Deep down in the Western Caroline Islands there is a small Island called Yap. The Yap Islands form the centre of Yap state, one of the founder states of the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap (and the FSM) gained independence from the trusteeship of the United States in 1986. In that same year of Independence, a unknown business graduate and former peacecorps volunteer started Yap’s first dive shop, “Yap Divers”. That graduate was Bill Acker. He went on to find, promote and help protect Yap’s resident Manta Rays. He went on to create the Manta Ray Awareness speciality course and became a larger than life figure within the global dive industry. Recognised by awards from magazines, travel organisations and most of the dive industry, Bill Acker is a polite thoughtful man who’s hand is still on the tiller of Yap Divers and the Manta Ray Bay Hotel. When he gets another glass award, he sticks it on a shelf and carries on with the business of taking people underwater to see his dreamlike Island. Unlike so many people, Bill still lives on site, in Yap and I had to travel there to meet him.
We sit on the edge of his boat and café, the Mnuw and I start to ask him some questions. But his staff and guests keep passing us by and dropping in for coffee and a chat. Bill is the central figure here, and he is so kind and polite he cannot say no. His voice becomes slightly more gruff when someone has made a simple mistake numerous times, but these are the realities of working in a developing nation, and Bill never looses his temper. Eventually we retire to his office, a wood panelled affair with a pair of Texas horns on the wall, some photos of his family including one of his oldest son in the US Marines. We continue the interview, but I am called away to dive with Mandarin fish.
We meet again every day, and I make notes, and jot down where I can. Finally, when I board the United Boeing 737 for multiple flights back to Guam, Tokyo and Istanbul I am still missing a date here and there. Bill and I complete the conversation by email. This really does have to be the longest interview I have ever conducted. It was however a privilege, and gives a deep insight into a section of the dive industry that we so rarely know about.
FJ: Bill , when did you arrive in YAP.
BA: I came here in July 1976, as a peace corps volunteer.
FJ: What was your role in the peace corps.
BA: I was part of a team charged with writing a 5 year Economic Development Plan. We had two volunteers with Agriculture, two with Fisheries and then myself as a Marketing person. I was posted to Ulithi.
FJ: How long were you in the Island of Ulithi- and did you enjoy the Ulithi experience.
BA: I was originally supposed to spend my entire 2 years in Ulithi but the second business volunteer who was assigned to Yap never made it and the jealousy of Yap not having a business volunteer while Ulithi did, put pressure on the Peace Corps to bring me back to Yap. I spent about ½ of my time in Ulithi as I bounced back and forth between there, Yap proper and the field trip ship covering all the Outer Islands. It was truly special and enjoyable during my time from 1976 to 1978.
FJ: When did you first dive in YAP state- what did you think of it?
BA: I began snorkelling immediately upon arrival and my first dive was in January of 1977. I dove a Japanese Zero plane wreck in the main harbour and was immediately smitten with diving.
FJ: When was your first dive ever.
BA: The Zero in Yap harbour in 1977
FJ: When were you certified. When did you become an instructor.
BA: I became a certified diver, along with 45 of my co-workers from WA’AB Transportation (we ran the Stevedoring Company for Yap) in March of 1982. I became an instructor in 1984. I did my instructor training in the Philippines.
FJ: When did you realise that you were staying in YAP?
BA: After finishing the Peace Corps, I attended graduate school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. After my two years there, I was asked to come back to Yap for 1 year and run the Stevedoring Company and to help find a permanent manager for them. During that Summer, the Dean of the College of Business from Hawaii came to visit me and helped me realize that there was nothing wrong with an educated outsider making his life’s work in Yap so I pretty well knew in 1980 that Yap was my new home but I guess it really wasn’t until later that I 100% committed to Yap.
FJ: In those early years, did you ever feel that there was more potential for the outer islands? Did you think that perhaps with airfields and a decent airline, they could have potential for resorts? Or other businesses?
BA: I have never stopped advocating that Yap do something to develop the Outer Islands. Tourism might not be the answer as we can’t get tourism going in Yap where you have the world’s largest airline flying in twice a week but there are lots of opportunities with the clear, unpolluted waters for aqua culture.
Some of the Islands are too small for airfields. What’s needed are docks and reliable shipping.
FJ: When did you start Yap divers?
BA: In July of 1986
FJ: When did you first realise that YAP was a gobal dive destination. I suppose I am trying to ask, when did you think- “wow- I am onto something here”.
BA: It was the summer of 1987. Paul Tzimoulis, the Hall of Fame diving pioneer and the publisher of SKIN DIVER Magazine, at that time the largest dive publication in the world, visited Yap with his wife Geri Murphy. I had known Paul for a while and we had done some advertising but this was the first time that any dive publication, writer or photographer had visited Yap. They were scheduled to stay for 3 nights with 2 days of diving and since there were no really suitable hotels in Yap during this time, they were staying at my house on Map Island in Northern Yap.
As luck would have it, it rained cats and dogs from the moment they landed until they were scheduled to depart so we couldn’t dive during their stay. My family had a Jacuzzi at our house on a back deck overlooking the ocean. On the last night, we were having a few beers and glasses of wine and Paul’s wife Geri slipped and broke her arm. They couldn’t put the arm in a sling and she was told that she couldn’t fly for 4 days. The next morning, Geri was in a lot of pain and was not fun to be around. After a while, I asked Paul if he wanted to go dive with manta rays and he said we couldn’t. Thinking that he was worried about leaving Geri, I dropped it. My boat, our dive gear and tanks were moored at my house during this time.
After another hour or so, I again grew tired and asked Paul if he wanted to dive with manta rays. Again, he said we couldn’t. Thinking that he was still worried about Geri, I told him we would only be gone an hour or so, my wife Patricia was home to take care of Geri and that there was nothing we could do to help. Still he said we couldn’t.
About an hour later, I again asked him if he wanted to dive with manta rays and this time he asked me, “you are telling me that we can take a boat, anchor on the reef, go down and find mantas?” I again thought he was worried about Geri so I told him yes and that we would be right back to help Geri. He then agreed.
Long story short, we anchored on what is now named Tzimoulis Ridge in Mi’l Channel and went down and 4 mantas stayed with us the entire dive. Paul came up raving and telling me that we had something no one else in the world had.
The ONLY reason I suggested we go dive with mantas was because it was the closest dive site to my house.
FJ: So when exactly did you realise that Mantas really were so important?
BA: As Paul was getting on the boat and raving about the dive he had just done being the most unique in the world.
FJ: How do you feel about the Mantas now?
BA: They are magnificent creatures that deserve the world’s protection. They are a huge part of my life and I am proud to have played a role in helping Yap State become the World’s Only Manta Ray Sanctuary. I never tire of diving with them and I have done so over 5,000 times now.
FJ: So what would you say was the most wonderful thing about living in Yap? What makes yap so special for you.
BA: The people are the nicest people I have ever been around. Their culture has been preserved, they are eager to share and a joy to live with.
FJ: How would you compare Yap with the rest of Micronesia?
BA: Every island in Micronesia is unique and I couldn’t compare them because although I have visited them all, I have only lived in Yap. Yap is very fiscally responsible, still has an intact culture and a council of traditional chiefs, 4 kinds of local money, everyone speaks very good English in addition to their own languages and it’s very rich agriculturally.
FJ: What is the most challenging thing about the whole Yap experience. I have to be honest and ask a leading question based upon the cost, of my own trip here, and guess that it’s one word: UNITED.
BA: I think air lift is the most challenging thing for any island in the world when speaking of tourism and Yap is no different. So yes, airlines are a challenge but then again so is the small population, the International shipping, availability of imported goods, etc etc.
FJ: You are clearly one of the pioneers of the recreational Scuaba Industry boom of the 1990’s. But in this new world that we live in, where do you see the global dive industry going?
BA: Getting smaller and smaller and smaller unless we do something remarkable to introduce more young people to the sport.
FJ: If you could- How would you change it.
BA: I would do all I could to have a modern TV show based on diving, that was broadcast around the world. I would allow young divers to attend the annual DEMA show (The Dive Industry’s Trade show in the USA). I would have the various training agencies go to the Junior High and High schools of the world and hold diving clinics that were free for students. I would try to get diving into more University curriculums.
We simply have got to broaden the reach of diving for a greater number of people.
Lastly we need to aggressively protect the reefs and animals that we currently dive with – around the world.
FJ: What would your message to the world be- about yap-
There are very few places left like Yap. Come visit as soon as possible. As they say, the time to be in Africa was yesterday. Don’t let that happen to you with regards to Yap and the people of Yap, the wildlife in the Oceans of Yap and the culture of Yap.
FJ: Bill, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me today, and I wish you so much success in your endeavours.
BA: Thank you, and thank you for coming to Yap. We hope to see you again soon. Kamangar!