Yap: Don’t Miss It!

Bret GilliamLike most dive locations worth visiting these days, Yap is not easily accessible. First you have to fly at least 13-14 hours from the west coast of the U. S. (six hours more from the east coast) just to get to Guam. Then you’ll have to negotiate the Byzantine schedule of Continental Micronesia to get a flight into Yap that may require you to go by way of Palau, another three hours in the wrong direction, and then backtrack.

At least when you finally make your way into the Yap airport the first person to greet you is not some uptight uniformed customs agent but a topless teenaged girl in a grass skirt who offers you a flowered lei and a cheerful smile. Now that’s tourism promotion at its finest. And it’s your first clue that this island is distinctly different from the well-beaten path to other more mainstream destinations in the Pacific.

Yap’s main claim to fame for most observers was its peculiar stone money that could be 12 feet tall weighing a ton and required paddling or sailing it from other remote islands in dugout canoes. (Kinda makes you wonder about their ATM machines, doesn’t it?) It didn’t register on the radar of scuba diving destinations until the mid-1990s. It all started about 25 years ago when Bill Acker, the founder of Yap Divers, was trying to figure what to do with Paul Tzimoulis of Skin Diver magazine on a day that produced weather so severe that diving outside the reefs was out of the question.

As the wise man once said, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Bill didn’t exactly invent anything but he decided to pull a rabbit out of his proverbial hat and entice Tzimoulis to try a different kind of diving. He approached the subject with considerable caution not wanting to piss off the influential writer who, at that time, could make or break a resort operator with a few strokes of the pen.

“Paul, you can see that today isn’t really shaping up as a good one,” Bill began as eight-foot waves pounded the reef sending plumes of salt spray another twenty feet overhead. “And I know I promised you some great reef and wall dives if you’d finally come out here and take a look at Yap. But today is one of those days that are sort of beyond our control…” he paused as Tzimoulis started giving him one of those “I’ve heard this a million times” looks.

Bill quickly abandoned any thoughts he might have had about suggesting a cultural tour of the island’s stone money banks and frozen-in-time native villages. Clearly having traveled over 15,000 miles, the Skin Diver publisher was expecting to get wet no matter what the problem.

Bill’s house was located way out on the east side of the island and his balcony overlooked the inside channels that his boats used as a protected waterway through the mangroves saving an outside passage when it was rough. He used to take his morning coffee on his balcony that overlooked the area and he had noticed mantas swimming in the limited visibility but had never thought to try diving with them. Clutching at straws, he decided to see if he could spark some interest in diving with a promise of mantas.

Manta in YapSo he explained to Tzimoulis that they might be able to catch some manta activity, was he willing to give it a try? Although skeptical, Tzimoulis agreed and Bill took a deep breath, crossed his fingers, and off they went to a rendezvous with destiny. Because, as almost any diver now knows, Yap is to mantas what Cozumel is to tequila. Tzimoulis wrote the first feature on Yap’s resident manta population shortly thereafter and since then the place has been branded as “the” place to see these colossal animals.

It’s proven to be a mixed blessing for Bill and for Yap.

On trip to Yap about a decade ago, I asked Bill why he hadn’t offered the manta diving before Tzimoulis. He stroked his long mustache and took a thoughtful gulp from a cold beer and reflected, “I never really thought anyone would be interested in diving in the channels because the visibility was poor. I mean, we had these crystal clear conditions on our outer reefs and walls and I just couldn’t see dumping divers in the 30-40 foot viz inside no matter what was there. I guess I was wrong because the divers we took to the mantas went friggin’nuts.”

And therein lies Yap’s rather ironic problem. On an island that arguably can lay claim to some of the most pristine coral reef structures to be found anywhere in the world, the dive operators have been faced with visiting divers who come only to see the mantas for a couple of days and dash off. None the less, Bill has built quite a successful hotel, restaurant and dive operation by giving his customers exactly what they came for… even to the extent of guaranteeing manta sightings.

He ruefully notes, “The mantas are great and I never appreciated how truly unique the experience was until Paul promoted it in Skin  Diver so many years ago. Of course, I’m grateful but to think of Yap as only a place to see mantas is far too limiting. Our other diving is just as good.”

Manta passing overheadHe’s dead-on right. The diving in Yap, particularly off the east side is nothing short of spectacular. I must admit that I fell into the “manta trap” myself and only scheduled three days on Yap my first visit. After getting dive bombed by as many as seven mantas so close that even a 12mm 178 degree lens couldn’t frame them, I was impressed. I had never seen manta action like that anywhere and I’d been around the block a few times in nearly every dive locale in the world. It was intoxicating and seductive.

No matter what they offered me for alternative dives on that first trip, I was hooked on the mantas and spent the better part of three days grinding roll after roll of film while laying on my back as they flew over me inches away.

Bill’s extremely competent staff have identified four distinct cleaning stations that attract the mantas and it’s a simple matter of getting into position where his guides place you and then hunkering down to wait. Their sighting success is good enough that if you sign up for at least four days diving, they’ll guarantee that you’ll see the rays.

As long as no one tries to encroach on a fairly well defined comfort zone, the mantas are content to hover at the cleaning stations for prolonged periods. One of my dives had three individual females continually orbit the coral head we had staked out for the better part of an hour. Although the visibility is never particularly good and further complicates flash photography by a preponderance of particulate matter making back-scatter a certainty, the experienced photographer gravitates to extreme wide angle natural light compositions with great success. Of course, there are days when an incoming current gets everything right and the viz is damn perfect inside as well. With those conditions, the manta photography options are unchecked.

Outside the Yap Divers’ waterfront patio a huge display showcases scores of mantas that the staff have identified over the years. Each individual is indexed by sex, size and unique markings making positive ID’s possible. It’s both interesting and educational and Bill’s eager to please staff encourages you to take a more structured “manta awareness” seminar that does a nice job of explaining the life cycle, habits, and biology of the species. One thing’s for sure, you’ll have the opportunity to see more mantas here than anywhere else and that alone is worth the trip.

But you would be making a mistake not to indulge yourself in the exceptional diving available outside the manta channels. There are maybe two other places in the Pacific that can showcase coral formations like those found on the east side of Yap. The coral structures, variety, and reef condition are easily within the top three destinations in the world. Visibility can often exceed 200 feet making the overall experience simply breathtaking. Add some great wall diving, exciting shark activity, superb macro critters, and great pelagic sightings… it’s worth adding to any diver’s logbook.

Bill has discovered two other notable additions to the varied diving. Several eagle ray cleaning stations have been identified where these lesser cousins of the manta can be observed up close and personal. Just as exciting is the scene just after dark when hundreds of mandarin fish come out of the coral and swim around in certain “secret spots” to the delight of macro photographers. It’s possible to frame several fish at once including mating rituals and males in full fighting behavior.

Yap was spared the devastation to its coral resources that so dramatically affected other areas in the region in the aftermath of the infamous El Nino of 1997-98 when ocean temperatures soared and reached nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit for a sustained period. This led to a devastating mortality for both soft and hard corals in other Micronesian islands. For reasons not entirely understood, Yap completely escaped and now boasts thriving coral gardens that may not be seen again in our lifetimes elsewhere.

While I preferred the windward east side due to the corals, the western lee offers the best wall diving while the south end combines drop-offs with towering coral cathedrals and caverns. All areas offer superb visibility and enough pelagic action to keep your adrenaline fix satisfied.

When you’re not diving, Acker’s Manta Ray Bay Hotel is an ideal base conveniently located right on Colonia harbor with all diving services (including nitrox) on premises. Bill built the three-story hotel himself and it offers 23 rooms that are clean, comfortable and delightfully decorated in different marine themes. And the food is excellent.

Another addition to the resort property is Bill’s latest toy: the 170-foot sailing schooner Mnuw (Sea Hawk). He found the 100-year old traditional wooden vessel in Bali after an exhaustive search for an appropriate craft to refit as a luxury floating restaurant and bar. It arrived and opened for business moored right in front of the hotel in December 2001 and was an immediate success. It’s a massive ship that conjures up something right out of an Errol Flynn swashbuckler movie with an eerie resemblance to Captain Hook’s flagship.

But there’s no finer place to sip a cold beer and chow down on some of the delectable food fare. I passed the better part of an afternoon with a spirited bunch of divers who pondered the great questions in life such as “How much deeper would the ocean be without sponges?” as well as ruminating that the primary problem with the gene pool is that there is no life guard on duty. So much for suggesting that tropical islands tend to induce a certain alcohol fueled torpor.

Finally, I cannot end without noting briefly the phenomenon of beetle nut consumption. Although beetle nut use is widespread in Micronesia, Yap apparently enjoys a particularly enhanced reputation among those who indulge as the source of the best quality product (like Maui put the “Wowee” in their renowned cannabis) … and virtually everyone from grade school kids to grandmothers seems to have their mouth full.

Acker himself is a veteran beetle nut aficionado and, in fact, even chews underwater while diving. There’s no hiding the fact that you’re a beetle nut user since it rather permanently stains the teeth and gums a sort of diminished red and leads outside observers to suspect that a primary side affect of the habit is repeatedly biting your tongue.

Of course, this leads to an inevitable need to periodically spit lustily and the island parking lots, streets and paths are all festooned with the red residue of countless vigorous expectorations. This necessitates a certain slalom course discipline when walking to negotiate the ubiquitous “wet spots” when venturing away from the hotel. That leads me to this last reflection on beetle nut and its pervasive influence.

Just up the hill from Acker’s hotel is a swankly appointed resort called Trader’s Ridge. It’s exquisite in every detail and most divers make the pilgrimage up a steep path to sample their bar and restaurant at least once. The high view of Colonia is superb and every element of the hotel is first class. But training the local staff was apparently still in the works when I first visited in 2002.

I joined a group of Texans for dinner in the open air dining room that overlooked the tropical gardens one night and a fine meal was enjoyed by all. As the dessert dishes were cleared away, our barefoot sarong-clad waitress, who was all of maybe seventeen, presented the bills to each party. One of the Texans proffered a Gold American Express card and inquired if the establishment accepted it for payment.

Without missing a beat, our island princess launched a loogie over the balcony that would have made any major league baseball pro proud and envious of her technique. Geoff Comstock, a Dallas insurance executive noted sagely, “That’s the most emphatic rejection of a credit card I’ve ever seen!”

Oblivious to the diner’s shock, she wiped her chin and accepted a swiftly offered VISA card by our shattered friend never once realizing that her well timed beetle nut blast had unintentionally precipitated an adjustment in the competitive charge card cosmos. We’ll probably see her featured in a Super Bowl ad, “because they don’t take American Express.”

At Acker’s place, they don’t care how you pay as long as you settle up before you leave. Take my advice and spend at least a week to sample the great variety of superior diving to be had. You’ll like the laid back staff in every department of Bill’s operation where customer service is a first priority.

You won’t be disappointed. It’s the best kept secret in diving and it shouldn’t be. Just watch out for the wet spots.

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8 thoughts on “Yap: Don’t Miss It!”

  1. Great read! I reading love reading about the islands from the tourists perspectives. Haven’t been back in almost a decade so maybe next time I set foot on the island I’ll be playing tourist.

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  2. Just got back. Dove with Beyond the Reef. Tiny operation and I highly recommend them if you don’t want to dive on boats with lots of other divers. Each dive is tailored to what you want to do and see. Four divers max.

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  3. Bret,
    Great article on a great destination. One of my all time favorite destinations. Heading a group back there in April with a week start in Truk with Capt Lance for my 5th trip to Yap and 6th to the region. It’s hard to beat. Bill is superb host and John is the best guide and they have all become good friends. Come join us in April for a couple weeks. I’m sure you miss it already!!

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  4. Your article brings back fond and vivid memories. I visited Yap a couple of years ago and fell in love with the place. Fortunately, I’ll be able to relive some of those memories and make new ones for others as I’m leading a group of divers to Yap and Palau in March. I am directing them to your article to illustrate that what I’ve been telling them is factual and not just my sales pitch.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Wayne,

    Thanks for pointing out the misspelling on “Betel” nut. You are entirely correct. I can only imagine what sort of trend I may have inadvertently started with well-intended adventure-seeking divers asking to chew “beetle nuts”. I apologize to all the affected beetles out there and wish them luck in their new careers as sopranos in the beetle boys choir.


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  6. Manta rays, yes; also sharks, huge marble rays (we saw ’em mating), awesome vis on the reefs, amazing numbers of mandarin gobies, and so much more. Atochthonous culture, traditional navigators, ancient ways of life,stone money whose value is not about size but about the stories of how they came to Yap, dinner in a phinisi schooner, it’s amazing Yap. I would never recommend folks stop over en route to and from Palau for a couple of days in Goofnuw or Mi’l with mantas – I’d recommend a week or ten days for the whole, wonderful thing, because trust me, getting there is definitely not “half the fun”.

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  7. I dove there in Feb, 1998.
    Your description of the M’il Channel cleaning station is spot on, as is the depiction of life on the Island: the stone money and topless natives were things one would only expect to find in photos from old National Geographic magazines.
    I was so enamored with the mantas — and having spent the prior week on a Palau liveaboard — I did not even consider their reef.
    Next time…

    [And for the record, that would be ‘betel’ nut, not ‘beetle’ nut.]

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  8. Dove their in summer, 1997. You are so right, Brett. Great memories; your description and pictures tell it all – except being there.

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