Manta Rays and Lightning in the Philippine Sea

Tue 24 Feb 2004 05:38
24th February 2004. Having left FSM and en route to the Philippines.

Dear All

We loved the Federated States of Micronesia and although we only meant to
spend a month there, as has become almost a policy we ended up spending more
than two.

Like everywhere else we spent longer in Yap than we had planned. This was
partly due to the weather (a tropical disturbance out to the west of us
would at worst have given a gale on the nose and, at best, light headwinds
or no wind at all), but it was also partly because we really liked Yap.
Totally different from Chuuk it was clean, safe, traditional and extremely
friendly. Even the officials were pleasant and the harbour master was
possibly the nicest and most helpful official we have ever met.

We managed to get a dive shop to cut its price for a days diving and as Yap
is the place to see Manta rays and it is the breeding season we thought we
should not pass up the opportunity of seeing them. And it was well worth
it! An adult Manta Ray has a wing span of about 12 feet and all we had to
do was descend to about 25m and sit on a sandy bottom where the mantas come
to use the small coral heads to clean off the parasites. Due to the recent
strong trade winds the visibility was poor, only about five or ten metres,
but in a way that made the whole thing even more exciting. Out of the murk
these huge animals literally flew over us, very curious and so coming very
close, always looking at us with one eye or the other. They were literally
two feet above our heads and their wing tips would almost touch us as they
slowly soared passed before disappearing again into the fog. We saw five or
six of them, three of which circled us repeatedly. It was amazing and truly
wondrous. It would be bad manners to touch them, but we could have easily
done so by just putting up an arm, they were that close.

We also met a thriving ex pat community in Yap. Lots of US Peace Corps
workers working away at their unnecessary projects, but also a number of
Americans and Australians working there. They took us for a days picnic in
a car! And we saw some of the islands culture like the men's houses and the
community meeting houses which are built in the same way as the canoe house
we saw being built in Puluwat, but with more ornate lashings of the coconut
husk rope which were really very beautiful. We used our bikes to cycle down
to the south end of the island to find a stone money bank and some of the
beautiful old stone pathways used by the Yapese before everyone had cars.
The stone money is about the most entertaining form of currency imaginable.
It consists of circular slabs stone cut from solid rock with a hole in the
centre. The pieces were brought by sailing canoe from Palau 270 miles away
and some are huge, about 10-12 feet in diameter, while others are much more
manageable at only a foot or two across. However it is not the size of a
piece that determines its value but the difficulty, and particularly how
many lives were lost, in bringing it from Palau, so that some of the most
valued stones apparently lie at the bottom of the sea. They are not
exchanged when they are traded and so even pieces at that have been lost at
sea can still be used. The 'bank' was very impressive, the pieces all lined
up along the central pathway through a village where they are symbolically
exchanged in a traditional ceremony, although they are not actually moved.
The village and stone pathways were also impressive and very pretty with
liberal scatterings of flowers and pretty gardens.

So we finally left the Federated States of Micronesia having had a
thoroughly interesting a wonderful time. All in all, from our Christmas on
Nukuoro with its strange Santa Claus, to the fantastic wreck diving in
Chuuk, to Puluwat and all it had to offer, to the isolated atoll of Olimarao
and finally to Yap and its Manta rays and stone money, the FSM was brilliant
and we would love to have stayed longer. It could be thought of as an ideal
cruising ground.

As I write we are closing the port of Tacolban on the Philippine island of
Leyte. We have had a good passage so far with a lack of wind for the first
night but then fresh trade winds from the east blowing us merrily westward
for the intervening five days. The wind died last night though and so there
has been some motoring at both ends. We came through an extremely alarming
electrical storm the night before last, which Katharine was in bed for (not
by any means asleep) while I was on deck trying to keep watch for the ship
that we had seen before we were engulfed by the torrential rain. It started
with a gust of very cold wind in which I could smell the ozone and continued
until sheet lightning filled the entire sky several times a minute and
forked lightning hit the sea around us. The thunder became almost continuous
and the bass notes rattled things deep within me. The wind swung around by
180 degrees and blew up to forty knots whilst we clung on helplessly to
anything that wasn't made of metal! In Yap we had watched the first Lord of
the Rings film on DVD (ah. civilisation) and Katharine is presently reading
the book, and so this tended to fire the imagination as well. For the last
few moonless and staggeringly dark nights Katharine has only reluctantly
looked out when on watch before scurrying below again muttering about Black
Riders. And the growing intensity of the thunder in the thunderstorm seemed
just like the drums of Moria beating out Doom - Doom - Doom - Doom. Was a
ship suddenly going to break through the hundred yard visibility. or a

Anyhow, the sun is now shinning brightly again, we are crossing the
shimmering Leyte Gulf, surrounded by little local fishing boats and I am
about to realise a long standing ambition, visiting the Philippines. I look
forward to telling you all about it soon.

Lots of love from us both,

Peter & Katharine