Yap is a tiny freckle on the face of the ocean between Guam and Palau.
It offers a big opportunity for a rare animal encountercoming 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 Mil
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, its 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 Devils 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. Theres 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, Im 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
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 youll
be lucky, and the devilfish will get you.