Yap: Micronesia’s Kingdom of the Mantas

It’s a land of ancient traditions, fascinating legends and a rich, distinctive culture. Of all the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) — Kosrae, Pohnpei,...

It’s a land of ancient traditions, fascinating legends and a rich, distinctive culture. Of all the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) — Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap — Yap is perhaps the most intriguing Micronesian island. This land is a wonderful mix of past, present and future, where an ancient culture exists side by side with the 21st century. Attractions such as unique community meeting houses, village tours, ancient stone money discs, dancing, incredible marine life and lush mangrove lagoons make Yap a destination well worth the trip.

Yap State is located just 9 degrees north of the equator, southwest of Guam and northeast of Palau. It lies in the western part of the FSM, which stretches approximately 745 miles/1,200 km from east to west, with 135 inhabited and uninhabited small islands and atolls. Yap’s land area totals 40 square miles/100 sq. km and consists of four islands connected by roads, waterways and channels surrounded by a broad fringing reef.

Yapese people are warm, unpretentious and extremely proud of their culture, which is remarkably intact. Their traditions are held dear and passed down from generation to generation. Most of the island is privately owned. Therefore, permission should be requested before entering a village. Paying respect to the local traditions will allow you to become closer to the essence of the Yapese culture.

Yap’s History

There are many theories about Yap’s settlement. One story suggests that a god named Gusney was the first to send humans to the island of Wa’ab (now known as Yap) over 3,500 years ago. Legend has it that Gusney and four other supernatural beings “surfaced” from a water well located in the area known as Tho’long, Colonia. One day Gusney left his companions and headed for unexplored lands. He sailed in a canoe using only his hands, the wind and the flow of the

Pacific. After many moons, Gusney came upon a human family from India and sent them to Wa’ab to let the other spirits know of his whereabouts. This couple, named Wan and Rayina, and their daughter Ruliya, made Wa’ab their home and, according to legend, are the ancient forebears of the Yapese people.

Another tale relates the story of the first ship to visit the island. The local people went out to greet the ship, and through sign language invited the captain to come ashore. As the captain boarded the canoe, he pointed toward the shore and asked the name of the nearby landmasses. Thinking the captain was pointing to a canoe paddle held by a navigator, the warriors responded, “Yap.” The name was duly recorded by the captain and it stuck, so to this day the islands of Wa’ab are known to the outside world as Yap, or “canoe paddle.”

In 1525 Portuguese navigators in search of the Spice Islands (Indonesia) came upon Yap and Ulithi. Spanish expeditions later made the first European contact with the rest of the Caroline Islands. In 1874 Spain proclaimed sovereignty over Yap. It wasn’t until 1885, after several heated disputes with Spain, that Germany posted its flag and claimed the island. Spain finally sold Yap to Germany for $4.5 million in 1899. However, in 1914, during World War I, the Japanese took control of the islands in a bloodless takeover. Following World War II these islands were placed under the United Nations trusteeship, with the United States as the administrating authority.

Yap Culture

Meeting houses, stone paths, traditional money and dancing are just a few of the features that give Yap its distinctive flair. Central to Yapese culture are two types of community meeting places, known as a “Peebay” and a “Faluw.” Nails are not used in their construction; wooden poles and beams are tied up with coconut fiber ropes that give the structures strength, flexibility and embellishment. A “Peebay” is open to all men, women and children. A “Faluw” is a fisheries building similar to a “Peebay” in construction, but only open to the male population and usually built near the shore. Both of these houses are built on large stone platforms, which can also serve as meeting places, dancing areas or a classroom where young people are taught the traditional way of life, local folklore and traditional customs.

To reach each village, one must travel down a stone path. The stone paths are built using uneven stones. With the extreme tropical moisture, they become slick in a short period of time due to moss growth, thus making it mandatory that one watch his or her step and not the neighboring villages’ grounds. These stone paths may work to preserve the privacy of each village.

Traditionally, there are five types of currency in the Yapese money system called “Ray,” “Yar,” “Gaw,” “Mmbul” and “Reng.” The value of each depends on the presentation. Yap is perhaps best known for its stone money, or “Ray” — great discs of limestone, each with a hole in the middle. Long ago, the limestone was quarried in Palau and Guam and transported over 300 miles/480 km of treacherous open ocean in sailing canoes. The stone money varies in size from 2 inches to 8 feet/5 cm to .6 m in diameter and can weigh up to 4 tons. The value of each disc once depended on how many men died transporting it to Yap. These discs are still in use today.

Shell money is called “Yar.” It is usually presented in exchange for a favor or to pardon someone’s wrongdoing. “Gaw” is a stringed necklace made of carved pieces of shells and whale teeth. It can be as long as 12 feet/4 m. “Mmbul” is rarely used today and is made of betel nut sheath wrapped around a lava lava called “Bagly.” “Reng” is locally produced turmeric and is used as a spice for cooking and a skin-soothing ointment.

Traditional dancing is a highly developed and complex art form in Yap. Through dance, legends are passed down from one generation to another, history is recorded and entertainment is created. The dances are based on stories or religious beliefs, with the dancers beautifully decorated with various colors. The dances of Yap are raucous, colorful and well-orchestrated. Men and women start early to learn this special tradition.

Although copra, turmeric, sugar cane and Behe-de-mer (sea cucumbers) were the main exports in earlier years, tourism and fishing are the main industries today. Fishing, sailing and weaving are still important parts of everyday life. Keeping with tradition, women are seen topless wearing grass skirts made of shredded leaves of ti, banana, betel nut, fragrant ginger, fern and other leaves. Men wear “thus,” a type of loincloth generally made of red, white or blue cloth. It is not uncommon to see this attire in the local marketplaces.

The Diving

Surrounded by a broad fringing reef with several channels, Yap offers exhilarating channel and outer reef dives. While clear waters and varied marine life describe Yap’s diving, one fact stands above the rest: Yap is the world’s foremost destination for seeing manta rays — up-close and personal. Sweeping currents usually present in the narrow channels attract the manta rays. The greatest excitement may be had in diving with the giant yet gentle mantas, weighing upwards of 1 ton with wingspans of 14 feet/4 m or more. There is no other place on Earth where these animals can be seen on such a consistent basis year ’round. Their beauty and grace will capture you at first sight, and leave you wishing for more air and bottom time. Observing these massive creatures is pretty much predictable with a well-seasoned dive operation. To get a front-row seat, an experienced dive operation will place you on a “cleaning station” in approximately 50 to 60 feet/15 to 18 m of water, which allows you to get eye to eye with these elegant creatures.

While waiting for the mantas to appear, there are plenty of other underwater attractions to keep even the most well-traveled diver interested. They range from gray sharks lurking in the distance to colorful wrasses darting back and forth between your fins. The warm water, clear visibility and generally mild currents at sites outside the channels allow you to concentrate on your photography or videography, identify small creatures and revel in the large ones.

From November to April trade winds pick up due to lack of rain, and divers may witness the rarely seen manta mating behavior at Miil Channel in the northwest area of the island. May to October is considered the rainy season. There may be brief showers several times a day, and the lands are blanketed with green vegetation. During this season, the mantas can be observed hovering over the cleaning stations at Gofnuw Channel in the northeast part of the island.

Generally, the best time for diving is when the tide is on the flow. Because a broad, shallow reef surrounds the island, the height of the tide affects boat operation. To reach some dive sites, you must pass through the narrow, shallow channels lined by mangroves — a feat that is only possible during high tide. On channel dives, once the tide starts ebbing, the visibility drops and the dive sites become limited due to strong currents. The veteran dive guides have expert knowledge of changing sea conditions and will do their best to get you to a variety of interesting sites.

Topside Attractions

Island tours range from a trip to downtown Colonia to buy local handicrafts at the market to visiting a village to see the cultural dances, colorful attire and stone money. For a truly unique glimpse at the local life, “home-stays” with families in local villages can be arranged in advance by the Yap Visitors Bureau. They can also arrange a trip to the Outer Islands, which can be a memorable experience. However, arrangements should be made at least six months in advance due to the complicated logistics.

Divers, snorkelers and kayakers will enjoy a ride through a thick, damp mangrove passage cut by the locals during German occupation. This waterway enabled quicker passage from one side of the island to the other. Understandably, the tide governs when this trek is made.

In terms of cuisine, taro, yam, breadfruit, sweet potatoes and coconut are the main staples, while the main source of protein is fish, crabs, clams and pork. The island has several restaurants, most within walking distance of your hotel, which offer local fare and a wide selection of international dishes.

Yap has been inaccessible to visitors until relatively recently, allowing it to remain pristine and untouched. It is a bewitching land filled with images of mystic culture and traditions of a time long forgotten. This unique land combined with its wonderful marine life makes it truly a tropical Eden.

Story by Sue Ferguson, Photos by Ricky Ferguson