>The boat suddenly slowed. The divemaster was pointing at a disturbance on the water's surface. Seconds later, the surface was pierced by a tall, straight dorsal fin. This was no porpoise. Seconds later, shouts rang out.
>This was getting a little ridiculous. I sputtered to the surface, spit out my snorkel and started yelling.
>Unlike the pod of orcas, the surprised mola stayed nearby for a few precious minutes, providing all of us some prime photo opportunities before it swam away.
>Back on the boat, eight pairs of eyes carefully surveyed the ocean for any other unusual marine life. (I had my hopes pinned on a basking shark.) However, the hushed concentration was loudly interrupted by someone's stomach growling in angry protest at the prolonged snorkeling session. Evidently, it was now truly time for lunch. We headed home at last, delighted with our fantastic luck.
>Yap Island is one of the best places in the world to view manta rays, which is evidenced by the large number of divers who travel here year after year. Mantas are protected throughout the region, inhabiting a sanctuary that encompasses more than 8,200 square miles. It's no wonder there are more than 100 unique mantas here, and new animals are identified each year.
>Yap's thriving manta ray population is not a recent development, but it was not always so warmly received. Yapese fishermen were once wary of the creatures they called "devilfish," using tales of the fearsome animals to discourage their children from misbehaving.
>This changed in 1986, when the publisher of Skin Diver Magazine, Paul Tzimoulis, visited Yap. Tzimoulis' trip coincided with ghastly weather that made a visit to the outer reefs impossible. His consolation dive (imagine that) was the now-famous Mi'L Channel, where he found himself face-to-face with Yap's legendary devilfish. Shortly thereafter, the magazine classified the site as one of the best in the world. We're guessing the resulting influx of manta-mad scuba divers did wonders to improve the local reputation of the rays.
>On the rare days that manta numbers are disappointing, don't despair: The channels are not all rubble and sand. They also contain lovely hard-coral outcroppings swarmed by anthias and glassfish, and inspection of the walls may reveal hunting octopuses, leaf scorpionfish and branches of purple soft coral. While these channels are the sites most often visited for manta viewing, the large indigenous population of the creatures means they are a common spectacle at any of Yap's dive sites.
>One group of less-promoted residents has distracted us from mantas repeatedly: sharks. Vertigo is an exceptional shark dive that eclipses the individual encounters commonly experienced at other sites. The site consists of a pretty hard-coral wall laden with crinoids and small sponges, but the introduction of a simple PVC tube filled with bait amplifies the thrill value significantly. Minutes after the bait is submerged, the site swarms with dozens of bold gray reef sharks and an occasional blacktip thrown in for variety. This is already the most adrenaline-charged dive in Yap, and if current efforts to ban shark fishing throughout Micronesia succeed, it will only intensify.
>After giant manta rays and a writhing mass of reef sharks, what more could two photographers ask for? Certainly, we'd be perfectly satisfied to alternate mantas and sharks, day in and day out for weeks on end. However, with local diving pioneer Bill Acker himself repeatedly extolling the loveliness of Yap's other dive sites, we finally decided to forego the big-animal experiences for a day. A single day blurred into many as we became acquainted with Yap's lovely and diverse reefs. One standout was Cabbage Patch, a series of undulating, steeply sloping walls richly encrusted with delicate lettuce coral. The reef is inhabited by anemones, crinoids and tube worms, and large turtles are often found feeding along the top of the reef in this area.
>Yap’s gorgeous reefs, such as lettuce-coral-encrusted Cabbage Patch, offer a beautiful diversion from manta rays.
>Our hands-down favorite reef is Yap Caverns. Located at the extreme southwestern tip of Yap Island, this site is composed of a series of hard-coral pinnacles that enclose a maze of caverns and swim-throughs. Within the main cavern, a school of resident glassfish sweeps back and forth while stingrays and white-tip reef sharks tuck into the corners to nap. Peering back toward the cavern entrance may yield the most incredible vista of all: We've seen whale sharks, mantas and eagle rays pass by the pinnacles. In fact, we've heard that just about anything can be seen at this part of the island, including pilot whales and the occasional pod of dolphins. Divers who prefer looking for small creatures will also enjoy this site; we have photographed leaf scorpionfish, nudibranchs, shrimp and crabs hidden among the reef's gorgonians and whip corals.
>As our most recent visit drew to an end, we sat at the end of the dock comparing mandarinfish images while the moon rose over the mangroves. Another couple passed by us, discussing strategies to extend their stay, and we looked at one another knowingly. Destinations everywhere become notorious for a single exceptional feature and are promptly pigeonholed accordingly, and in Yap's case, the manta rays are that exceptional attribute. However, after several visits to this Micronesian paradise, we have learned firsthand that these giant rays are only a small part of what Yap has to offer.
>The value of the currency depended on many factors, including size and shape, quality and — most important — danger faced during acquisition. While the coins are still used in certain transactions, such as real estate purchases and bridal dowries, their size means they are not commonly moved, even when ownership changes. Rather, rai is generally kept in village "banks," where it is easily viewable by visitors.
>The continued custom of rai exchange provides a glimpse into the local mindset; the Yapese have maintained many rich traditions that remain minimally influenced by the outside world. Village visits offer a glimpse into a culture that seems to be pulled directly from a motion picture. Bare-breasted women clad only in flower necklaces and grass skirts practice weaving and dance, while men demonstrate their prowess at fishing and betelnut harvest.
>Yap Island is the hub of Yap State, a cluster of more than 100 islands and atolls within the Federated States of Micronesia. The capital city, Colonia, is located here, as is the international airport. Yap Island is the primary destination for divers and nondivers alike. The primary language is English, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.
>The diving here is excellent year-round, though the winds are calmest from June through October (which may permit access to a wider array of sites). Nearly all diving is done by boat, since the channels and outer reefs are not accessible from shore. Water temperature averages 82°F. There is a recompression chamber on Yap Island.
>© Alert Diver —Winter 2013