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
NATURE’S RICHEST REALM – RAJA AMPAT
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Fish, fish, everywhere, all around us were fish! We had never seen so many different fish species in vast schools at the one dive site. There were schools of snappers, sweetlips, surgeonfish, fusiliers, barracuda, trevally and rabbitfish. Plus milling with these schooling fish were also Maori wrasse, gropers, mackerel, batfish and bumphead parrotfish. We knew we were going to see a lot of fish in Raja Ampat, but not this many!
We encountered these immense schools of fish at an amazing dive site called Sawandarek Jetty. And it wasn’t a one off, as we saw incredible schools of fish at many dive sites we explored on our wonderful journey through Raja Ampat.
Located in the Indonesian province of West Papua, Raja Ampat has been identified as the richest marine ecosystem on the planet. Situated at the heart of the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat has more species of fish and coral than anywhere else, and fortunately remote and protected as a marine reserve, the corals and fish are also very healthy and very abundant.
The best way to explore Raja Ampat, which is spread over a vast area, is to join a liveaboard boat. For our Raja Ampat adventure we booked a ten day trip on Sea Safari 8, a 34m long traditional style Phinisi schooner. This wonderful boat is luxury afloat, with spacious en-suite cabins, a large dive deck, great food and a fabulous crew.
The name Raja Ampat actually means Four Kings, named after the four main islands in the group. But in reality there are over 1500 islands, reefs and coral cays to explore in this region. Our adventure started at the southern section of Raja Ampat, around the island of Misool.
From our very first dive at Warna Berwarna we knew we were exploring a very special area. This may have been a checkout dive, but the walls around this rock island were covered in soft corals, gorgonians, sponges, sea whips and black coral trees. It was a fantasy land of colour, but it was the fish life that most impressed. Swimming around this site we encountered schools of fusiliers, damsels and snappers. We also found a hawksbill turtle munching coral, a tasselled wobbegong resting under a plate coral and also barramundi cod, flowery gropers, batfish, Maori wrasse and a vast array of small reef fish. This dive was one of the fishest dive sites we have seen in Asia, but compared to other sites we dived at Raja Ampat it was almost barren!
For three days we dived the wonderful dive sites of Misool. We explored rock islands, similar to the famous ones in Palau, which were covered in exquisite corals and over-loaded with fish. At Anidiamo we encountered schools of barracuda and bumphead parrotfish, while at Candy Store it was schools of trevally and batfish. However, the best dives in the Misool area were the sea mounts.
Rising from deep water, Karang Bayangan was the best of these sea mounts, with wonderful corals and spectacular fish life. It is generally a reliable place to see manta rays getting cleaned, but only one manta made a very brief appearance. This didn’t matter as we saw reef sharks, trevally, fusiliers, snappers, gropers, barracuda, tasselled wobbegongs and a very friendly Maori wrasse.
Heading north we spent a day at Batanta, the smallest of the Four Kings. This island is not often dived, as it doesn’t have pretty corals and dense schools of fish. Instead it has wonderful muck diving. We enjoyed four muck dives at sites called Algae Patch and Bethlehem. Investigating the dark sand slopes we found mantis shrimps, octopus, garden eels, waspfish, nudibranchs, lionfish, cowfish, jawfish and many other critters.
The final part of our trip was spent in the Dampier Strait, diving rock islands, pinnacles and jetties. The rock island dives in this area were simply magic. At Melissa Garden and Anita Garden we got to admire incredible corals and a great assortment of fish, both big and small. At these sites we saw schooling snappers, trevally and fusiliers, tasselled wobbegongs, turtles, gropers, batfish, pygmy seahorses, pipefish and a number of endemic reef fish.
Manta rays are common in the Dampier Strait, and we had close encounters with these massive rays at Manta Ridge and Manta Sandy. We also enjoyed brilliant night dives at Galaxy Jetty, Yenbuba Jetty and Friwenbonda Reef. At these sites we encountered octopus, cuttlefish, a great assortment of crabs and shrimps, moray eels, ghost pipefish, pygmy seahorses, a rare banded toadfish and several endemic Raja Ampat epaulette sharks.
However, for us the main feature of the Dampier Strait were the fabulous schools of fish. This area is swept by currents, so dives are planned around the tides, but these currents help to feed an abundance of fish life. At Mioskon Island we were surrounded by schools of snapper, fusiliers, trevally and barracuda. While at Cape Kri it was massive schools of surgeonfish. Blue Magic had schools of squirrelfish, bigeyes, batfish and sweetlips, while at Cape Manswar it was schools of barracuda, snappers and bumphead parrotfish.
As mentioned in the introduction, the fishest dive site of the lot, and the fishest dive site we have ever seen, was Sawandarek Jetty. This dive site left us gobsmacked by the sheer number and variety of fish. We started on a coral outcrop at 25m that was covered in snappers and sweetlips. Then exploring the sloping reef we were constantly surrounded by trevally, fusiliers, snappers, sweetlips, surgeonfish, batfish, barracuda, gropers and many others. Schooling fish were also milling under the jetty. But even without the fish this site was sensational, with soft corals and gorgonians attached to the pylons, plus beautiful and healthy hard corals in the shallows. We could have spent all day at this site, as our seventy minute bottom time flew by.
It would take a lifetime to explore Raja Ampat, but over the eight days we dived this area we enjoyed some of the finest diving we have ever experienced in nature’s richest realm.
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