TRAVEL WATCH: FEBRUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 7
Despite the boom in diving over the past few years, Yap is relatively undiscovered. Situated between Palau and Guam--it's about three hours west of the Philippines by plane--Yap is still almost an insider's secret. There are only two flights a week, but the diving is so good that it's worth the effort to get there. Unless there is a rare typhoon, divers are virtually certain to encounter mantas, not to mention the corals, walls and reefs that are home to other abundant fish life.
Manta diving focuses on the so-called cleaning stations, areas of the reef where mantas come to have the parasites picked off their backs by helpful little wrasse and other fish. Divers swim 20-25 m down to the bottom and wait for the mantas to come in. The creatures look like Stealth aircraft as they cruise through the water with their enormous mouths open. Mantas live on plankton, but they fear no predators and are unfazed by humans wearing scuba equipment--unless you exhale large air bubbles directly underneath their bellies, which seems to tickle them and will make them bolt.
The mantas were developed into a diving attraction by Bill Acker, an American who came to Yap as a Peace Corps worker and never left. Bill married a Yapese woman, Patricia, and now runs the island's main inn, the Manta Ray Bay Hotel, and its associated dive shop, Yap Divers. Bill and his divemasters have spent thousands of dive hours with the creatures, some of which, including a pair known as Spike and Valerina, are now able to recognize veteran divers of the area.
Diving isn't the only way to explore the island's abundant natural gifts. You can also paddle a kayak on the waterways that weave through Yap's rich mangrove forests. Fairy terns and other birds fill backwaters accessible only via kayak. There are also secluded beaches reachable only by boat. With a picnic lunch, they are a great diversion from the diving. Fishing for aggressive giant trevally is an alternative for non-divers.
Getting to Yap entails a short flight from either Guam or Manila on Continental Micronesia, the only airline serving the Micronesian islands. Manta Ray Bay Hotel offers combined diving and accommodation packages. Details and stunning photographs of manta rays can be found on its website, www.mantaray.com, or call (691) 350-2300. Also helpful is the Destination Micronesia site at www.destmic.com/yap. html, which provides general information about the region.
Illustration for TIME by Tracy McGuinness
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