AL HORNSBY extols the virtues of Yap, a Pacific island where the lifestyle and culture is little-changed from ancient times, and which is a hotspot for manta ray encounters
We’ve drifted inward on the current from the outer reef wall, where Goofnuw Channel opens into the sea. Along the way, we have passed green turtles, grey reef sharks, schools of black snapper, leopard sharks and reef fish of every description milling around the scattered coral-heads.
It’s a fascinating dive, but even more exciting is the anticipation of reaching our destination – the Valley of the Rays, with its three manta-cleaning stations. The largest of these is Merry-Go-Round, a huge lettuce-coral structure rising from the 20m bottom. As it comes into view in the almost-30m vis water, we can see that 10-15 big mantas are moving around the mound.
As calmly as possible, we settle on the sand bottom around the edges of the knoll, staying low to avoid interfering with the mantas’ patterns of movement as they come in to hang motionless just above the coral.
As we watch, a swarm of wrasse and butterflyfish rise to clean the rays of parasites. The mantas gaze at us serenely, clearly unfazed by our presence only metres away. As on my previous visits to Yap, it strikes me how unusually calm the island’s mantas are around divers.
As a manta moves away, it pauses just over our heads, seemingly inquisitive and providing the opportunity for very close observation. It’s an underwater photographer’s dream and any diver’s transcending moment to be so close to these immense, gentle creatures.
The islands of Yap are the tops of submerged mountains, their green, rugged hillsides jutting up from the western Pacific’s otherwise unbroken horizon, a 75-minute flight south-west of Guam.
Though easily accessible to tourists, Yap has managed steadfastly to hold to its traditional ways, including its tribal chiefs’ style of government, its songs and dances – and its affinity for the constant chewing of calming betel nut by young and old.
Still relatively little-affected by the outside world, Yap is a place where visitors can easily experience the realities of Micronesian culture.
Especially interesting – and unique – is the use of the ancient stone money. Around the various villages stand large, circular discs of stone, a hole carved in their centres. Carved in olden times in Palau and transported the arduous 300 miles by canoe, these once served as the currency for Yap's economy.
Value was determined by the size of the stone and the difficulty of the return voyage from Palau to Yap. Today, these giant coins are still used as collateral for major transactions such as sales of land, in marriages or for settlement of grievances.
Visitors are treated with a shy, friendly curiosity, and those who express polite interest in the local people are often surprised by the welcoming response. There are opportunities to visit villages and men’s meeting-houses, eat local foods and witness the traditional dances and singing.
This is something that should not be missed, because the lifestyle that defines Micronesia is one of enjoyment of the simple things, reverence for the natural environment, and unconditional sharing – of possessions, resources and smiles of happiness.
Two tidal channels
For World War Two history buffs, Yap was occupied by the Japanese and fortified with bunkers, artillery and an airport. While it was not invaded by US forces, like nearby Palau and Guam, it was the scene of heavy bombing and aerial skirmishes. Tours still reveal the remains of anti-aircraft guns and wrecked aircraft.
For divers, however, Yap is even more special. Beneath those clear waters that surround its shorelines, nature has prepared the wonderful surprise that only divers can experience.
Each morning, on the incoming high tide, schools of huge manta rays enter two of Yap's tidal channels, Goofnuw and Mi’l, and spend several hours hovering over certain coral-heads, waiting their turn to be cleaned.
The setting provides a manta-interaction opportunity that is special among diving locations – the chance, just offshore, to observe as many as 10 to 20 huge mantas from only a few metres away, as they participate in a daily ritual that has occurred uninterrupted through the ages.
Also special about these dives is that, because the goal of the dive operation is to allow divers to continue to witness the mantas in their natural behaviour, they are accomplished in a manner that does not alter the event or interfere with the mantas’ comfort. Much attention is devoted to helping guests learn to dive in a way that allows coexistence without disturbance.
The skills learnt are, perhaps, the essence of environmentally sensitive diving. The skill-sets and awareness developed when diving with Yap’s mantas are valuable lessons that can be carried on, improving any diver’s interactions with any big marine life.
Besides the Valley of the Rays, there are many other remarkable dive-sites around the 24km-long main island. On the east side of Mi’l Channel is Manta Ridge, coral that runs across it from the 13m-deep bottom. On morning incoming tides, especially in winter and spring (Goofnuw Channel is the main summer-autumn location), as many as 10-12 mantas at a time ride the current into the site.
Taking turns, they move in to hover over the ridge, while a horde of small fish begin to roam over their bodies and in and out of their gaping gills, searching for isopods and other parasites. After a few minutes the mantas move away to be replaced by others.
Yap Caverns & Corner
On the island’s north end, in very clear water, Yap Caverns is a jumbled terrain of grottos, caves and swim-throughs located at the edge of a steep drop-off. A white-sand bottom creates a lovely photographic setting, and fish-life is profuse.
Schools of jack and trevally, blue-striped snapper and fusiliers dart about, and ocean pelagics, especially dogtooth tuna, are frequent sightings. Green turtles, often completely unafraid of divers, are common as well.
On the outer reef on the south-east side of the island is an exciting dive called Yap Corner. With many different corals along the reef-top, the slope tumbles into deep water, with a mild current and great clarity – generally visibility is 25-30m or more.
Many whitetip reef sharks move about the slope, and big grey reef sharks patrol back and forth in blue water. The scene is a constantly moving fish circus, with resident schools of snapper, bigeye trevally and blackfin barracuda shifting about, and a pack of eagle rays is often present, circling back and forth along the drop.
Near Yap Caverns, Lionfish Wall is located on a steep section of the drop-off. Huge, leathery, brown zoanthids cover the wall and colourful reef fish congregate in clouds.
Off the wall, in blue water, grey reef sharks can be seen. Angelfish, sweetlips and squirrelfish move about under the deep ledges. In one section of the wall, a series of overhangs provides shelter for an amazing collection of lionfish, with as many as five species congregated together. A photographer's treasure-trove, this unique grouping provides an opportunity for unique images.
A visit to Yap is a trip back to a slower time, where Micronesian culture and lifestyles endure, in many ways hardly changed from their ancient origins.
The island also provides a fascinating glimpse into one of nature’s most fascinating rituals, as those immense, graceful mantas calmly go about their daily habits, little concerned about divers’ close, wide-eyed presence.
Al Hornsby was supported by Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers
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Photographs by Al Hornsby