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.