Grass Skirts, Stone Money, and the Home of Gentle Giants
Yap doesn’t even make it onto most maps, but it nevertheless stands out among Micronesia’s 2,000-plus islands as the nation’s cultural storehouse – and also as the world’s best destination for swimming with 1,000-pound manta rays in their natural habitat.
On land, visitors may observe one of the Pacific’s last island cultures still resistant to modern Western ways. Bare-breasted women wear traditional grass skirts, and men and women alike chew betel nuts day in and day out. A subtle narcotic, they produce a mild high that disappears as soon as the chewing stops – so why stop? Giant stone money units line the roads, still used but too heavy to transport. Their value is determined by size, shape, and the difficulty of acquisition.
Yap was first discovered by divers who came to swim with the manta rays, gentle giants with wingspans of 10 to 20 feet that return to the same spot every day and accept the divers’ nonthreatening presence. Mating season (late November through March) is a dramatic time, during which females pirouette and soar through the waters, leading trains that can include fifteen or more males – a haunting spectacle. But the mantas are only one of many attractions.
To discover them all, contact Bill Acker, a Texas-born Peace Corps worker who came to Yap twenty years ago. Today, he’s proprietor of the harbor-front Manta Ray Bay Hotel, the first and best dive operation in the islands.
A High-Voltage Water World and First-Class Island Life
One of many island constellations in the Pacific galaxy that is Micronesia, Palau’s 343 islands are surrounded by spellbinding waters that many cognoscenti say offer the best diving in the world.
The meeting place of three major ocean currents, these waters support more than 1,500 species of fish and four times the number of coral species found in the Caribbean, and are known for their extraordinary drop-offs and wall diving: the Negemelis Drop-off is widely considered the world’s best, a technicolor reef that begins at 2 feet and plummets vertically to more than 1,000 feet.
The legendary Blue Corner is one of the planet’s most exciting sites for the sheer abundance, variety, and size of its fish life – and those schooling gray reef sharks! More than fifty WW II shipwrecks – the remnants of an aircraft carrier attack – rare and exotic marine species, and visibility that can exceed 200 feet add to divers’ wonderment.
Sprouting like emerald mushrooms along a 20-mile swath of transparent turquoise waters, the 200 Rock Islands are Palau’s other crowning glory. Covered with palms and dense jungle growth, some of these low limestone mounds are rimmed with white-sand beaches and are home to a rich bird life, including cockatoos, parrots, kingfishers, and reef herons. Beach potatoes will find the perfect place to lose the rest of the world, and snorkelers will find the surrounding waters teeming with fish. The islands are uninhabited and have no electricity, but campers are rewarded with star gazing that is second to none.
In Palau, the world-class Palau Pacific Resort offers a first-class land-based dive operation called Splash. For nondivers, the island’s best snorkeling is just feet from the hotel’s chaise lounges. Carp Island Resort, on one of the outer Rock Islands, has rustic but welcoming beach cottages that are filled mostly with young international divers who appreciate its proximity to Palau’s famed dive sites.
The Greatest Underwater Museum in the World
On February 17, 1944, American Task Force 58 engaged in Operation Hailstorm, dropping over 500 tons of bombs on the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Fourth Fleet in a surprise attack second only to Pearl Harbor in size and significance.
Today Chuuk Lagoon (a.k.a. Truk Lagoon, its older and still commonly used name) holds the wrecks of sixty Japanese ships, the largest concentration of sunken ships in the world and the standard by which all other wreck dives are measured. A combination of unusually warm tropical water, prolific marine life, and lagoon currents has acted as a natural incubator, transforming the lifeless WWII hulks into magnificent artificial reefs with brilliant coral displays.
These remarkable war ruins, left undisturbed with their guns, trucks, silverware, and sake bottles were brought to light by a fledgling dive industry in the 1970s. The 437-foot Fujikawa Maru is the most famous relic, a Japanese aircraft carrier that sits upright in 40 to 90 feet of water, a gaping torpedo hole in her starboard side.