Photos By Tim Rock
It’s the most traditional island in Micronesia, a land steeped in ancient customs, fascinating legends and peopled by one of the most distinctive cultures in the Pacific. Attractions like handmade seaside men’s houses, ancient stone money discs and stone paths can be seen here. But Yap is a relative newcomer to the tourism and diving industry in the region and handles its development in measured doses.
Organized diving exploration started in Yap only 30 years ago, basically marking the start of regular tourism to the island. New sites and undiscovered marine creatures are being found even today. Yap has become famous for its clear waters where schools of tuna, dolphins and reef fish are found in abundance. Observing the greatly varied ocean life in Yap’s waters has become a must for divers around the planet.
While clear waters and sheer dropoffs certainly describe Yap's diving, one fact stands above the rest. Yap is the world's foremost destination for seeing manta rays up close and personal. There is no other place on earth where they can be seen on such a consistent basis year ‘round.
This fact has catapulted Yap to the top on all lists of the world’s finest diving attractions. And add to this the many new discoveries found here like mandarinfish, Pegasus sea moths and beautiful pipefish. And Yap is a superb venue for watching reef sharks as they swim along the outer reefs and in the unique ocean channels.
Yap is still considered remote by most standards. The lack of heavy development and a small population means little pressure has taken place on the coral reefs or on land. Yap is actually a vast state comprising mostly open sea with idyllic atolls and islets all surrounded by some of the deepest seas on Earth.
Diving developments have included the discovery of a superb macrophotography reef complete with frisky mandarinfish, the addition of an occasional shark feeding afternoon and an annual critter hunt for muck divers who want to see the tiny and unusual within and near Yap’s large barrier reef. Non-divers can take a kayak and snorkel tour deep into the mangroves to observe the accurate and odd archerfish, another plus for visiting naturalists. A new Nature Trail goes high into the hills and also deep into the jungle, yielding very good bird life.
Yap Divers has been responsible for finding and naming most of Yap’s reefs, among them the action-packed Yap Corner. This is a busy, tide-driven site where gray reef sharks have been seen not only cruising the reef, but feeding on a resident school of bigeye jacks. It has been dubbed as an equal to Palau’s famous Blue Corner, which is very heavy praise, indeed. It is at the mouth of Miil Channel and the famous Tzimoulis or Manta Ridge. On incoming high tide, divers can drift down the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, as 100-foot walls loom on both sides. The canyon then narrows and a garden of stunning soft red corals run up to Manta Ridge, only 10m deep across the top that spans the channel. At Manta Ridge, 60 juvenile gray reef sharks hang in shallow water, circling in a box canyon. There are schools of black snapper, bigeye jacks and drum all found at the ridge area. Mantas move up and down the channel and across the ridge.
A real favorite for photographers is Yap Caverns at the south tip of Yap. The caverns are a series of caves and boulders that honeycomb a deep indent in the reef. The caverns are home to nurse sharks, resting whitetips and a large family of bumphead parrotfish.
The “other” manta spot is Gofnuw Channel. No less than six different cleaning stations can be found here and during the summer and fall months, mantas come in and hang at any one or even all of them. When a high clear tide comes in, one can see from one side of the channel to the next.
Manta conservation is a foremost goal of Yap’s dive operators and divers are not allowed to chase or touch the rays. “We’re guests in their world,” says Bill Acker.
Slow and Easy is the way to dive to Yap macro site. This dive in the main channel about five minutes from the Yap Diver’s dock is good for both shallow and deep diving and it is sometimes full of surprises that aren’t in the macro category. Divers have been known to cavort with sea turtles here and mantas on the same dive, distracting all but the hardest core of macro shooter.
There are strong cultural attractions. This stone money island is famous for these and its traditional dances. Dance is the most advanced art form in Yap. Through dance, legends are passed down, history is recorded and entertainment is created. The dances of Yap are raucous, colorful and well orchestrated.
In the villages, fishing, sailing and weaving are still important parts of everyday life.
Yap’s lack or development is an attraction in itself. Yap’s rolling green hills and lush mangroves make Yap a true tropical Eden. Or an ocean kayak tour can be arranged to allow the visitor to look at these meandering passageways in a very special way. Hike the new trails or the old stone paths, kayak in the mangroves, take a cultural tour or just go to a secluded beach. In the evening, watch the sun set from Sunset Park.
Yap has made such a great mark on world diving in its first 30 years; the future can only be bright for the next decades.