|Its like a scene from Star Wars, except that the great spaceships approaching us are harmless, and we intend shooting them only with film
Suddenly, a group of manta rays appears from out of the gloom, cruising towards us like UFOs emerging from a misty sky. Majestically they beat their huge wing-like pectoral fins and arch their backs, changing direction slightly as they carve through the water like giant birds.
There are four or five of them following each other, head to tail, in a long train. It is an awesome sight. Cameras begin to appear around coral heads as waiting divers prepare to engage the advancing rays. Its like a scene from Star Wars, except that the great spaceships approaching us are harmless, and we intend shooting them only with film.
The mantas cruise right past us and then break formation like a team of Red Arrows, with each one heading towards its favourite cleaning station.
We were at Mil Channel, on the Pacific island of Yap - one of the best places in the world to dive with manta rays. It was back in the summer of 1989 that the discovery of a large community of mantas, thought to number as many as 100, first brought Yap to the attention of fish-watchers around the world.
During that year divers regularly encountered large groups of rays in a channel leading from the open sea into Yaps lagoon. So often were they spotting rays that the local dive centre decided to schedule daily trips there. Within no time Mil Channel became one of the most popular dive sites in the Pacific. Skin Diver magazine classified it as one of the top three dive sites in the world.
The mantas are consistent in making an appearance at Yaps favourite cleaning stations, but diving there is dependent on the tides: both for getting to the sites via the shallow lagoon, and getting good visibility. The best possible time is towards the end of an incoming tide, which for us meant a 6 am start.
By the time we arrived at Mil Channel, we were wide awake, and after making last-minute adjustments to our cameras, videos and dive gear, we plunged over the side. We were escorted by two burly native dive guides, who showed us to our positions. Perched behind various coral heads, above a beautiful sand channel at around 15m, we assumed a low profile, to blend with the reef.
We had entered the water a little later than planned, the tide had turned, and visibility was beginning to drop as dirty water from inside the lagoon filtered past us. Extending my flashgun arms as far as I could, I peeped over the top of my coral head, trying to stay low. Fixing my eyes on the blue water, I searched for mantas. Then they arrived.
Eye to eye
Two of the five passed by me; the two at the rear seemed to come to a halt before reaching me, but the one in the middle headed my way. Closer and closer it came, and my heart rate seemed to double.
When it was only a few metres away, I aimed my camera up towards it and peered through the viewfinder. Still it came closer, until it was hovering right beside me. I could see the cleaners working all over it, and distinctive markings under the fishs huge body (local dive masters can distinguish 45 individuals from their markings).
Moving my eye away from my viewfinder I could not believe just how close I was: the ray was just a couple of feet away from me now, hovering effortlessly over the coral head.
I was eye to eye with over one ton of sheer beauty. This gentle giant, which must have been some 4m across, was the most spectacular creature I had ever been so close to.
Its elegance, gentleness and control were amazing. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but I knew I might spook it, and I didnt want to spoil its grooming session. The rays hadnt come to see us: we had come to see them, while they were being attended to by hundreds of eager little cleaner wrasse.
Back on the boat, cakes, coffee and big wide smiles were the order of the day. After an hour or so, we went over the side again. For our first dive we had been stationed along Manta Ridge; this time we were going to drift down the channel with the tide, towards the open sea.
Gliding effortlessly along the sheer walls of the channel, past bushes of black coral and little islands of colourful life, was a buzz in itself; doing so while surrounded by mantas was awesome. They seemed to be everywhere: above, below, in the distance and right in front of us. It was a memorable days diving.
During summer, when the trade winds blow, manta dives take place at the Valley Of The Rays, a deepwater channel on the opposite side of the island from Mil Channel. Here there are three cleaning stations, all close to each other, and if you visit Yap in the spring or winter months, when the mantas are mating, you will be treated to a breathtaking display of aerobatics and ballet as they perform their dazzling courtship dance.
Despite its recent popularity with divers, Yap is still a sleepy, traditional island in the sun. Stone money remains in use, and bare-breasted women dressed in grass skirts still dance in time-honoured fashion. Unlike its neighbour Palau, Yap controls its tourism, so much so that a few years ago its elders decided to close the island to have a temporary rest from tourists!
There are only one or two places to stay on the island, the best for divers being the Manta Ray Bay Hotel: one of the nicest dive hotels I have visited. Its rooms are big and modern, with queen and king-sized beds, cable TV and video. And the dive centre is beside the hotel, so in the morning you simply walk straight down the short dock and onto the dive boat.
UK agents: Scuba Safaris (01797 270910); Explorers Tours (01753 681 999).
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