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RAJA AMPAT – RICHES BEYOND COMPARE

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

A few years ago marine scientists identified an area so rich in tropical marine life that they labelled it the Coral Triangle. Covering an area of 5.7 million sqkm, the Coral Triangle is the richest marine ecosystem on the planet, home to 76% of all known coral species and over 3000 species of fishes. The Coral Triangle encompasses eastern Indonesia, Philippines, Timor Leste and parts of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, but the jewel in the crown of this bio-diverse area is the spectacular Raja Ampat.

 

Located at the western end of the Indonesian province of West Papua, Raja Ampat means Four Kings, as the area is made up of four large islands. However, there are actually over 1500 islands is this archipelago and countless reefs and sea mounts. While it is possible to dive this vast area from an island based resort, the best way to explore Raja Ampat is to join a liveaboard boat.

 

A number of liveaboards explore Raja Ampat between the months of October to May when the seas are calm and clear, including Sea Safari 8 operated by Sea Safari Cruises. Offering a ten day trip out of Sorong, we joined this wonderful vessel for an incredible journey through Raja Ampat in May and found riches beyond compare.

 

Flying via Jakarta, due to possible volcanic disruptions in Bali, we finally arrived in Sorong and were greeted by the crew of Sea Safari 8. We were quickly transferred to the ship, a wonderful traditional style Phinisi schooner. Made entirely of timber, Sea Safari 8 is 34m long and luxury afloat. The ship has spacious en-suite cabins, a large dive deck and a lounge, dining room and sundeck spread over four levels. It is a great vessel for underwater photographers, with a large elongated bench to setup cameras and recharge batteries. The ship can accommodate 28 guests, but with only nine passengers on our trip we had room to spare.

 

Departing Sorong in the afternoon, we first headed south to the Misool area, the southern-most island of the Four Kings. The next morning our first dive at Warna Berwarna set the scene for eight days of incredible diving. This small limestone island is typical of the area, a weathered lump of rock covered in lush vegetation. We jumped in the water to find pretty gorgonians sprouting from the rock wall in only 2m water.

 

Going no deeper than 22m, we cruised the colourful walls of this rock island and marvelled at the wonderful corals and the over-whelming variety of fishes. Over the hour long dive we saw a hawksbill turtle, a large tasselled wobbegong, a huge Maori wrasse, schools of fusiliers, snappers and surgeonfish, plus a wide variety of small and large reef fish, including a few we had never seen before. Our dive guide Andi was quick to point out small critters and endemic fish, writing their common name on his slate for our information.

 

The next rock island we explored was even better, a site called Andiamo. Like all the sites we dived it was decorated with beautiful soft corals, sponges, gorgonians, sea whips, black coral trees and whip corals, but it was the fish life that most impressed. At this site we explored walls, a reef plateau and a pinnacle, encountering turtles, gropers, schools of barracuda and bumphead parrotfish.

 

Over the next three days we explored the southeast part of Misool, sailing around the spectacular rock islands and doing four dives a day. We explored more rock island sites at Candy Store, Camel Rock, Boo Window, Nudi Rock, Pantai Kecil and Barracuda Reef, by both day and night and were overwhelmed by the fish species. At several of these sites Andi pointed out tiny pygmy seahorses, including a species only found in Raja Ampat, known as the Santa Claus pygmy seahorse. We also encountered rock cods, moray eels, nudibranchs, sweetlips, trevally, reef sharks and several species of wrasse, damsels and dottybacks that are endemic to the area.

 

On our second day in Misool we dived the area’s most famous dive site, Karang Bayangan, also known as Shadow Reef. This sea mount rises from deep water and is a site where reef and oceanic manta rays come to get cleaned. Unfortunately only one manta ray was briefly seen, but that didn’t matter as it was the fish life that was the main attraction. Swarming around the corals were schools of snappers, trevally, sweetlips, barracuda and fusiliers. We also saw several whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks, but they were a little camera shy. One fish that wasn’t camera shy was a large Maori wrasse. This friendly fellow is obviously very accustom to divers and followed us around the entire dive. We also dived another impressive sea mount called the Four Kings, where we swam with a large school of barracuda.

 

We quickly got into a routine on Sea Safari 8, which involved lots of diving, lots of resting and lots of eating. Fortunately the food was excellent, with the chef Tony producing a great range of Indonesian cuisine and a few western dishes.

 

At the end of day four we sailed north from Misool. The original plan was the spend the next five days exploring the Dampier Strait region and some of Raja Ampat’s most famous dive sites. But having read that Raja Ampat has a few good muck sites that are not often dived, the crew agreed to change the itinerary so we could spend a day muck diving at Batanta.

 

Batanta is the smallest of the Four Kings, and along its southern coastline is dark sand, a brilliant habitat for muck critters. At Algae Patch 2 we explored a sandy slope and encountered mantis shrimps, shrimp gobies, scorpionfish, lionfish, waspfish, pipefish, dragonets and a long-arm octopus. Andi pointed out two endemic species only found in this area, the Batanta dottyback and a group of lyre-tail fire gobies.

 

We also enjoyed muck dives at Algae Patch 1, Bethlehem and Bethlehem 2, finding cowfish, blennies, commensal shrimps, jawfish, oriental sea robins, panda anemonefish guarding eggs, orangutan crabs, nudibranchs, sea slugs and garden eels. But a highlight of these sites were the flasher wrasses, another endemic species. We attempted to photograph these pretty fish as the males fanned out their fins to display their fabulous colours, but they proved to be way too fast, so we just sat back and enjoyed the performance.

 

Day six found us on the southern side of Waigeo, the largest of the Four Kings, and ready to explore the wonderful rock islands of the Dampier Strait. On the first day we dived pretty coral gardens and colourful walls at Keruo Channel, Melissa Garden and Anita Garden. Here we encountered Spanish mackerel, batfish, tasselled wobbegongs, turtles, snappers, gropers, trevally, barracuda and sweetlips. But the smaller critters were the highlight, including three species of pygmy seahorse, mushroom coral pipefish, ghost pipefish, dragonets and nudibranchs.

 

We did two manta ray dives while in this area. The first at Manta Ridge was a bit dramatic, requiring the use of a reef hook as the current sweeping over the reef was very strong and like a whirlpool at times. We did see one reef manta, plus a few blacktip reef sharks, but it was hard to get photos if you weren’t in the right spot. The dive at Manta Sandy was a lot easier, with two reef manta rays cruising around the bommies getting cleaned.

 

For the first seven days the fish action had been pretty good, but the crew had saved the best until last, starting with the incredible Sawandarek Jetty. This small jetty has a sloping reef in front of it that is home to one of the greatest concentrations of fish we have ever seen. Jumping in we were impressed to find the visibility 30m and the bottom swarming with fish. We first headed to a patch of hard coral at 25m where snapper and sweetlips were gathered in a huge mass. Then heading up the reef we were constantly surrounded by trevally, barracuda, fusiliers, snappers, batfish, sweetlips, parrotfish, triggerfish and surgeonfish. We also encountered green turtles, a tasselled wobbegong, Maori wrasse, gropers and bumphead parrotfish. When we finally got under the jetty we found the pylons decorated with soft corals and gorgonians, and more fish milling about. No one wanted to leave the water until our tanks were almost dry.

 

Yenbuba Jetty was also a treat, with incredible coral gardens in the shallows and schools of snapper, sweetlips, rabbitfish and trevally. This jetty was also a wonderful night dive where we encountered octopus, pipefish, moray eels, ghost pipefish, hermit crabs, spider crabs, pygmy seahorses and a rare banded toadfish.

 

Cape Kri was another feast of fish, the sloping reef at this site home to massive schools of surgeonfish, fusiliers, snappers, barracuda, triggerfish and bigeyes. Drifting along the colourful wall at Cape Kri we also encountered turtles, gropers and a number of whitetip reef sharks.

 

We enjoyed two dives at Friwenbonda Reef. On the afternoon dive we explored the west side of this reef and saw countless reef fish. But the east side of this reef was better at night as we found slipper lobsters, cuttlefish, moray eels and several Raja Ampat epaulette sharks.

 

Our final day of diving arrived way too fast. Our morning dive at Mioskon Island was just magic, with this sloping reef covered in exquisite corals and over-populated by fish. Our cameras went into overdrive photographing schools of snapper, trevally and barracuda. This site was also home to several tasselled wobbegongs, whitetip reef sharks and gropers.

 

Our final dive was even better, on a large pinnacle called Blue Magic. In depths from 8 to 25m we encountered wobbies, Spanish mackerel, pelagic pufferfish, Maori wrasse, large pufferfish and thick schools of sweetlips, squirrelfish, batfish, snappers, bigeyes and trevally.

 

Heading back to Sorong we packed the gear away and enjoyed a Bintang or two as we reflected on this amazing dive destination. After almost forty years of diving we can easily say that Raja Ampat has some of best corals and also the greatest concentration of fish we have seen. Much of the area is a marine park, and you are charged a marine park fee to dive here, but it is well worth it as Raja Ampat has riches beyond compare.

 

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