This is an archipelago of approximately 1500 stunning, mostly uninhabited islands covering an area of 50,000 sq km off the NW coast of the Birds Eye Peninsula of Papua. Sorong is the closest city and airport. They straddle the equator and are known for some of the world’s richest and most diverse coral reefs. When coral is disappearing most everywhere else, here it is still 90-95% intact. More species of fish and coral inhabit the reefs surrounding Raja Ampat than anywhere else on earth. While the Caribbean has 70 species of coral and 5-700 types of fish, RA has 550 and 1200 respectively. The benchmark for excellent fish diversity on any given reef is 200 species or more and over half of Raja Ampat’s reefs support this number.
Raja Ampat means “Four Kings” signifying the four big islands: Waisco with the capital of the area – Waisai, Salawati, Batanta and Misool. The Islands appear to be in the middle of nowhere, mere dots of land widely separated by a sweeping expanse of ocean. Oceanic currents connect RA to other regions in ways not revealed on most maps. Within a vast area of the equatorial Pacific known as the Coral Triangle (which includes the Philippines, Borneo, eastern Indonesia and all the territory eastward of the Solomon Islands), Raja Ampat is the sweet spot.
Scientists believe the region functions like an incubator, or “species factory” which partially seeds the entire Coral Triangle. Almost all is a “no take” zone with no fishing. Besides coral and fish, there are also mollusks, shrimps, crabs and sponges galore. Raja Ampats sits at a confluence of currents somewhat determined by the way its land masses were created and shoved around during eons of tectonic plate movement. Other factors operate: the reefs here have thrived for millennia in a relatively stable climate. The channels are deep and the strong currents are constantly upwelling cold, nutrient rich water. This lessens warming of the water.
There is no large population of humans. More important is the mind-boggling range of ecosystems including calm bays, current-washed fringing reefs, blue abysses beyond deep reef walls, and mangrove forests. Despite the threat of nickel mining, illegal fishing and rising population, several decades of conservation work is countering with practical, science based plans to ensure that Raja Ampat will survive but also continue to flourish.
The entry fee is 1 millionRp ($80). Beside live aboards, there are many dive resorts and a few homestays.
I was able to book a 10-day live aboard dive trip to the Raja Ampats with Wicked Diving, based out of Thailand. Live- aboard trips are all expensive but the only reasonable way to experience an area. Being able to move long distances, diving from a boat allows exploration of large areas without having to take long shuttles every morning and evening. Many trips average in the $450-550 per day range and after spending so much to dive Palau, I wasn’t willing to spend that much. But Wicked Diving had one spot and were offering a 10% discount with free equipment rental for a total of $2385, less than half the price of the others. The dates were Feb 5-14 leaving from Sorong, Papua.
The boat was the Jaya built 12 years ago on Sulawesi. It is a typical two-masted Indonesian coastal ship converted into a dive boat with cabins. Compared to the luxurious Ocean Hunter II in Palau, it is rustic and basic but still comfortable. The 10 other divers are from England (most living as expats in Dubai and Hong Kong), America, Germany and Switzerland. They were not the moneyed people like in Palau but younger and more interesting.
Wicked Diving is the most culturally and environmentally conscious dive company in the area. 2% of all fees contribute to environmental protection, involvement of schools, active beach cleanups and training of the locals to become dive guides. Fish is not part of the meal plan as there is no sustainable fishery in Papua. Our 4 guides are American, Dutch, French and Indonesian. The company is professional and rigorous about ensuring credentials and possession of proper dive insurance.
The Jaya also does the ultimate dive trip in the world. Over 19 days, the trip starts in the Raja Ampats, passes Ambon and the Bandas, crosses the Banda Sea to Wetar and Alor and then follows the north coast of Flores all the way to Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park for three days of diving. Then they turn around and come back to RA. It is a reward to the best guides and employees.
#1 – Dayang. Used as a “check dive”, there was supposed to be little current but the last half ended being a fast drift dive. Besides wonderful multihued coral, there was a big school of giant bumphead parrotfish.
#2 – Sea Bat Ridge. A “secret” dive site visited only by Wicked, it is a place that giant mantas are often seen. We watched one huge almost totally black manta for about 10 minutes. If you are quiet and stay on the bottom, they often show curiosity. This one came within 3’ of me. Huge lobster. Pygmy seahorse.
#3 – Fisherman’s island, an exploratory dive to somewhere Wicked has never been to before. We were 3 hours into a 13- hour journey to Misool and this was on the way. Isolated away from other islands, the hope was that there would be sharks. And it did not disappoint as we saw 5 kinds of sharks: white tip, black tip, silver tip, walking and a big grey. Plus an unusual shrimp, baby lobster, schooling banner fish and batfish, and an amazing variety of coral of every color and variety.
We didn’t dive from the Jaya but from a small rubber dinghy or a wood boat. Both were tippy so everyone back rolls in at the same time. I am diving in a group with the American, the Swiss and Nico, the French guide. He is very attentive and I loved our first three dives.
We motored south all night arriving in the Misool Island area, in the south west part of the Raja Ampats at 4am. This is the most popular part of RA with one resort and many visiting live aboards.
Day 2 – Misool Islands. The southeast area has most of the dive sites with many small rocky islands. Most are karst with fantastically eroded features and cliffs.
#4 – Razorback Ridge. A big wall, we started at 29m and crisscrossed up across the wall seeing many nudibranch, bumphead parrotfish.
#5 – Andiamo. These were a series of pinnacles with the most fantastic display of sea fans: huge and every color of the rainbow. Soft corals. Octopus, Spanish mackerel.
#6 – The Candy Store. Two small rocky outcrops form walls with sea fans. Scorpion fish perfectly camouflaged on coral.
#7 – Yillit. A night dive and number 4 today. Not much to see: a dresser crab, hermit crab, juvenile lion fish.
There is only one 15l tank on board and Nick, a 6’6”, 265lb guy who uses more air than me gets it. I always have a hard time using air and had 15l tanks in Palau allowing me to stay down for 50 minutes or more. But here with 12l tanks filled to 215 barr, I am getting 50-60 minutes on every dive because Nico is very good at the end, doesn’t demand the 3 minute rest stop at 50 barr, we continue to explore the reef above 6m and I just about always surface with around 20 barr. But my diving is also slowly improving – better buoyancy control, I am moving less and less, no arms, less more efficient kicking and slowing my breathing to the bare minimum. This last dive was #70 lifetime.
Day 3. We are going to the best of Misool today but compete for access with the big resort down here and all the other boats.
#8 – Boo Rock. Very special with oodles of fish of great variety including many red-toothed trigger fish. Blotched fantail ray: we watched it laying on the bottom then gliding by with the current. Emperor shrimp on a big sea cucumber.
#9 – Shadow Reef. Holy Cow!! This is one of the top dive sites in the universe. A giant manta circled overhead above a cleaning station, sharks, all kinds of big silver fish I didn’t recognize that were trevallies: orange-spotted, giant, bluefin, and bigeye, napoleon wrasse, snappers, barracuda and then a wall of fish with literally hundreds of species – little stuff at your feet and the whole range between you and the big fish. On the way back, we saw a wobbegong shark, a shark you would not recognize as one with a large, flat head.
#10 – Nudie Rock. The variety and color of the soft coral in the Raja Ampats is truly amazing. Spanish mackerel + the usual fish.
This is a very professional operation. A check is done before each dive by one of the guides – the direction of the current and other conditions are assessed. There is nothing more frustrating than being dropped at the wrong end of the reef and have to fight current to see anything. The briefing is well done. The guides are attentive.
#11 – 4 Kings. Several pinnacles. School of 30 giant trevally, bluefin trevally, yellow spotted trevally, leaf fish, great barracuda. Some giant sea fans. Big variety of fish, corals and seafans.
#12 – Neptune’s Sea Fan. A big wall trough a channel with some current and a lot of sand. Our worst dive so far. Tiny yellow boxfish.
#13 – Whale Rock. Next to Nudie Rock. Baby midnight snapper: it is amazing how different the juvenile form of some fish differ so much from the adult. The juveniles are black with a white line and white spots and very distinctive. Ringed pipe fish. Dark form of saddleback anemonefish (black and white with cream mouth). Clownfish are one of the neatest fish. Same as “Nemo”, they live in anemones. The large one is female and rest (much smaller) are male. When the female dies, one hermaphroditic male changes into a female. Great corals on top.
#14 – Shadow Reef. Our second visit to the best site in the Misool Island area.
There were not mantas or big sharks, but an amazing array of fish: trevellys of all kinds, groupers, napolean wrasse, yellow fin barracudas, moray eels and everything else – another “wall” of fish.
#15 – Goa Farondi. A cave that we came up into with air and several light shafts, then a big wall with some nudibranchs, good coral and a moderate amount of fish.
The plan was to go to a cave with 5,000 year old cave paintings but the seas were too rough and it required a long detour. So we entered a lagoon and snorkeled around.
We then had a long over night motor back to the north of Raja Ampats. This was restocking day where all supplies were replenished at Wasai.
#16 – Manta Sands. We sat for a long time waiting for the mantas but none came. So used little air and set personal record for a dive. Starting at 190 bar, I lasted 68 minutes with a depth of 29m. Robust ghost pipefish.
#17 – Fish Magic. A series of pinnacles, visability was poor. Saw several giant lobsters, a wobbegong shark, nudibranchs and the usual fish.
Instead of a third dive, we visited Saonek, a small island that used to be the capital of Raja Ampat. It was a typical tiny Indonesian Muslim town with lots of kids. They have built a new Mosque that is simply gorgeous.
Day 7. Back in the north of Raja Ampat, we are in Dampier Strait, a big wide body of water. I have developed another ear canal infection but have it under control just using alcohol.
#18 – Mioskon. Amazing dive with great variety of fish: several blue-spot mask-rays, tasselled wobbegong sharks (these are the most amazing sharks – big leopard spotted flat blobs hiding in the back of recesses rarely moving and ready to pounce on anything that comes near), scorpionfish (another amazing large fish with superb camouflage sitting on the bottom; has poisonous spines, winglike pectoral spines), giant clam 1m across, morays, schools of blue-lined snapper, five-lined snapper.
#19 – Blue Magic. Another amazing dive with even more diversity than the last: huge Spanish mackerel, tuna, grey sharks, black tipped reef sharks, mangrove whip ray, yellowfin barracuda, groupers, octopus, crocodile fish, scorpionfish and everything else.
#20 – Friwinbonda. A big wall. Not so good.
#21 – Friwinbonda. Night dive. Walking shark, crocodile fish, blue-spotted stingway, large hermit crab, oranutang crab (amazing long blue hairs) and marble shrimp.
Day 8. Our last day of diving. Still in Dampier Strait. A great week with good company, good food, a great guide, spectacular diving in one of the best dive areas of the world. I have finally been able to dive a normal time having conquered my heavy air use. It only took 86 dives to get there (I am a slow learner in my old age). I look forward to doing the “expedition” trip offered by Wicked Diving on the Jaya that travels over three weeks between Komodo National Park and the Raja Ampats in the future.
#22 – Mike’s Point. A tiny limestone outcrop in the middle of the strait, this is one of the most popular dives in RA. There are two massive overhangs where all the fish are swimming upside down on the roof. Walking shark. As we shallowed up at the end of the dive, we came upon one of the #1 critters on everybody’s dive list, the blue ring octopus. Thumb sized when fully grown, it is one of the most poisonous animals on the planet with enough venom to kill 30 people. The poison is a product of symbiotic bacteria secreted by saliva, but hardly a danger as it is used to subdue prey rather than for aggression. And why be aggressive when pulsating rings clearly warn predators of your lethal nature? I was able to observe all its behaviors as it gripped onto a rock with all its tiny tentacles, pulsate blue and then turn brown/blue, retract its arms and swim. It is rare: this was Tom’s first sighting after 700 dives and Nico’s second after 3500 dives. It is a solitary hunter with its arms widely flared and motionless before it pounces, feeding on tiny crustaceans and shrimp. It then immobilizes its victim with poisonous saliva from its beak. The much larger female kills the male after mating, a prolonged 2-hour coupling. The female broods about 50 eggs that weeks later are expelled as larvae.
At the end of the dive, we moved though gorgeous coral gardens on top of the reef.
#23 – Cape Kri. Another amazing variety with many big schooling fish: banner fish, emperors, snappers. Lots of current so quite challenging. Coral.
#24 – Sardine Reef. A submerged plateau. Another amazing dive with mammoth variety of fish: many black tipped reef sharks, wobbegong shark.
Day 9. Waugei Island. Up at 5am to visit the island to see the endemic Red Bird of Paradise: orange red with a yellow beak, head and shoulders and 2 thin drooping tail feathers. Also some hornbills. Hot and humid. 2 other groups there. The motored back to Wasai to get the ferry to Sorong at 11am (this is the Saturday sailing time; 9 and 2 other days of the week).