Magic Mountain, Wedding Cake or Mayhem? MARIE DAVIES finds herself hard-pushed to choose her favourite site in that diver mecca, Raja Ampat, but she rises to the challenge
RICH, COLOURFUL, ENCHANTING, vibrant, vivid, spectacular, mesmerising! It’s hard to find words to describe an area that feels like the land equivalent to the Lost City of the Incas. Raja Ampat is just as remote, and just as special.
It’s said that its seas possess the richest variety of life-forms in the world, including 75% of all known coral species. After 11 days and 33 dives there, I find this very easy to believe.
Located in Indonesia’s West Papua province, Raja Ampat, which means “Four Kings”, sits at the heart of the Coral Triangle. Its archipelago encompasses 15,000sq miles of land and sea including the four main islands of Missool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo.
The gateway to this unique part of the world is Sorong – a relatively unknown and unassuming town that often sees up to 16 dive-boats anchored in its harbour. No need to worry about overcrowding, however. Thanks to the abundance of pristine reefs in the area, it’s rare to encounter other divers.
My temporary home was the Tambora, a 42m wooden schooner designed as a luxury liveaboard. Diving is undertaken from two RIBs, which makes entering and exiting super-easy. And, wow, are there some great sites!
Raja Ampat proved to be a treasure-trove of walls, sea-mounts and sloping reefs so jam-packed and vibrant that they could take on Fiji in a colour contest and win.
Raja Ampat should come with a warning: “Divers, guaranteed to be spoiled forever”. We headed out to the Dampier Strait and, in reverse order, these are my top five dive-picks:
5. Manta Sandy
Manta Sandy was one of our first dives. As with most manta hot-spots, it’s a designated cleaning station. Prior to entering the water the dive-boat was filled with excited chatter – I don’t know too many divers who wouldn’t be happy to hang out on a sandy bottom in 15m of average visibility in the hope of seeing a manta ray.
Luckily we had to wait only a few minutes before a couple of superstars arrived. A few minutes later two more floated in, then they were joined by a couple more. We spotted seven mantas in total.
Eventually they became so relaxed with their human fan-club that they rewarded us with a loop-the-loop show above our heads.
Mantas aren’t the only animals to visit this small reef – you can spot robust ghost pipefish and leafy scorpionfish, but only the promise of a flamboyant cuttlefish could tear me away from watching the mantas.
4. Cape Kri
At Cape Kri we descended into a pool of fish life that would make even the largest aquarium jealous. Chevron barracuda and pretty lunar and neon fusiliers swirled around us, while a tasselled wobbegong shark watched the display with indifference. And this was within the first 10m.
Pushing through the chaos, we headed to 30m and spied another shoal of barracuda hanging out in the slight current; closely followed by a shoal of redtooth triggerfish. It was almost as if the reef had put up a sign: “Only silver and blue fish welcome here.”
What’s more, none of them seemed particularly concerned with a group of burly divers descending on their home.
As we cruised along at 25m, the fish swirls filtered out and a lone longnose emperor eyed us from on top of its flamboyantly pink coral throne; it reminded me of a large sun-hat, for some reason. And, it felt like summer down there too – at a balmy 28°C Raja Ampat provides deliciously warm diving, as you’d expect south of the Equator.
As we explored the reef further I did a double-take at a rare humpnose unicornfish – rare to me at least – but it dashed away before I could snap it.
As the slope steepened we passed a titan triggerfish foraging in the sand, and then a third shoal of barracuda cruised by. Just as we thought this site couldn’t cram in any more fish life, a pack of jack zoomed in out of nowhere and rushed past us.
Everything seemed larger than life on Cape Kri and not only fish. We spotted row after row of bright orange soft corals, and large pink overhangs that sheltered hundreds of glassfish.
The top of Cape Kri was a mass of browns, peaches and soft burnt reds – most of the reef is covered with pristine corals, with not a sandy patch in sight. Neon damsels, bicolour chromis, threadfin anthias and emperor angelfish added a dash of colour to this pastel-coloured carpet.
Then we spotted a banded sea-snake meandering through staghorn coral with fingers the size of couchettes. After only two days of diving it was obvious why this area is touted as “the last paradise”. Raja Ampat boasts more than 1300 species of coral reef fish, 600 species of molluscs and 50 species of mantis shrimp. Seriously I’d like to meet a diver who has seen more than three species of mantis shrimp, let alone 50!
Mayhem is one of the region’s most famous dive-sites and we couldn’t wait to jump in. As we descended the reef in crystal water we spotted a tornado of bigeye jack hanging in the current.
A giant Maori wrasse dispersed them for a moment, and then 100 red-toothed triggerfish prevented any ordered regrouping. Who would expect an ocean this big to have serious space issues
A featherstar kept us entertained for a while as it danced over to a bunch of red gorgonians. We peered down, and the sandy bottom felt as if it was moving as garden eels wafted in the surge.
Ahead, bright red whip coral plastered the reef wall. A yellow-spotted boxfish and clown triggerfish foraged for food. From the corner of my eye I saw white antlers and found two painted rock lobsters guarding a school of banded pipefish at the entrance to their home.
On the ascent tall bommie structures resembling castle turrets loomed, the protected sides blanketed with vibrant soft corals and sponges. From a distance they looked like candles dripping hot pink wax.
We spotted moorish idols and sweetlips hiding in alcoves, as well as barred rabbitfish and emperor angelfish.
Just to the side of us was an impressive cluster of tube coral that reminded me of bagpipes. Finally, during our safety stop at the end of the dive we watched false clownfish flit around Coleman’s anemone shrimps.
2. Magic Mountain
Mayhem is a magical dive, certainly, but it can’t quite rival Magic Mountain. Dropping onto the top of this sea-mount, we were surrounded by hundreds of neon fusiliers. A whitetip reef shark cruised beside us as we swam along a wall of gorgonian fans and whip corals at 30m.
A school of chevron barracuda hung out just off the wall, as unbothered by the lack of current as the yellow-lined snapper bunched close to the reef.
Back in the shallows my buddy pointed out colourful nudibranchs. Shame I was shooting wide-angle, but it was the right lens for a friendly hawksbill munching on some coral. We saw turtles on each dive, mainly hawksbills.
A painted rock lobster caught my attention as it plodded around in the open. Then another whitetip whooshed past me. As our small group swam over an area covered in knobbly white coral, two baby whitetips circled us before darting under a large plate coral. We spotted seven sharks on this dive, which could easily be renamed Shark Nursery.
1. Wedding Cake
It was a tough decision, but Wedding Cake takes the crown as most awesome dive of the trip.
As we descended over the top of the reef we tried to ignore the crazy amount of fish and coral life on top (plenty of time for exploring the shallows later).
We drifted along the steep slope to 30m, and it took my eyes a few seconds to register the huge collage of sea-fans sprouting from the reef wall – prime pygmy seahorse real estate!
We were not disappointed, either, spotting at least three until we got bored of the small stuff and moved on.
A moray eel popped its head out of a hole right next to a species of bicolour parrotfish I’d never seen before. This happened a lot. Marine biologists are discovering new species along Raja Ampat reefs all the time.
There were, of course, the usual suspects too. Damsels, orbicular batfish and many spotted sweetlips swam around us in a sea of colour – purple, pink and yellow soft corals. At one point I wasn’t sure which were more colourful, the corals or the fish.
Wedding Cake bears a striking resemblance to some of the outer Great Barrier Reef pinnacles, but it’s far more colourful (sorry GBR).
The whole reef morphed into a giant bouquet of flowers, where soft oranges and yellows interspersed with white and green plumes. Monet would have had a field day.
At the end of the dive we gorged ourselves on more bright orange and pink corals flourishing under overhangs. The splash of yellow and white from a pair of moorish idols completed this perfect canvas.
Investigating the overhangs more closely, mantis shrimp, an octopus, a large scorpionfish and a crocodilefish grabbed our attention.
Up in the shallows a hawksbill turtle whooshed by, followed more lazily by a pair of raccoon butterflyfish, the likes of which I’d never seen before. As we surfaced a parade of glassfish surrounded us, dancing in our bubbles. This dive was so good, I wanted to eat it!
Critters and macro
Don’t stress, macro photographers.
Even though I was spellbound by Raja Ampat’s wide-angle vistas of unique rock formations and colourful landscapes there are great macro opportunities on almost every dive.
We spotted pygmy seahorses, orangutan crabs, ghost pipefish, leafy scorpionfish, an array of colourful nudibranchs and the elusive blue-ringed octopus. On the last day we dived Algae Reef to see ornate ghost pipefish, decorator crabs and more nudibranchs.
Diving this good has to be difficult to access, right Right. Even from Australia it took me more than 22 hours. Sorry, Brits, you’ll have to cope with more than 35 hours of travelling, lugging gear between several small planes during very early-morning departures.
Worth the effort Absolutely. Raja Ampat is quite possibly the Last Eden.
Indonesia’s government agrees that Raja Ampat is special, and in 2013 declared all 4 million hectares of its coastal and marine waters a shark and ray sanctuary. The protection also covers dugongs, whales, turtles and ornamental fish species.
It was the first reserve of its kind in Indonesia and a huge win for marine life and their habitat, especially considering that the country has the largest shark and ray fisheries in the world.
The laws and penalties are tough, too. Tourism, conservation centres and local communities are working together to create a more holistic approach to fishing here. In my books, that’s a huge shark win!
|GETTING THERE London Gatwick to Jakarta using Emirates or Qatar, then domestic flight from Jakarta to Sorong. Or fly via Manado (35 hours) with Singapore Airlines and Silk Air. British citizens pay US$25 at the airport for a visa.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Tambora liveaboard, www.tamboradive.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round.
CURRENCY Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES Return flights from London to Sorong are available from £730. Eleven nights in Raja Ampat with Tambora costs £2625, with national park fees at £25. If you want a complete package, Original Diving can arrange an all-of-Raja-Ampat liveaboard trip from £4600pp. This includes 11 nights in a deluxe cabin (shared) on a full-board basis with up to four dives a day, all land excursions, international and domestic flights from London to Sorong via Jakarta, transfers and all relevant fees and taxes, www.originaldiving.com
VISITOR INFORMATION www.indonesia.travel