N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
SAMPLING THE DELIGHTS OF RAJA AMPAT
By Nigel Marsh
On a recent trip to Raja Ampat in Indonesia I only had one request of my dive guide Andi, I wanted to see and photograph a rare shark that is best found in this area and known locally as the walking shark. Andi nodded his head and said he was sure he could find me one of these small sharks, which are only found at night. Andi suggest we dive Arborek Jetty, but not dive under the jetty, instead looking in the shallows for the rare little shark.
Rolling into the water we quickly headed into shallow water and submerged, the depth barely a metre deep. Shining my torch about I could see sand patches and many outcrops of low dense hard corals, perfect habitat for small shy sharks to hide in. I then started my search. I was prepared to spend all dive looking for one of these sharks, and with a depth of only one metre my tank was sure to last all night!
However, only a minute into the search my torch picked up a pair of reflective eyes in the distance. It could have been a shrimp, but I was sure it was something larger. I quickly swam over and couldn’t believe my luck as there was a walking shark, or more accurately a Raja Ampat epaulette shark. However, before I could get a photo, the shy shark disappeared into the coral. Damn I thought, had I just missed my only chance?
I needn’t have worried as only a few minutes later I spotted another shark slowly walking across the corals. This time I managed to photograph the pretty little shark as it searched for a meal.
Over the course of the dive I encountered another three walking sharks, but exploring more of this fabulous site I also saw moray eels, shrimps, crabs, lionfish, scorpionfish and something even rarer than a walking shark, a marble-mouth frogfish. This bizarre fish was also climbing over the corals in the shallows and I knew straight away it was a species I had never encountered before. This brilliant night dive at Arborek Jetty was just one of several highlights on a wonderful trip to Raja Ampat.
I have wanted to dive Raja Ampat for many years, as this area, located off West Papua, has been identified as the heart of the Coral Triangle, with the most species of coral and fish on earth. I was actually in the process of organising a trip when I got an unexpected email from the Visit Indonesia Tourism Office asking if I would like to join a media familiarization trip to Raja Ampat. Naturally I said yes, and only two weeks later I was on a liveaboard boat off the coast of Sorong, West Papua, with a group of Australian underwater photographers, film-makers and travel writers.
With only three days of diving available for this quick visit, we were soon at our first dive site, Black Rock. Technically not in Raja Ampat, as this dive site is only just outside Sorong Harbour, it was still a great dive even though the visibility was only 12m. Over two dives we explored a sloping reef and scattered bommies in depths to 18m. I found plenty of subjects to photograph, including broadclub cuttlefish, tasselled wobbegongs, boxfish, nudibranchs, stingrays, sweetlips, lionfish, anemonefish and orangutan crabs.
We were exploring Raja Ampat on the fabulous liveaboard vessel, Sea Safari 8, one of several boats operated by Sea Safari Cruises. This 34m long traditional Phinisi schooner is luxury afloat, with spacious ensuite cabins, a large dive deck, plus lounge, dining and sundeck areas. The boat accommodates 28 guests in 12 cabins, so our group of fifteen had room to spare.
Overnight we sailed north-east to Raja Ampat, the famous Four Kings, an archipelago of 1500 islands, reefs and coral cays. Our first dive was at Melissa Garden, off Fam Island, and it set the scene for some incredible diving. The sloping reef at this site is covered in healthy hard corals and overloaded with fish. In the 25m visibility we were surrounded by fish – schools of damsels, fusiliers, batfish, trevally and surgeonfish. The colours of the reef were just magic, with gorgonians, whip corals, soft corals and sponges providing splashes of colour. I found a large tasselled wobbegong resting under a plate coral to photograph, but a large Maori wrasse proved a much shier subject. Towards the end of the dive we explored two mushroom shaped rock islands, rising from 8m and decorated with soft corals, gorgonians and tubastra corals.
Our next dive was almost as good at Anita Garden off Penema Island. We started the dive exploring a shallow rock arch that cut through a rock island and then drifted along a coral wall, before ending the dive in a pretty coral garden. The corals were once again very beautiful, and during the dive we encountered thick schools of fusiliers, reef sharks, trevally and a school of feeding mouth mackerel.
After lunch, the meals on Sea Safari 8 were a great mix of Indonesian and western meals, we visited Pianemo Island and trekked to a lookout for a spectacular view of the rock islands. In the late afternoon we dived Mayhem off Yanggefo Island. This was a very sharky dive, as hanging on a current swept point we watching patrolling grey reef sharks, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks. This site was also home to barracuda, trevally, surgeonfish and a very large and pregnant tasselled wobbegong. That night we enjoyed the special night dive at Arborek Jetty mentioned in the introduction.
Early the next morning, while I slept in, some of our team did an early morning trek to view the mating display of a bird-of-paradise. When they returned we dived a site off Arborek Island known as Manta Sandy. This site is only 18m deep, but has a series of bommies where reef manta rays gather to be cleaned. We lined up to watch the cleaning, and after a long wait none had appeared. I went off to explore the nearby reef, and found a small blue-spotted lagoon ray to photograph. I was about to head back to the bommies when I noticed that all the divers were heading towards the reef and looking at something above, a feeding manta ray.
In the slightly soupy 20m visibility the one manta become two, then four, then eight, then a dozen. A ballet of feeding manta rays. For the next twenty minutes we watched these graceful creatures feeding as they swooped, somersaulted and followed each other. It was magic to watch, just a challenge to photograph in the soupy plankton rich waters.
Our final dive arrived all too quickly, but it was a wonderful way to end the trip, with another dive at Arborek Jetty, this time by day. Only 14m deep, there was so much to see on this small jetty. Around the jetty are bommies covered in reef fish, corals and schools of baitfish, while the pylons are encrusted with sponges, soft corals and gorgonians. I wish I had a wide angle lens for the schools of batfish, but with a macro lens photographed nudibranchs, moray eels, lionfish, scorpionfish, blennies, boxfish and gobies.
With our diving finished we had the afternoon free so visited Arborek Island. This picturesque island has white sandy beaches, clear blue waters and is studded with palm trees. Arriving on the island we were greeted by the local dance troop, a group of local children that put on a traditional dance. It was a great way to end a fabulous trip.
Overnight we sailed back to Sorong, but in the morning I felt very reluctant to pack my gear and leave this wonderful liveaboard vessel, as three days was not enough to enjoy the riches of Raja Ampat.
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