Raja Ampat has long been on top of a wish list of destinations of our diving club ProDive. Finally, we found the right opportunity, a quality Liveaboard Mari for a reasonable price, since such trips are considered to be among the most expensive diving destinations in the world … It’s not just a saying that Raja Ampat is the last paradise on Earth: scientists estimate that the level of marine biodiversity here is among the highest on the planet. The “four kings”, which is literally the meaning of “Raja Ampat”, are the islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo, which really reign in the midst of the sea near the Equator southwest of the island of West Papua, with thousands of small islands rising from the sea as their peoples. Volcanic islets that are densely populated – but not with humans – primarily with birds whose species diversity reaches the same level as one of the underwater marine creatures.
After looking forward to this diving trip almost for a year, we boarded the flight for Jakarta via Istanbul on the 4th day of 2020. The 20-hour journey is exhausting, so it was quite important to spent two days first in the bustling Indonesian capital. For those who have found themselves here for the first time and are accustomed to more tourist destinations, Jakarta was a major shock. Traffic congestions which the city experiences several times a day, walking on sidewalks and crossing roads, often being a struggle for survival, an extraordinary diversity of urban image that is difficult to define as one or the other part of the city … no, Jakarta is not really a tourist destination, either it’s not a city of attractive sights, shopping opportunities, or crazy nightlife. The essence of this capital, with nearly 12 million daily residents, is precisely its endless variety. At just under 100 square meters you can see everything at once: people trying to keep their campungs, the settlements where they have always lived but are now being displaced by the dizzying high-rise buildings of the world’s corporations; a prestigious hotel and cow pasture; street food vendors whose spicy dishes are regularly consumed by city residents, as they don’t have a habit nor time for cooking at home, and businessmen rushing to the next meeting, after which they will jump for a massage at a nearby salon, which is a vital part of their daily lives. Moving around the city is so impossible that Jakarta is considered to have its own time, the locals call it “Jakarta time”. You make an appointment at the hour, arrive an hour later, and your date still takes half an hour to arrive. Taking a taxi is actually the worst choice – much faster are Transjakarta buses, where you also can get a taste of real local life, or move faster around the city if you dare to order a Gojek or Grab (a scooter with a driver) that offers you a helmet and shelter behind your back … It is not recommended to point out that you are in a hurry, because even without that you start saying goodbye to your own life … but no worries, you’ll only say goodbye to the kind river, who took you to another part of the district. Unbelievably few accidents happen on scooters, which always manage to slip through the gaps between cars, sidewalks, and pedestrians. And in this way the city gets under your skin, because Jakarta really is what its people are: polite, kind and helpful, sincere and always smiling. The hundreds of different religions and communities that find themselves in one place (even though Indonesia has officially only six religions, one of them must also be written in the passport of every citizen!) Of course, people of Jakarta experience many internal hardships, but all of them leave only a feeling of valuable diversity, which is probably the only accurate characterization of Indonesia as a whole.
As our dive leader and tour operator reasonably predicted, we have acclimatized very well in Jakarta, which is essential before diving, to minimize the possibility of decompression sickness. With an ice-ventilated 6-hour night flight, we moved to Sorong, one of the larger cities of West Papua, which is a completely different world. The port city serves the ships departing and returning here for new supplies and new groups like ours. It is also an important economic hub since we should not forget that West Papua is one of the richest deposits of gold, copper, and oil that foreign corporations have been wildly exploiting at the expense of the local population for the past six decades.
Already at the airport, we were greeted by Ungke, Ismet and Zul who later transformed into our divemasters, qualified and caring guides underwater. Soon after boarding Mari we left Sorong and sail to the first diving destination. Mari is an old wooden finisi sailboat, a typical traditional Indonesian vessel that has been refurbished by its German owner into a modern cruise ship with a lot of genuine patina. Married to an Indonesian, he adopted the Indonesian name and Islamic religion, although he says that he is not a religious man. But wanted to get into the local lifestyle as much as possible, he learned not only Indonesian Bahasa but also many Papuan dialects, as almost every island here has its own language. His Mari thus shows the perfect symbiosis of German consistency and order and local habits, respectful working attitude towards the crew and locals, and above all respect for the nature of Raja Ampat. Onboard, we were greeted by large bunches of bananas of various sorts, hanging nets full of pineapples, watermelons, and melons … we quietly took photos of them and wondered about our feelings at the moment when only stumps and empty nets will stay behind… in advance, we knew it is going to be hard to leave Mari after 12 days.
On the first afternoon, the weather was rather gloomy, which only exacerbated the rising calmness, while we quietly sailed through the incredibly smooth sea in between the first islands. Probably everyone would take a nap, enjoying calm breezes on the comfortable benches on the deck if we were not expecting the first test dive rather soon. It was introduced by an exhaustive Ungke’s briefing, which became usual practice for all further dives. Each time the guides drew up a complete sketch of the site with all the details, explaining where the currents were expected and what marine life we might encounter. Probably the most desirable and unusual wobbegong shark, also called carpet shark, as it really looks like a moustache rug tucked under a large table-top coral, has surprised us already on a test dive. And not only him: a pair of Pygmy seahorses as well as two smaller manta rays … we were happy as children and our photographers, who were only testing their underwater housings were kicking themselves for having missed such an opportunity. But in fact, they didn’t miss a thing – this was only the first taste of the beauty of the underwater world, increasing and repeating from here on. The test dive also confirmed that shorties and sleeveless suits, even though the water temperatures were high enough, are not a smart idea: the sea here is so rich in plankton that it contains millions of tiny particles that cause itchy dots after getting out of water. 3 mm neoprene is probably the optimal choice in water varying from 26 degrees to 30 degrees, depending on the area, but sometimes cooler currents may also surprise. The dives last for 60 minutes, so one cannot be too hot underwater in such type of suit.
A quiet night sail brought us to the final southern point of our trip in the sun set-up, the marine area of Misool Island. We explored it for the next three days, mostly with four dives a day. The schedule is known in advance and does not change: getting up at 6, having a small breakfast, and we jump into the water at 7 am for the first time. Then “a real” breakfast, at 10 am the second dive, lunch and a little rest afterwards. The third dive is scheduled at 2 pm and for the last dive of the dive, we usually could choose between sunset dive at 5 pm or night dive at the dawn – which meant that a black night awaited us upon returning to the surface. The atmosphere here is so clear that the sky is strewn with stars up to the last corner, which is a scene one could watch endlessly, hovering in pleasantly warm water. Especially when we were able to discuss what an incredible creature we saw while diving: another extremely unusual species of shark, “walking shark” or epaulette shark, is active mostly at night, even though it can survive an hour-long dry walk in the scorching sun. It uses his fins as legs and looks for food down the shore. Thanks to the efforts of our guide, we saw two beautiful specimens on the last night’s dive in the shallow water … we dimmed our torches as they are extremely timid animals.
The night dive was followed by dinner, briefing for the next day after which, especially the first days when defeated by the jetlag, we fell into beds in cabins or even on deck, as the temperatures did not drop significantly at night either. One becomes very grateful for getting up early immediately when one manages to keep the eyelids open, while just before the sunrise birds have their biggest fun: the richness of sounds that greets the raising of the day is a unique and unforgettable melody, which every morning, again and again, reminds you of the richness and preciousness of life.
The seventh day, the captain anchored our ship near Piyanemo Island, and we took the boats to reach the island. The crew bought enough coconuts for indulging us the next day, and we did our best to support the microeconomics of local women from Fam, who produce coconut oil, soaps, and tiny souvenirs, made of natural ingredients. There are quite some visitors here (well, another boat beside us), while after climbing a few hundred stairs the wooden terraces offer a magnificent view of the surrounding with many islands. It is one of the most popular vedutas in Raja Ampat and a must-see point for every traveller. We also fulfilled our duty, with even bringing the Slovenian flag up there for a memorial group photo. The trip was further extended by a visit to the paradise beach, to which the path led through a so-called homestay, the bungalows on pilots, accommodation for individual travellers who do not choose a liveaboard cruise, but stay on the islands and dive and snorkel in the organization of local diving centres. It was the kitschy sunset time, the sun was falling into the sea, ending of an extremely sunny and hot day.
The weather was pretty favourable all the time, there were no days without sun, with many really hot times of the days, only one night and one day we experienced real rain. But even that didn’t stop us from taking three dives …after all, we couldn’t be more than wet.
Of the 34 dives we had the opportunity to do, not a single one disappointed or was uninteresting, and most left us breathless despite our manometers still showing 50 bars. The richness of fish that in thousands drift past you in every direction, not just of one species, but of all possible sizes, colours and shapes. Sharks, especially grey and blacktip reef sharks, are timid but always present. Unlike the other species, which are all over-sized for our usual criteria, sharks are quite small in size and baby sharks are often curious to swim with us. Huge triggerfish can be much more offensive than sharks. The Napoleon-like hump head parrotfish flock quietly around divers like giant ladies with huge dirty teeth. Sweetlips were waiting for us in families of infinite numbers, perfectly arranged for group photos, while families of barracudas were mostly rushing past us. It is impossible to spot all the species down there – every time after the dive, we grabbed a thick fish encyclopedia on board to find the ones we saw among thousands of species. And how to count all kinds of corals, soft, hard, mushy, fluffy gorgons … incredible sea creations that no set or costume designer could have ever imagined – creatures of the sea, dressed in their unbelievable outfits. Many of them could be overlooked if our guides were not trained enough to spot them for us. Raja Ampat is also a paradise for macro photography – with an experienced guide one can capture a kingdom of Pygmy seahorses, snails, crabs, nudibranchs, transparent snakes, and countless others, with the naked eye almost invisible phenomena. Here and there, an old familiar turtle, lionfish, moraines, napoleons, and huge cuttlefish came past us. Visibility is not as good as for example, in the Red Sea, because the ocean is overflowed with plankton and other life, and unpredictable sea currents mix the water constantly, but we have seen a lot and our photographers have taken beautiful underwater pictures. The most magnificent experience was certainly observing the oceanic manta rays – we saw three beauties at the Magic Mountain in the southern part. But on the sixth day, we moved overnight to the middle Raja Ampat, near the island of Arborek to dive at the so-called Manta Ridge. The current here is very strong, it continued to rise during our dive, pulling not only across the ridge at the shallows but also vertically into the depths. So we spent more than 30 minutes at 10-12 meters, tethered to the reef hooks and watched a magnificent dance of about 12 mantas above our heads … the less we bothered them, the closer they came. Some measure 6 meters in the fin range, varying in black or grey patterns on the abdomen and back. They are stunning animals as if they came from another planet.
We dived around Arborek for several jetties, piers that rest on wooden pilots around, and on which corals and fish have created new ecosystems. Those islands are more populated than in the South, and tourism has already begun to affect the coral reefs, which is why numerous efforts are being made to breed new corals in protected nets at the bottom where corals have been broken. These are obviously greatly multiplying, and we can only hope that the Indonesian authorities will listen to initiatives calling for a limited number of boats and divers allowed to visit coral reefs at once. Sure, Raja Ampat is far from mass tourism, but such an intriguing and unspoiled area invites new visitors every day that are quickly accrued more than these fragile ecosystems can withstand. It may sound strange – the incredible abundance of marine life here may give you the feeling that everything we see is self-explanatory and that it will last forever, which is, of course, unacceptable thinking for a responsible diver. It is precisely why this natural treasure that needs special care. For all of us, as well as for the local population, it is of extreme importance to preserve the sea as pristine as possible. Because when one can at least a bit get to know the locals of West Papua, people with a wide lower jaw that makes their smile even warmer and their hearts open to everyone (especially when in the evening they almost secretly come to visit their friends among the crew and they sing Papuan songs along with their guitars), you realize that they have kept the true values of life far better than we did. And who are we outsiders, to interfere with the only world they have?
The names of diving sites and coral reefs such as Why Pretty Shallow, Romeo, Julia, Anchovy Pinnacles, Citrus Ridge, Chicken Reef, Blue Magic, and many others all evoke memories of each and every special dive. And Warna Berwarna, which means “Colourful Colour”, picturesquely but accurately outlines the overall impression of diving at Raja Ampat.
Adding the delicious and abundant food on board, professional and experienced guides, more than the helpful crew and the great comfort of diving – we never had to carry the equipment ourselves, just check it, set it on shoulders and jump from the boat into the sea – we can only conclude, that diving at Raja Ampat in such an organization is not just satisfying, but absolutely surprises even the most experienced diver. There is only one problem left: “What else remains on a diver’s wish list after Raja Ampat?”
It is true, however, that the way Pro Dive organizes such trips is thoughtful and in place: if we had to board a flight to Ljubljana the morning we left Mari, it would be much too difficult. It may sound equally overwhelming to fly from this unspoiled peace to one of Indonesia’s most vibrant tourist destinations, Bali Island, especially the never-sleeping Kuta – and yet, four days of idleness, visits to bird and monkey reserves, temples, enjoying fruit, sun, beach and other delights, including a couple of dives in Tulamben, weren’t at all a bad idea. They filled us with a lot of strength and will to return to the cold Slovenian winter, which will be much easier to survive with the memories of an unforgettable first month of the year…