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Manta-Hunting on Yap

Meet Fumiko – and more fascinating and friendly inhabitants of this exotic Micronesian isle.

By Maryann Jones Thompson

 

The manta rays have names in Yap.  This is Fumiko.

While some divers scour the seven seas in search of the big beauties, manta sightings in Yap are virtually guaranteed – it is just a matter of how many and which ones you will meet.  In the mating season from December to May, “trains” of mantas “dance” around the main island of this Micronesian state, a 90-minute flight southwest of Guam.

But in summer, when we visited, there is a bit more luck and patience involved. After splashing down into a surging current, we maneuvered ourselves to the base of a coral head known to be a cleaning station and hung out for nearly an hour, hoping a manta would stop by.

Sitting still anywhere is tough for any kid – or adult – these days. No phone to check… No game to play… No YouTube to watch… Not even any talking.  Just sitting underwater for what seems like forever, moving as little as possible so as not to frighten off any big rays who may be coming in for a spiff up.

You start to sift through grains of sand. You watch a single fish nose around a rock. Then another. You hear your breath move in and out of your regulator. You feel like you’re participating in some kind of expensive, meditative therapy.  Then you see something big move out of the corner of your eye: It’s your teenage son changing positions, kicking up sand, clearing his mask, making bubble rings with his fists. Your guide motions to him, “Settle down.” The settling-down lasts for a few moments before the twitching resumes. Ugh.

Luckily, Fumiko must have been desperate for a good bath. She swooped in right as we were about to give up and head to the surface. She hovered above us like a UFO for a good ten minutes of all-over nibbles from cleaner wrasse.  And boy, did she know how to settle down my teenager – and quick. It was the first dive in a week of finding mantas, tornados of barracuda, swarms of sharks, macro critters and picturesque swim-throughs.

Yap proved to be one of the most curious and compelling islands we’ve ever visited. As a former U.S. protectorate, the Yapese speak English like they’re from The O.C. and their post office looks like the one down the street from my house. But the island’s traditions are straight out of a decades-old National Geographic cover story with beautiful islanders, hand-built dwellings, stone money, and secret ceremonies.

Nearly 6,500 miles from the California coast, Yap is much closer to Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.  Aside from divers, not too many tourists make the long journey. In fact, the largest number of foreigners to arrive onshore were the Japanese during WWII. Tourists can see eerie wreckage of planes and ships that have been left for nature to devour – like “Lost” come to life.

Originally from Texas, Bill Acker arrived on Yap with the Peace Corps in the 1970s, worked on the island after grad school, married Patricia, and developed manta ray diving. He founded Yap Divers and then the Manta Ray Bay Resort, and can still be found chatting with guests on the top deck of the Mnuw, an Indonesian schooner docked out front that serves as bar and restaurant with fresh poke to-die-for.

While only some employees are family members, all are treated as such: To a person, everyone was welcoming and helpful. When I admired one of the small basket totes that both women and men carry around with phones, newspapers, drinks and betel nut supplies, the gal at the front desk who served as our airport greeter and island tour guide offered to make me one – which she did – by the next day!

Planes come and go only a few times per week and do so smack in the middle of the night – no joke – at like 2:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. When you arrive to the tiny terminal, a local girl drapes a homemade flower lei around your neck.

It is still legitimately traditional – like visiting Hawaii a hundred years ago. You can’t really buy souvenirs or plan to see any Yapese ceremonies or faux dancing, but if you’re lucky to be there for a genuine one like we were, Manta Ray will shuttle you to the village to watch it.

The dance we attended was performed by the men of the village. When we pulled up, there were moms sitting in groups at the edge of the performance area, fussing over the headdress feathers, loincloth placements and bronzing oils applied to their young sons, just like a dance mom would prep their youngster for the spotlight back in the U.S. The elder men were dressed equally exotically and led the boys into a clearing to perform a series of dances and chants. Local spectators videoed with iPads and cameras, and then topped their heads with banana leaves when a light rain began to fall. 

After the performance, our driver said the dance would be “put away” for some time. The chief approached us and we nodded and smiled in appreciation, unsure of his English capabilities. He took his crown of fresh flowers, placed it on my daughter’s head, and spoke with the slight-Midwestern-twang of my Grandpa Jones, “Darn this climate change. It’s not supposed to rain this time of year…”

 

The ROAM Report: Yap, Micronesia

  • The Travelers: Maryann & Don Thompson, plus son (16) and daughter (14)
  • Date: July 2017
  • Itinerary:  7 nights at Manta Ray Resort
  • Budget: A seven-night, ten-dive package during summer (low season) cost approximately $1,500 per person. Meals, drinks and tours run about what you would expect to pay in the U.S.

Good to Know

  • A Sort-of Resort  Manta Ray provides everything you need in one convenient spot – a dive shop and marina, restaurant, plunge pool and room. There aren’t any sprawling Hawaiian resort-type grounds – but you won’t miss them.

  • Island Tour Don’t miss Manta’s day tour of the island: You visit a local village, see WWII sites and wreckage, and the famous stone money.

  • Kid-Friendly Care For parents with little non-divers, Manta coordinates babysitting and village outings.

  • Flying In  United’s acquisition of Continental means are one of the few carriers heading around Micronesia. With United miles, you can hop from the U.S. to Northeast Asia (we flew SFO-Seoul), then to Palau for a week, then continued to Yap. On the way home, we flew to Guam then SFO but many travelers connect via Hawaii as well.

 

Maryann Jones Thompson  – May 2019

ROAM Founder & Editor   

 

© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved

 
 

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