AMONG THE FRUIT BATS

YAP ISLANDS

A postcard from Micronesia.

THE MANTAS

“I remember that there was a plane here” says Colin “A zero”

“Hell” says Bill Acker , the owner of Yap Divers, and effective founder of tourism in Yap state. “that’s not a Zero, that’s a Judy ; It was shot down in WW2. It’s in Mi’il Channel.” 

“Where is it? “ I ask.

“Go to the channel and turn  left it’s there in 3 metres of water.”

Based upon Bill’s succinct directions, we decide that the best time to look for it is after  a dive with Manta rays. It seems so glib to be able to say this. But Yap is famous for it’s manta rays  and Bill guarantees that you will see them. The number and conditions can change. At this stage the cleaning station is in 5 metres of water in Miil Channel.  We are exceptionally lucky. Colin, a log retired Royal Marine diver wants to be our guide, but a group of experienced Japanese divers need his skills and so he is replaced by the implacable Gordon. Gordon, our dive guide ties us to the manta mooring site in Mi’il. He is a cool customer who sizes his divers rapidly. We are given a suitably brief briefing and reminded of the fact that we as divers are responsible for our own safety.

“Please obey your computers”  are his final words before we roll in and set off along a reef of staghorn coral. As we make our way to the cleaning station, a Manta passes over us.

Like soldiers we drop to the edge of the ridge instantly and stare up into the gloom. A Manta passes over my head and then does a back flip. Then another and another- we are inundated with mantas in the shallow water. They are so prolific that I can barely count them quickly enough

A manta uses its cephalic fin and takes the tail of its mate.  Three  then four appear, holding position amongst the cleaning fish. A surprisingly fat emperor seems to be holding sway over all the others at the cleaning station. And then a slightly smaller blue fin trevally speeds up and swings all over the reef, shooting past me and sending the smaller fish scattering.

                                  

The mantas come back and circle us in a lazy manner. The come so close, clearly habituated to Humans, and I see the cleaner wrasse on the tail of the fish. The mantas get cleaned and circle lazily. They do not seem to be bothered by humans at all. They swim up to me, around me, and eyeball me and then lazily swim off. These creatures are not small, but they have smaller sisters and brothers. This is our third Manta Ray Dive since we have arrived, and without doubt the most spectacular.

 After a while, I glance at my large momentum dive watch. The numbers are clear in the gloom. We have been down for 40 minutes and we still want to find and explore the bomber. I turn and check with the dive team. All signal me that they are ready, and then I signal Gordon- who has been watching our exchange.  “Boat” I say in underwater speak “Sure” he replies and leads us the long way round the entire reef, with manta rays swirling around us. At 50 minutes we arrive at the boat with over 100bar left in our tanks.  We climb back on, and the implacable Henry takes our camera and we climb dripping back into the boat.

THE EMPIRE’S EMISSARIES

Henry, our captain, has not been to the Japanese bomber in some years. He puts us in the right area, and then Gordon  swims around with his snorkel. I decide that I do not want to be left out and fall backwards into the water.  We swim in a long line… around the most beautiful  and healthy coral heads in Yap. Small and colourful blue fish swim around them while I try and scan the bottom for the bomber. What kind of bomber will this be? The Japanese did not have massive strategic bombers like the Americans, but they had big ones. I have no idea whether this will be a twin engine affair or a tiny plane. Eventually I see a cockpit under a coral head. I am stunned.  I, the casual tourist have found an aircraft, that has sat untouched since 1944. By the time we can get our scuba sets on, and back to the site, Brad has descended and is exploring the cockpits. There are two seats, this is probably a Jake. And then I swim under the wing  .30 calibre bullet holes mark the wing, and give reason to why this plane is in a coral garden and not at the airport.  I crawl under the wing- and find a series of squirrel fish and a huge angel fish living down there. They ignore me and sit staring at each other. Eventually the angelfish moves from one end of the artificial drop hole to the other.  On top of the wing, there is a massive coral head. I try and record this with my camera, but I am unable to do so. 12mm on the OMD is not wide enough;  the 70 year old coral head is simply too big.

There is a certain sense of history when diving a wreck. The sense of history is palpable, at this last defender of the Japanese Empire.    After all these years, the radio aerial is still in place.  I wonder what happened to the crew as I folded my flash arms, and say a short prayer for all those who lost their lives in the global conflict.

THE YAP ISLANDS AND FRUITBATS

There is just no way around it. In western terms, Yap is in the middle of no-where. In  Micronesian terms, Yap is well located within the western Caroline islands. Palau is only 350 miles away, Ulithi Atoll 100 miles, and the American protectorate of Guam is 500 miles distant.  Yap state is a series of Islands that stretch from Truck Lagoon to beyond the Yap Islands. The Yap Islands are a series of four verdant  forested lumps  that rise from the pacific Ocean floor.  The villages are linked by a series of ancient stone pathways that are made by hand. The islands are famous for the stone money that abounds. This money was carved from a quarry in Palau and brought to YAP in canoes. The money sits in a stone money bank, but everyone in Yap knows who owns it. The men still meet in meeting houses and talk about the affairs of the village and the system of chiefs still runs well and is respected by all.

No one knows where the Yapese come from. The most popular hypothesis is that they are Austronesians who came from what are now the Philippine islands. Archaeologists have carbon tested various items and have found that there were people living on Yap as early as 179 ad. The Yapese speak a language which shares 13% with a tribe in Guadalcanal in the Solomons, but their own outer islanders speak a series of languages so different that Yapese from different islands are forced to communicate in English. They are excellent navigators and still sail canoes from Guam and Palau to Yap.

Yap was colonised by the Spanish, who then ceded it to Germany, who lost Micronesia to the Japanese in Word War 1. The Japanese empire controlled Yap and the pacific until World War 2. Island by Island, they lost Micronesia with Yap being surrendered in 1945. The US Navy then ran Yap until 1952 when it handed it over to the US Pacific Trust Territory administration. Micronesia was ignored until the Micronesians demanded some form of independence. Palau and the Marshals and Saipan took their own road, while the rest of the states, including YAP formed the  Federated States of Micronesia in 1986. This was (is?) a tiny nation which still relies on the United States under the compact of free association for assistance and development. As such the Yap Islands remain undisturbed. And the Yapese must be the friendliest, most hospitable people in the whole of Micronesia.

In between the diving, one of our group has to go home. He has done a week of diving and wants to explore the mangroves and men’s houses. As all land belongs to a Yapese person, taking a land tour is a rigid affair. Permission has to be sought from the land owner and so the perfect way to explore Yap is on a kayak tour.  A boat captained by Willie and Theo takes us 30 minutes to an internal bay and a Japanese built pier. We launch our kayaks and enter the narrow channels in the mangroves.

We pop out on the outside of the island with the wind blowing, turn back towards the inside of the Island and navigate across a wavy bay until we can re enter the channels. We go past a meeting house, village and Japanese causeway. Finally we can go no further; we seem to be in the middle of the four Yap islands. I am sure we are not, but it just feels like that. I am also trying to remember how to get out.

Theo knows were we are.  “Look up” he smiles, and we do. We are in the midst of a giant flock of fruit bats. Some hang in the trees and some fly around the canopy.  When we are done, we trust Theo to bring us back to the men’s house- and eventually Colonia.

BILL, THE MANDARINS AND MUCK

When Continental Airlines were given the Micronesian contract by the US Government, they were supposed to build hotels in each flight destination. This was part of the development belated post war development plan for Micronesia. Saipan, Palau and Guam got their hotels but sleep Yap missed out. As a result YAP remained a sleepy unknown backwater until Bill Acker made his discovery of the ever present Manta rays in Yap. was encouraged by the legendary Paul Tzimoulas; he started Yap divers. Very soon, he realised that he had nowhere to put his divers. And so he build the very modest Manta Ray Bay Hotel.  With this one act, (and a series of advertisements in Skin Diver Magazine) he placed the Islands of Yap on the global dive map.  Since that time, Bill and his team have singlehandedly, marketed and promoted Yap State as a tourist destination. He developed the Manta Speciality dive, follows tracks and is still fervently involved in the Manta programs. On the wall of the dive centre there is a chart with drawings of every manta known to Yap divers. Each one is clearly identifiable through its underbelly markings. To this day, Yap divers is the only dive centre with training on the Island.

A modest man he does not like to speak of the past- but every diver who passes through Yap owes Bill a debt of gratitude for making Yap as accessible as it is. Apart from the manta and wall diving, Bill recommends that we try a Mandarin dive.

Colin is still busy with his Japanese divers, and I decide to head off on a mandarin dive. This involves a three minute pre dusk boat ride to a reef on O Keefe’s island. We drop into the murky waters onto a reef of vibrant staghorn coral. I cannot wait until the mandarins appear as there is so much life. I start snapping away at the damselfish and nudibranches –and then suddenly they appear, one at first, and then two and three and another. These small and so beautiful creatures rise up out of the staghorn and then with their fins fluttering furiously, mate for a few seconds before retreating to the coral again. There they play coquettishly with another each other, often joined by two more before repeating the process. There are so many of them, that all of us have our own individual show to watch and photograph. After an hour, and with a depleted battery I rise to the surface just in time to see the most dramatic and ochre sunset.

“rain tomorrow” humfphed the captain as he lifted my dive kit into the boat.

WALLS SHARKS AND A SLIGHT DRIFT

Colin finally gets his way, and we are on the same boat together. At 48 he has the energy of a terrier and the enthusiasm of a basic novice diver. The highly experienced and knowledgeable Yapese dive guides treat him like a little brother. They give him stick as well as advice, but they also carefully make sure that he does not slip up.

“We need to go to “Big Bend”, I swear there are some silver-tip sharks there”. He says enthusiastically. For as well as its Manta rays, clear water and vibrant reefs, Yap is packed full of sharks.

“Be my guest” Jan the dive manager replies laconically. “But they have not been there for some time. “

“I’ve got some secrets” mutters Colin and he goes off in search of some bits for our dive.

 We assemble the next morning with cameras, wetsuits, boat coats, and an urn of tea. February is Yap’s windy season, which is perfect for sleeping and evening cocktails, but it makes sea conditions on the east coast interesting. We hop on board and Henry takes us through the German Channel at the obligatory 20 knots. Some captains slowdown under the bridge, but Henry’s hands barely flinch. The mangroves flash by and then we are out in the open bay of Mi’il. He banks to port and we stay close to the mangroves hugging the shore. The twin 115 Yamaha engines push us along in the calm water inside the reef. Outside a healthy oceanic swell rolls through (word choice?) the pacific ocean and slams down on the reef. When he can avoid it no longer- Henry turns towards a gap in the reef, he slows down, times our exit and nips out in between the rollers. It is all deftly done, Henry clearly knows the sea and he certainly knows Yap.

The skiff drives up one side of the rollers and slowly down the other side until we reach Big Bend. There is no mooring. Colin produces a steel cage of tuna heads which he will dangle in the current.  Rather less importantly- I stuff an empty water bottle into my BCD.

“This should do the trick” he says.

One by one, we roll off the boat and drop down to the ledge at 30ft. The wall to my right is sheer and stunning. A plethora of small fans protrude off it. There are no sharks to be seen, but I wait for Colin to do his work and snap away at the wall. Eventually  four small reef sharks appear but the wall at Big Bend is too beautiful to ignore. They look at the tunas and swirl around a bit. Then Colin releases the Tuna heads, they snap at them, and then they are gone.

I cannot believe this- where are the sharks. I place the water bottle between my hands, half fill it with water and rub it swiftly. The sharks come slowly up from the depths and cruise sedately around us for a while. And then they leave us to drift off. We go slowly with the current towards the southern most tip of YAP to the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine sea.  We have done many dives in Yap, been surrounded by jackfish, Huge grey reef’s,  scores of barracuda and mantas-  but what remains with me is our slow ascent on “Big Bend”, to the top of the reef. The surge playing with us over a series of cracks. I put my SMB up on this final dive and sway in the surge wondering  which ocean I am in.