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TRAVEL WATCH: FEBRUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 7

Micronesian Island Offers Lots to Yap About
By TERRY McCARTHY



Among Asia's diving locations, the island of Yap belongs in a category of its own. The reason: mantas. All year round, large numbers of manta rays live in the clear waters off this small Micronesian island. Stretching up to 4.5 m from wing tip to wing tip, the mantas are a thrilling sight as they approach the reefs and hover just above divers' heads. The experience of looking up at these graceful creatures flapping gently in the current defies description. Divers are given to superlatives, but Yap's mantas are off the end of the scale.

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.

    ALSO IN TIME
Micronesian Island Offers Lots to Yap About
All year round, large numbers of manta rays live in the clear waters off Yap

Detour
In pre-1949 China, Shanghai gangsters sometimes rubbed shoulders with Chiang Kai-shek at Moganshan, a bucolic mountaintop resort 200 km from the city

Hot Deals
It's always tempting to swap the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur for the lush, green hills of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands

Yap's culture is equally fascinating. For some transactions, the islanders still use stone money--disks with holes through the middle that can weigh up to five tons. And in the villages many of the women still go bare-breasted (there is, however, a strict taboo against women displaying their thighs, so long grass or cotton skirts are worn). The villages are joined by an intricate system of stone paths, whose origins have been lost to history. Everyone chews betel nut, and its red juice makes the roadways look like massacre scenes. The other local pastime seems to be guzzling Budweiser: Yapese claim that they drink more of the beer per capita than any other nationality. It shows in their well-rounded figures. Life does not move very quickly on Yap, but on an island of just 100 sq km with a population of 11,500, where is there to move to, at any speed?

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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