In the realm of the manta rays

The Micronesian island of Yap is legendary for its giant stone coins, but it is the manta rays that gather in its waters which leave a lasting impression

author icon By Guest Writer | 16 September 2020

By José Truda Palazzo Jr
Photos courtesy Brad Holland

 

It is a world away, in many ways.

Whether you are arriving by sea or by air, there’s no way you won’t be impressed by Yap. After a long journey, the tiny green specks surrounded by a bright blue lagoon, contrasting with the deep azure of the unfathomable depths of the open Western Pacific, are bound to impress you at first sight.

This first impression, however striking, will nevertheless become just a background for the marvels you experience. As the days drift by, you can enjoy one amazing discovery after another of natural and cultural riches unique to this small group of islands lined with mangroves and encircled by a healthy coral reef. Yap Proper, capital of the State of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, casts a spell upon its visitors that is not easy to describe.

Yap is living tradition

Located east of the Philippines and north of Papua New Guinea, Yap is little known to the outside world with the exception of seasoned international divers, who seek the island to dive its pristine coral formations and to meet the most famous dwellers of its lagoon: a resident population of about a hundred manta rays, immense and incredibly docile, and who greet visitors on a regular basis at the many ‘cleaning stations’ in the lagoon – coral formations where the mantas gather to be cleaned of parasites and old skin by an array of small reef fish.

While divers sit around the cleaning station, these giant manta rays hover above and around them, oftentimes at touching distance, watching people with the same curiosity that people watch them, while the hungry wrasse and other tiny cleaners do their healthcare job.

Yap became a leader in manta ray conservation with the establishment of a government-mandated sanctuary in 2008. The protected area covers the 16 main islands and atolls, plus 145 islets, a total of over 8,000 square miles.

As with many other divers, I first came to Yap for the mantas. It was 2007, and both I and my then-girlfriend longed for the interaction with these iconic and globally endangered animals. Thirteen years and seven return trips later, we still want to return to Yap, where we married in 2013. But the majestic mantas have become just one among many reasons why we keep going back there.

Yap’s marine biodiversity is stunning

With regard to diving, one soon learns that there’s much more than mantas to enjoy. Other big creatures such as sharks are also abundant, and a dive site called Vertigo, aptly named for the sensation given by looking down over the reef slope, offers one of the best shark dives in the world, with dozens of blacktip and grey reef sharks circling around you – with complete safety to the divers. Throngs of large bumphead parrotfish, condos of clownfish in their large anemone houses, and probably the largest mandarinfish colony in the world, just a few minutes away from the Yap Divers pier, complete the underwater biodiversity palette.

While there is much to see in Yap’s waters, the island itself is a bastion of tradition and can be fascinating to anyone interested in cultures that haven’t been altered by time.

A World War Two emplacement is part of the island’s living history

Life in Yap is still ruled by ancient custom in the villages scattered around the island, which are linked by stone paths that are centuries old. Walking through the island you will find unique sites such as the exquisitely carved men’s houses and the famous stone money banks, where the large stone coins made of limestone are still kept.

Taking time to talk to the locals about their culture and the significance of these revered cultural sites, you will discover one of the friendliest peoples in the world, proud of their islander heritage and the living culture still influencing every aspect of their lives.

Thanks to the kindness of our hosts at Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers, Bill and Patricia Acker, who pioneered and developed recreational diving operations in Yap, we were able to discover Yap’s ancient culture. They also showed us more recent historical sites connected to the Pacific Theatre of World War II.

 

Yap traces its human history as far back as 3000BCE, when the first settlers from either the Philippine Islands or Indonesia are said to have arrived. The stone quarries in Palau that are the source of  Yap’s famous stone money, were first in use from about 100AD. These giant stone money pieces had to be transported 250 miles over open ocean by canoe, and the danger of the trip increased the value of the stone.

Yap’s marine park comprises thousands of square miles of pristine water

From the 1500s on, Yap was colonised by European powers, and then Japan and finally the United States. March 1 is Yap Day, when the islanders celebrate their heritage. Dancing remains one of the most important means of storytelling in Yap, and a big attraction for visitors and locals.

The landscape of the islands are also worth exploring. There are the mangrove channels with their archerfish hunting insects with water spouts and flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging from tall trees in raucous gatherings. One can then enjoy freshly (and sustainably) caught tuna on the deck of the 18th century Indonesian schooner, the Mnuw, which harbours the best restaurant in Micronesia and is the place to meet both locals and foreigners. Sunset on the Mnuw deck with the locally brewed Stone Money beer in hand is a privilege for those making the trip.

Among those foreigners, one may find the occasional sailboat crew – still a rarity in Yap. That arriving yachts are still scarce is a bit surprising – Yap has a great anchorage in its lagoon and good support facilities for voyagers, from food markets to boat mechanics.

My voyage to Yap is always a long, long one: I and my wife still live in Brazil, halfway around the globe. But as long as we live, we will keep coming back to this unique place and people who greeted us with so much warmth and a genuine pride on sharing their treasures, both natural and cultural, with the outside world.

So beware of Yap: once you go there, it’s hard not to keep going back.