￼Manta Ray Cleaning Stations are one of the major draws of Palau. It is because of these areas divers and snorkelers can see Manta Rays almost on every dive.
Cleaning stations is where animals large and small go to receive the attentions of small fish that specialize in removing unwanted items from the bodies. Animals come from far and wide including Groupers, Eagle-rays, Sharks, and Mantas.
Cleaning Stations support a huge and varied community of organisms. Cleaner Wrasse are probably the best known but a multitude of other fish also perform this cleaning service, and many specialize in parasite removal from certain types of fish.
Characteristic of Manta cleaning stations
Cleaning stations for larger animals tend to have certain characteristics. Many of these larger animals like the Sharks and the Rays are heavier than water and sink if they stop swimming. A popular station will often be somewhere there is current running over it.
The Sharks and Rays aka “charismatic megafauna” swim into the current. They do this and hover or swim very slowly over the station giving the attending cleaners as much time as possible to get to work.
The cleaners work fast to remove parasites, necrotic or dead material from wounds and poo. They even swim into the mouths and gill areas of Mantas and Sharks or any of the Predators visiting their reef oases.
Another main characteristic of Manta cleaning stations is that there is a lot of room for the visiting animals to maneuver around them. Often they are islands or coral heads surrounded by sand.
A Manta can if it wishes turn on a dime but it needs to be moving slowly to do so, and as is the case with these animals they have a 4m wing span, they need space.
This space has an additional benefit to the Manta: They can see their surroundings and approaching predators. Many Mantas observed around Palau have bite marks taken out of the trailing edge of their wings. Tiger Sharks are still seen in Palau and are known to attack Mantas. Certainly a terrible and incredible event if ever you were fortunate enough to witness it.
So, where are these favored spots, these Meccas for Mantas in Palau?
At the moment only a few, a handful are know. Some are famous, some are not. German Channel is probably the best known, in fact, it has many such cleaning stations that Mantas have been observed being cleaned at.
From experience there are 6 stations that I have observed them on, others may say more, but one thing is clear is that it is THE place to go to witness this behavior.
Most of the stations are in the 15m depth range with one down at about 30m. Key coral heads located along a ridge running across the channel provide the perfect conditions for visiting Mantas. The channel experiences current either incoming or outgoing for 20+ hours of ￼the day.
The position of these cleaning stations on this ridge means that when the current comes in it is deflected upwards over the area providing additional lift for these heavy animals to hover. Huge areas of sand surround these stations so that sometimes 3 Mantas can be found at a particular spot.
Another site, probably the 2nd best known is called “Devilfish City.” It is located again in a tidal channel up in the North West of Palau’s main island of Babeldaob.
Dive shops for many years have gone here when no Mantas can be found at German Channel. Two main cleaning stations can be found at the edge of a Marine Protected Area known locally as Ileyakl Beluu.
Again the site is often in current, sometimes very strong. The stations are also coral islands surrounded by either sand or flat reef. This particular channel is known to be an aggregation site for Mantas with as many as 50 being observed there during April and May each year.
Other cleaning stations are known at the mouth of the channel where again the current is forced up over a ridge in the reef. Very little diving has been done in this area due to the often insane currents but our friends at Palau Dive Adventures do go there, and each dive has yielded large numbers of Mantas. Some animals are resident for most of the year and are joined by others at certain times from other areas of Palau.
Would you like to encounter Manta at the different cleaning stations in Palau? Check out these dive operators who offer dive packages + accommodation
Very little is known about the migrating Mantas
Over the last few years with increasing observations made by dive shops and local scientists and observers, a greater understanding of Manta movements within Palau has been reached. What these observations have shown is that large numbers of Manta leave their home areas and travel to key aggregation sites each year.
One of these areas is the previously mentioned Devilfish City, but that it seems, is just part of the journey, because there is another site further north where even more Manta aggregate.
Known as Yengl Passage, this site on the western reef of Ngarchelong State could well be one of the largest aggregation sites for Manta Rays in the World. The wide sandy channel is extremely tidal and is dotted with large coral heads over which can be found Mantas being cleaned most of the year.
The site is insane though, not many people know about it and the boat driver needs to have his wits about him as large standing waves form in the ripping current. I’ve only dived this site a couple of times off season, but I was not disappointed. There are reports of huge numbers of Mantas aggregating here. A good resource for more information is Manta ID Palau
It is quite likely that Mantas migrate here to mate. The number of fish spawning aggregations in this area of reef is huge, and this may provide much-needed sustenance after their long swim and procreating activities. It is also hypothesized that some manta may also continue down the East side of Palau as observations have been made of aggregations there too.
Mantas love Ulong Sandbar & Sandy Paradise
If insane ripping currents aren’t your thing and large numbers of fellow divers crowding your mojo does not get you in the groove, there is another site where Mantas can be found. The particular site known as Ulong Sandbar or Sandy Paradise has only just started to be dived in the last five years of so and it is a gem.
Right after you jump in you swim down over the pristine table corals until they meet the sand at about 20m. Their about 10m away in the sand is a ￼￼perfect example of a cleaning station.
About 10m square it stands clear of the sand by over 2 m, covered in life and cleaners, gently washed by a current slowly funneling through the many shallower channels in the reef. What makes it great is that at certain times of the year it is a major waypoint for those local and migrating Mantas.
From at least February to June they have been seen there, 2 or more at a time. The animals seem to make their way along the reef either traveling North to South or Visa Versa.
What makes this place special is that the animals tend to stay there being cleaned for long periods of time. Possible reasons for this are that it’s the only good cleaning station for miles around and the lack of divers means that the animals are not disturbed as much as at German Channel. Whatever the reasons it makes for a cracking dive especially if you are on Nitrox.
Obviously there is no guarantee that any cleaning station will be visited by a Manta while you are there, but the odds are much greater. What you can be sure of in Palau is that the exploration and discoveries in the fields of fisheries management and marine conservation will continue at a pace. New dive sites will be opened up, and fantastic things are yet to be seen. Think about what we didn’t know 10 years ago.
Did you ever got up close and personal with a Manta at cleaning station? Let us know in the comments below
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