Yap, the Mantarays Realm
Yap, the forgotten Paradise
A small charming Island located in the Western Carolines, eastern of the Philippines, about midway between Guam and Palau, Yap is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, which also contains Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. The FSM is a sovereign nation with a seat in the UN.
When you get out of the plane in Yap, you’re first welcomed, not by a custom officer, but by a topless teenage in a grass skirt who offers you a flower lei and a cheerful smile.
Yap is world famous for its large population of resident manta rays. In Yap, a manta dive does not mean diving, hoping for a manta encounter, it means diving to actually see the mantas.
There’s much more to diving in Yap than just Manta Rays, however. Yap’s outer reefs abound with species of tropical reef fishes, invertebrates and corals even if much less colorful than neighbor islands like Palau. When coupled with the abundance of larger species like mantas, sharks, and turtles, Yap is a paradise for the underwater photographer.
Bill Acker who opened the Manta Ray Bay Hotel and the Yap Divers Club in the early nineties has made Yap is famous for its large population of resident Manta Rays and it is probably the best place on earth to see these gentle giants. Bill counts more than 8000 dives there and can tell more about local mantas than anyone else.
Yap Divers small embarkations are situated just behind the hotel and bring the divers to all the diving spots around the island.
Over 100 Manta Rays live all year long in the waters surrounding Yap. In the winter (usually end January to late April), the Mantas congregate in even greater numbers in the Mi’l Channel for the mating season. During the summer season, they spend their mornings in the Goofnuw channel, in the Valley of the Rays.
If you plan to go there, it is very important make sure you go during the right season. A German tourist told me that the week preceding my arrival at the site, he hadn’t been able to see one single manta in four days of diving even though he went there for the sole purpose of seeing mantas. I was lucky. I saw them coming right and left during each dive. They were so many of them that I didn’t know which side to look. Sometimes they were so close that I couldn’t shoot them entirely, even with my widest-angle lens (Nikonos 15mm).
For a good dive, it is important to have the best possible visibility. This is the reason why dives are scheduled according to the tides; the best possible time is towards the end of an incoming tide. If the dive is not well scheduled, you’ll have green sandy water with poor visibility, so the best way to do is to wait on board the embarkation until the water is clear and blue. To get to the dive spots Manta Ray Divers Club take you on their small boats through a channel full of mangroves.
Every morning, Manta Rays cruise into protected channels that penetrate the barrier reef. They come to “Cleaning Stations” where small-specialized reef fishes called cleaners remove the tiny parasites that the Mantas pick up in blue water while feeding. The Mantas slowly circle the cleaning station and frequently pass within inches of the observing diver’s heads.
Small Mantas are generally about 2.5 meters from wingtip to wingtip. The larger rays are more than 4 meters across. Yap’s mantas are not the largest found in the world, which can reach up to 8 meters, but Yap beats the record when it comes to the quantity populating the sea.
To get a better idea of the width manta rays, yap divers generally open their arms wide while the manta is passing right over them. Each manta has its own name and divers recognize them following the black traces on their “belly”.
Manta Rays are primarily plankton feeders. They use the cephalic fins on their head to funnel plankton-rich water into their mouth and filter it out. Some small crustaceans and fish might complement the diet, but like other filter feeders, the Manta Rays have nonfunctional teeth and are no threat to larger ocean animals unless threatened themselves.
Unlike many other Rays, Mantas don’t have a spine on their tail. Their only defense is their powerful wings. A Yapese myth relates that Mantas can wrap their wings around a person and squeeze him to death. This is not true, but a blow from a wing of a full-grown manta carries a very powerful punch.
During the mating season (late January to late April in Yap), mantas gather in large numbers and several males can bee seen courting single females. The actual mating is done belly-to-belly. Some fifteen months later, the result is born – usually one, but sometimes two, manta “pups”, only a foot wide, rolled up as tubes. They are born alive and become active as soon as they have rolled out their wings.
Yap is one of the few known location where mantas stay in one place year in and year out. The reason for this is still unclear. One theory is that Yap is like an oasis in a desert ocean – surrounded by deep trenches. The closest places offering food and safety are quite far from Yap.
But the area has more to offer. Yap has a rich cultural life and is famous for its “Stone Money” which can reach up to 3.5 meters in diameter. These massive stone discs rate without competition as the largest coins in the world. The US dollar is the common currency in Yap, but the stone money is still used to this day for major transactions like purchase of land.
Yap is a real paradise; the rhythm of life there is very different than the one we are accustomed to in our busy cities. The quiet is so intense that you could almost feel ashamed of your new rhythm of life; but don’t worry you will rapidly get used to it. I think that Yap is really interesting as a primary destination and I strongly recommend it to you and if you plan to go to Palau as main destination. Save a couple of days to go to Yap (50 minutes flight from Palau), it is really worth it!
You can get to Yap by flying from Manila (or from Palau) with Continental Micronesia Airlines.
More pictures of Yap are available in the Yap photo gallery