Winged Giants

Yap is a tiny freckle on the face of the ocean between Guam and Palau. It offers a big opportunity for a rare animal encounter—coming face-to-face with the giant Manta Ray (Manta alfredi). Mantas are regularly spotted during scenic dives on the hard-coral reefs fringing the island. However, the mantas prefer to patrol the channels that cut inland. At M’il Channel, divers can experience close encounters with resident rays at cleaning stations like the Plateau or Car Wash.

Aptly named, Car Wash is a small coral patch surrounded by sand at a depth of about 70 feet. Mantas form clusters at the cleaning station, circling six feet above the coral patch like jumbo jets in a holding pattern around a busy airport. Kneeling on the sand, it’s mesmerizing to watch them cruise round and round, swooping up and down.

As a manta circles, cleaner wrasses rise up from the coral and rendezvous. They peck delicately at the manta, earning their lunch and improving the health of the manta in the bargain.
It gets better. Hugging the sand and moving very slowly, you can creep forward until you are beneath the flight path. A manta glides toward you with almost imperceptible undulations of its wings. As it approaches, you can peer into that three-foot-wide maw and see the ribs down in the gullet. You are close enough to see the squadron of tiny striped fish riding in the slipstream just below the mouth.

This undersea flying-saucer suddenly looms above you like the immense mother ship hovering over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The rolled-up cephalic folds bracketing the mouth look like horns when viewed in silhouette. After seeing this, the reason for the nickname “devilfish” makes sense.

After several laps, the manta banks and leaves. There’s no point in trying to prolong the encounter. You can kick with all your might against the current, but with a couple languid beats of its wings the manta will leave you hanging far behind.

Even the surface intervals on Yap offer the chance to observe manta behavior. Gazing out over the water, still daydreaming about mantas gliding by at the cleaning station, I’m startled by a sudden eruption in the water. In front of me, a black trapezoid bursts out of the water. There is a flash of white and a thunderous splash. One of the giant mantas has just leapt completely out of the water, somersaulted and crashed back to the surface. Perhaps a naughty Yapese child has just been caught under its wings.

I must have been very, very bad. The Manta Rays have carried me under 16 times during two visits to the island. Be bad too. Maybe you’ll be lucky, and the devilfish will get you.

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