwater photographic opportunities throughout Micronesia are endless. Some tips:
- Most of the action happens at a fast and furious pace which doesn't allow for time to fiddle with a lot of controls. The Mantas, sharks, and the other limitless large animals are best captured using a Nikonos with a wide angle lens (15/20 mm, 12mm if you can get close enough).
- A separate light meter might help, but it also adds an extra component to take care of. Learning to master n meter in the Nikonos is the best bet.
- The wrecks allow more time to compose photographs which can be handled with a housed system.
- Macro and close-up photography can be found on wall dives, but unless diving with more than one camera, the large, and very beautiful scenics will be missed.
- If dual strobes are used, beware in strong current; it may be difficult to position cameras and keep them steady. Using smaller, more compact strobe arms (and strobes) will help.
- Consider limiting the number of cameras on a dive to one if the currents are strong. It's hard enough to master a reef hook in 7 knot current with one camera much less two or three.
- Film speed is important. A lot of the photo opportunities are 60' and deeper; with the lack of ambient light at these depths you may want to consider a faster film (100 ASA). For wrecks and caves, consider 400 ASA (or higher). Shooting lower ASA is OK, but it may limit the opportunities.
I shot (personal preference) a lot of balanced exposure wide angle pictures. The restrictions imposed by the depth's we regularly dove required either a faster film (faster than 50/64), or a lens with an f-stop as wide as F2.8. I mention this because the Sea&Sea 15mm has one less f-stop than the Nikonos 15mm and if trying to shoot 50/64 ASA film with a Sea&Sea 15mm at 90' you might have to rely on strobe fill only which of course reduces the number of photographic opportunities.
- Take extras: sync cords, film, o-rings, grease, and tools. Remember, you are pretty much on your own when you get there. If you shoot a lot of strobes or change film a lot, figure out battery consumption (whether rechargeable or not) and take as many batteries as needed to shoot through multiple rolls of film in a day. Electricity in Micronesia is 110 VAC so you can use chargers without any problems.
- None of the boats are large enough for a separate camera boxes. I highly recommend buying a padded, waterproof travel bag from U/W Photo Tech in Derry, N.H. for the trip. Fill it with water before leaving the dock and keep your camera(s) in it while on the boat.
- Salinity levels are HIGH in the S. Pacific (to include rinse tanks), so break cameras down after each dive day to service o-rings and other sensitive/delicate components. The small amount of time you invest in taking care of your cameras will be invaluable.
- Be aware/time restrictions on the deeper wrecks in Truk; it is very easy to forget the passage of time while composing and photographing the very beautiful scenes the wrecks behold.
The photographic services throughout Micronesia are limited. The Manta Ray Bay Hotel on Yap has a full service facility offering Motormarine rentals and development services. If film is in by 3 PM it is out by 6 PM. The only photo services available on Koror are located at the Palau Pacific Resort. This by theway, is the only place you can get slide film, and it is expensive! They offer developing services as well as camera rentals (both Nikonos and housed systems) and sales. Sam's Dive Tours on Koror plans on adding a full service facility in the near future. Chuuk/Peliliu don't have any services at all. You can find print film on Koror, but it's the luck of the draw on any of the other islands.

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