One of the greatest shows underwater is seeing Yap's resident manta ray population fully engaged in courtship - "dancing mantas".
This is an underwater photographer's dream moment. Diving Yap, alone, with one of the best nature shows there is and nobody else's fins, bubbles or flashes in the frame.
What are the odds that you're in the water with nobody and half of Yap's resident manta ray population explodes all around you? Well, for this island, the odds are actually pretty good if you're a photographer that lives here.
We know they're mating, it's just a matter of being out there when it goes off. I hop boats and triple up at the manta sites during mating season, which is how I shot this series of photographs.
I was on my second tank at one of our manta dive sites during the season. Within minutes, Mungzinger, one of our most reliable female mantas, came out of the vis straight at my camera with what seemed to be the rest of Yap's mature males in a train, and then they just went off right on top of me.
The behavior is how manta rays choose their partner. The female will be trained by would-be courting males. She narrows down her list of partners through physical maneuvers and endurance. Mating trains are seen with frequency, several mantas lead by a female, but the manta dance is both the train and the mating ball. The female breaks up the train with back flips and tight turns causing the mantas to all be on collision course and you have an explosion of rays. Eventually they re-order themselves behind the female and train her and again she will double back, force the train to scatter and dart off.
This will happen until there's only one male left.
At the peak of this dance, I was in it. I could feel the water turbulence as rays swooped inches from me. I was ducking mantas as the train zoomed passed and males were in competition for the front spot. This has to be manta diving at it's most exciting.
December through to April is the mating season when we expect to see multiple mantas come in together. Yap offers a very personal manta encounter and nearly every diver has a moment with a ray gliding just over the top of them, certainly during the peak season.
Some of my favorite photos of Yap mantas are off-season during chance encounters in clear deep water. Cleaning stations offer one type of encounter, diving the channels and outer reef offer a different scenario for your photo catalog.