Oct 22, 2005
|Our second stop in Micronesia proved much different than the first. Again, we were drawn by the diving. But this diving would be different - here, instead of focusing on shipwrecks, we would swim with enormous, magnificent manta-rays. And what unexpectedly awaited us was a well-organized, charming island with efficient infrastructure.
Yap is another cluster of Micronesian islands in the middle of nowhere. But somehow they have managed to put the dollars coming in from the U.S. to good use. Their roads are well-maintained and drivable at decent speeds, their electricity runs 24/7, and one of the first things we spotted on our transfer to the hotel was a garbage truck -- what a concept! Here there were no piles of refuse, and the island as a whole had a distinctly manicured feel. We were delighted to discover that our hotel, while also one of only two on the island and also catering directly to divers, was set up more like a tiny resort with a fresh water swimming pool (the kids were ecstatic) and a huge, old, permanently anchored, wooden cargo ship that had been converted into the hotel's restaurant and bar. Festive!
Piquing our interest was the giant chart of local manta-rays painted on the hotel's wall near the dive center. They are all affectionately named! The Yapese people have been diving with these awesome creatures for decades and have come to recognize each and every one by the distinct markings on their undersides. Manta behavior is quite predictable, and during any given conditions (weather, seasons, tides, etc.) the locals know exactly where to find them.
Off to the channels we went on day one with a handful of other newly arrived divers -- American, European and Japanese -- to see the mantas. Gofnuw Channel would be our first stop, where the tide was going out at a good clip and the mantas were sure to be hovering over a "cleaning station." Much like the sharks in Truk, mantas enjoy being ridded of parasites around the mouths and gills by the cleaner-wrasses that live in big coral heads.
We were primarily disappointed by the poor visibility caused by the outgoing current. We had been warned by the divemasters to take refuge near the bottom, behind the reef so as not to be forced to fight the strong currents. We worked our way over to a big coral formation where our guide pointed out spots where each of us could settle down on the bottom, sheltered from the current, and wait for approaching mantas. No sooner had I kneeled in the sand than I looked up to see two huge mantas hovering gracefully over the coral! Suddenly the visibility and the current faded into the unimportant as I gawked as these spectacular creatures - five in all, with diameters of up to 18 feet. I began clicking the underwater camera as calmly as possible. The dive staff had told us if we remained fairly still, the mantas would get close - but these close encounters were of the mind-boggling kind. Being able to reach up and touch these "flying" giants of the sea was a tremendous thrill. Close-up views of their wide, plankton-filtering mouths and the peculiar, scoop-like appendages on either side of their heads were plentiful. And as they hovered over us in the current, we could see the unique spot-like markings on their gills and bellies. One manta swam so close that he purposefully raised his "wing-tip" to maneuver it over my head!
It didn't take long to realize that the mantas like divers' bubbles. Somehow it must massage or tickle them. As long as we exhaled gently and steadily through our regulators, without bursts of large bubbles, they would hover playfully overhead and seemed to enjoy their own "spa" therapy!
Our next dive wouldn't prove as fruitful, at least at first. It was in Mi'il Channel, another channel that the mantas frequent this time of year, where the currents were even stronger, so that we literally had to hold on to the reef in many places. We waited at another "cleaning station" for the mantas to appear, but no luck. Half way through the dive our divemaster seemed to give up on the mantas and signaled for us to follow him along the reef. Luckily, we encountered a nice brown moray eel, a perfectly camouflaged crocodile fish, and suddenly, out of nowhere appeared a big spotted-eagle ray! Neither Chris nor I had ever seen one, so this was a treat. The ray made two passes by us before disappearing into the murk. Then, just as we had decided to ascend, we spotted a manta! This time, as we hung on the anchor line doing our three-minute deco safety stop, we were able to check out the gliding manta from above for different perspective.
The next couple of days brought spectacular diving among Yap's outer reefs. Yap is known predominantly for its mantas - but what most don't realize is that its wall dives rival the best in the world. Lionfish Wall was particularly gorgeous, with vibrant, thriving corals, a plethora of marine life and yes, lots of lionfish. An occasional shark or two were visible out in the deep blue as we swam along the vertical walls. Our favorite dive of all was at Yap Caverns, where the undersea three-dimensional landscape gave the euphoric feeling of floating through tunnels, ravines and caves. During this dive we encountered a cool puffer fish (who wasn't quite as glad to see us - see photos!) and a very large moray eel coming out from under his rock inside a tunnel. All in all, mission accomplished in Yap.
Coincidentally, some of the nicest people we met in Micronesia were a Japanese couple named Koichi and Miho, and their young son, Takuto. An orchestra conductor from Tokyo, Koichi had taken the short flight to Yap with his nice family for a diving holiday. Devon and Kassidy enjoyed entertaining baby Takuto in the pool and teaching him to clap. And we shared some great diving and comraderie with Koichi and Miho in an area of the world that had been ravaged by war between our two countries only a short time ago in history. Such are the ironies of humanity - and the endless discoveries of world travel.