on 3 Jan 2021
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.
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