You name it and you know it—the itching and scratching in the morning, those five minutes of mini breakfast, the coffee swallowed so quickly it burns your throat—all for the anticipation of the adventure to come. The Big Game.
Every experienced diver knows that feeling, but hardly anybody is able to describe the notion just why one feels a certain day is gonna be the very special one. Probably the most intriguing thing about my "day of days" is that none of the above happened. Actually, it started out worse... much worse.
The evening before, dive center manager, Jan Sledsens, and Bill Acker, the owner of Manta Ray Bay Resort in Yap, assembled in front of the weather forecast on the internet. The worried looks on their faces said it all: one typhoon was coming in from Guam in the North, one from that coral patchwork in the East they call the Outer Islands of Micronesia, and finally the last one from the Philippines just after it left Manila flooded and devastated. "This could be too much for the 56 square kilometers that Yap is," said Bill after taking a deep sip from his beer mug. "The day after tomorrow, we need to tug in the jetty and get the resort storm-proof."
The next morning, the tropical paradise greeted us with its grim face, it was raining cats and dogs, and instead of rushing off to dive boats, everybody seemed to be glued to their coffee cups. Shrugging his shoulders, Jan said: "Okay guys, let’s go. The other guests are waiting for their mantas."
The giant rays, one has to know, are Yap’s pleasure and pain, at the same time, since many guests are just keen on their flying carpets and ignore even the sharks, the reef and everything in between. Adding insult to injury, no mantas had been seen in the last two days, and everybody was pushed to the limit to get the guests "their“ mantas.
Green water engulfed us as we navigated through Goofnuw Channel, in the middle of the Valley of Rays. We could hardly find the cleaning station. Even though the water was blooming with plankton, there were no mantas around. "Why didn’t I just stay in bed," I thought, but in the next moment, the tables turned.
Driven by an invisible force, a strong current came in from the open ocean, clearing up the water by more than 20 meters. And with the clear blue water—surprise, surprise—came the mantas. One, two, three, four—one by one, they glided over the rocky channel bottom and rose up to the cleaning station next to our heads.
From the V-shaped blotches on her belly, I recognized Valerie, one of the "friendliest" mantas in Yap, that has a very special habit. Swimming a long curve, she passed me and hovered on top of my buddy’s head, going deeper and deeper until she basically sat on top of his head. Valerie just loves the tiny air bubbles from the regulators. No doubt, if she was human, Valerie would spend her days in a jacuzzi. Mission accomplished! I could almost hear dive center manager Jan sighing in relief.
Pretty much to our surprise, the other mantas also remained motionless. As if they hung on transparent wires, they did not even bother to move a single tip of their black wings. Maybe they saw them coming earlier than we did: a bunch of grey reef sharks made their way up the channel, of course, not without taking a closer look at the foreign intruders.
As cool and as bold as they appeared to be, their lively eyes were rolling and revealed that they were not about to miss the slightest movements on our part. For some people, the sharks ventured closer than they had ever wished.
Ninety minutes after we jumped in, we finally breached the surface with nearly empty tanks. The second boat which had just arrived, brought news: "Guys, we‘ve seen a couple of orcas just in front of the main channel," said Captain John with a calm smile, as if to suggest that the movie he‘d just watched wasn’t too bad.
Initially, everybody started cracking jokes: "Sure, orcas, here in the tropics, we call ‘em spinner dolphins, my friend! Let’s go for them, and after that, you get us a school of tiger sharks feeding on floating coconuts." However, jaws dropped when John showed us a video on his mobile phone with an orca looking curiously up to the dive boat’s bow.
Five minutes later, the plans for any further dives were put to rest for the day, and we were going out with roaring engines. Orca time! "This is like looking for a needle in the hay," I thought to myself, hoping for the best and expecting nothing at all. And there they were—three dorsal fins sticking high out of the water like swords in the air.
"Could I? Would I? Should I?" Before I started thinking too much about the risky part of sharing the water with wild orcas, I grabbed mask, snorkel and fins and slid into the water as calmly as possible. "If they take me for an alternative to Hawaiian monk seals or whatever else, then so be it."
But just like it is most often with so-called dangerous animals, the orcas immediately fled as soon as we saw a glimpse of them. However, the first five attempts proved to be not fruitful at all. All the way we saw nothing but wonderful transparent blue water... up to the moment when a huge black body of at least six meters appeared as if it came out of nowhere.
Resembling a big black torpedo, one of the adult Orcas came on a straight head-on course towards me. I think my heart stopped beating for a second! A heartbeat later, it approached me for a quick sonar scan and quickly passed below my fins. There are hardly words to explain how it felt to be in the water with such a big animal, without a reef at your back, a tank on your back, or even a buddy close to you.
Let’s say, it is less frightening than just overwhelming, because you are so much struck by the fact that there is no space for fear in your brain! Needless to say, once we climbed the ladder back onto the boat, we all enthuastically started shouting, probably so loud even the seagulls were scared away.
In this happy mess, it turned out that the others counted four animals, including a small calf. What a day. From then on, we saw them only a few times, even though our approach got a little more professional—jumping into the water and going after the whales at full fin power obviously did not ....