What is on the top of your list when it comes to a good scuba diving experience: visibility, marine life, corals, temperature, boat snacks, price? The list could go on. Most hot spots for diving can certainly tick one, two, perhaps three of these from the hit list, but few can claim to satisfy it entirely. Yet it has been said that taking a liveaboard for a scuba diving experience in the waters of Raja Ampat is enough to send the ultimate scuba diving fanatic to Atlantis and back. It is truly one of the world’s last paradises and if you’re yet to experience it, let us explain why…
Translated from the Indonesian language of Bahasa Indonesia, Raja Ampat means ‘Four Kings’ and is arguably the gem of this nation’s richly diverse and populated waters. The archipelago of Raja Ampat encompasses approximately 4 million hectares of land and sea off the northwest tip of Indonesia’s West Papua. These hectares comprise of over 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals which surround four main islands, the Kings of Raja Ampat: Waigeo, Batanta, Misool and Salawati; home to some of the greatest diving on this planet.
These four Kings and their surrounding islands sit in what is known as, The Coral Triangle. An area aptly named so due to the richest marine biodiversity on earth living in it; you may also hear it being referred to as, The Amazon of the Seas. Simply put this means that, living within these waters and in these reefs you will find the smallest of marine life to the biggest of fish and often, if you’ve a great guide or a sharp eye, things that you won’t find in any fish book! Diving here with Raja Ampat liveaboards really proves to be exhilarating, noteworthy and may make any diving experience to follow, feel somewhat lacking – you have been warned.
The style of diving in Raja Ampat is similar to that of diving its famous cousin, Komodo National Park. Similarly there are large bodies of water passing through small passages between islands. The dive sites are plentiful and offer topography such as great walls, sloping reefs, huge submerged reefs and jetty dives; where thousands of fish await your descent below the decking in the dappled sunlight. Large water movement transports great amounts of nutrients and this is the reason huge numbers of species love to live in these waters.
The currents here can be slightly unpredictable on certain sites and this is especially prominent during days building up to and after a new moon and a full moon, when the change in the tidal rise and fall is at its greatest. During these days the body of water moving through the small passages between islands is at its largest quantity, causing a faster flow of water and thus, the strongest currents of the moon cycle. Certain dive sites’ topography can cause unpredictable current movement, such as back eddies and down currents.
Back eddies are where the water pushes past and slips into a small inlet, as it hits the wall or end of the inlet it pushes back on itself in a swirling circular motion. This water movement can make it hard to initially read which direction the current is flowing, as the soft corals and fish may face in every direction, when diving it can require a few strong frogs kicks to get past it.
Submerged reefs that plateau within a few meters of the surface force the water to rush incredibly quickly over the top and spiral down the other side, this causes a down current and is something to watch out for. Down currents are caused by various topographical elements, as the strong current comes into contact with them; even when diving on the lea-side, hidden from the current they can be found. So, it’s a smart idea to dive these waters with a guide who is familiar with the area and the dive sites, as not only do they know their way around, they can interpret as best possible the water movement on certain tides. It’s important to bear in mind that, though sometimes it will be tricky to handle and may challenge your buoyancy, diving during the days around the full moon and the new moon is when you will find the most exciting and exhilarating action in the water.
You can expect to find yourself enjoying calm dives, drift dives and adrenaline diving all in one day. The sites in Raja Ampat are so varied, even just one single dive could require an array of diving styles. For instance, you may start your dive on a sloping reef, descend further to meet a wall as huge fans reach out to the blue and hidden spiny lobsters poke out from small caverns. As the sea floor slopes up and the wall recedes back to sloping reef, sunlight illuminates the colourful coral on the top as you hang amongst the painted sweetlips, snappers, barracudas and schools of the fish at the peninsula, then finally you drift around to a shallow reef for your safety stop.
A host of superb submerged reefs require a negative entry for maximum impact, kicking down as you descend through the fusiliers to follow your guide into the split. The split is the ‘sweet spot’ on the reef where the oncoming current breaks in two, therefore splitting around the reef. Find it and land in it to sit back and hold on in the exactly right spot, here you hide from the oncoming current with the surgeon fish and hook in to enjoy the show in front of you. Big fish love big current!
When we talk about big fish, we are referring to grey reef sharks, black tip and white tip reef sharks, giant trevallies and, the true royalty of Raja Ampat, the Oceanic Manta Rays.
Raja Ampat is not only a place for diving down to the depths to meet friends, you can take an early morning bird walk to spot some of the most beautiful birds in the world, as Raja Ampat is home to Birds of Paradise! There are actually 38 species in the Bird of Paradise family, but one of the most sought out is the Red Bird of Paradise or Cendrawasih Merah. A species which is endemic to Indonesia and is found on the islands of Batanta, Waigeo and Gam. An early morning rise to trek up into the thick of the forest to see their beautiful feathers and hear enchanting bird songs is a must before heading out diving for the day; truly well worth the wake-up call.
Then there’s the bat caves, not quite as pretty as the underwater caves but if you’re into gothic horror you’ll love stepping into their eerie abode and spotting their dark wings, either wrapped up of flapping up overhead. On the Island of Mios Kon, the bats live in the trees and at sundown you can see them cast a huge black shadow over the island as they take flight for dinner time! You can see this from the coast of Waisai, or if you happen to be around the island on a liveaboard at sundown you’ll see it too. During liveaboard trips or dive safaris with Scuba Republic, it is also possible to visit the bat cave during the day time and crawl right inside!
Watch out for your eyes, they might pop out of your head when you see the turquoise waters, white sands and lush green of these magnificent islands, which rise tall and straight from the waters! A visit to Piaynemo view point to look over the beautiful islands of Little Wayag is a must. This is most easily accessed during a liveaboard trip. Should you venture up to the viewpoint, be sure to wear sun cream, a hat, bring plenty of water and be sure you have a charged camera, it’s a hot climb but the views are phenomenal and well worth climbing the stairs for!
There are few places in the world where you are guaranteed to see oceanic manta rays, Raja Ampat is one of these few. Unlike their cousins, the reef manta rays, oceanic mantas live in the deep blue waters of the ocean and aren’t commonly found socialising in many places we can recreationally dive or pinpoint. However, they can usually be found visiting offshore of oceanic islands, like Raja Ampat. Sitting at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the mantas’ predictable visits to the waters of Raja are presumably due to the currents and upwellings of nutrient-rich water, which encourages the availability of zooplankton.
Recent investigation has shown that approximately 27% of their diet is based on filter-feeding, consuming large quantities of zooplankton in the form of shrimp, krill, and planktonic crabs. Though it was initially believed they were wholly eating a diet of zooplankton, research published in 2016 proved about 73% of their diet is mesopelagic (deep water) sources including fish.
Raja Ampat hosts oceanic mantas all year round, though they are more numerous during the months of September to April, they can still be found off-season, taking a liveaboard trip any time is a great way to see these awe-striking and sentient beings. In high season it is almost guaranteed that you will find them on two dive spots in Raja Ampat, whilst there is still a very big likelihood you could see them swooping by at any number of sites. Oceanic Mantas, when fully grown are 4.5 metres on average, but that’s not to say we don’t see even bigger specimens as they can grow up to 7 metres;, they’re hard to miss when they make an appearance! During the high season, due to the large amounts of zooplankton in the water the visibility is reduced, through the months of November to March you have the calmest and clearest waters.
There is still so much we don’t know about these wonderful creatures but what we do know is that they are incredibly docile and sociable, some enjoy playing with divers’ bubbles and are amazingly curious and intelligent, often coming within an arm’s length to check out divers. Possessing the biggest brain to body ratio of any fish in the ocean, and one that is ten times bigger than that of a whale shark, these sentient beings are believed to be able to pass the Mirror Self-Recognition (MSR) test (the ability to recognise themselves in a reflection), a feat few fish have passed, and a list that most recently added the cleaner wrasse.
Sadly, since 2013 both the Oceanic Manta Ray and the Reef Manta Ray have remained listed on the endangered species list due to a recognition of the catastrophic decline in their populations. Largely as a result of over hunting by humans. Listed as vulnerable in 2013 their statuses have since been increased to ‘threatened’. This is largely due to an increased demand from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) market over the past ten years, whom have famed their gills for their unsupported claims of them possessing medicinal properties, even though they were not traditionally used for this purpose. Thankfully countries like Indonesia which are home to large populations have recognised the potential income from tourists who are keen to see these gentle giants. They have since taken initiatives to protect and respect them, bolstering their diving tourism and international love for the magnificent mantas!
Depending on which island you are visiting, it is most likely you will land in Sorong, West Papua first and make your way from there. You can fly there directly from Makassar (Ujung Pandang airport) in Sulawesi. You should expect a wait in Makassar airport between your flights, it can be a long wait even if the flights don’t get cancelled and are running to schedule. There’s not much in Makassar airport to keep you entertained so be sure to have your charging cables and laptop in your hand luggage. There are also flights from Manado to Sorong. Once you land in Sorong, to get to the island of Waigeo you will need to take the ferry across to arrive in the town of Waisai, this takes two hours and once again there’s not much in the way of entertainment so keep those headphones handy.
Waisai is the capital of Raja Ampat. It’s a small town, it has plenty of gift shops and wonderfully bright and bold dolphins are the feature of every roundabout, the regeneration has placed their cetaceans in high regard as you drive through the town to arrive at the coastal resorts. The landscape is tall, rugged and jungle-filled, it is a half an hour journey from the jetty to the Scuba Republic resort or a quick exchange of boats to get to the liveaboards.
Once in Waisai harbour you can be met by a representative of Scuba Republic and bought to your accommodation, whether it is one of the two liveaboards or the resort for your day trip diving. Other options include staying at local homestays or other resorts in the area.
There’s not much in the way of alcohol to be purchased in Raja Ampat and it comes at an greatly inflated cost due to local taxes. The liveaboards and resort have beers stocked, which you can buy during your trip, but if you fancy any particular drinks or food, it is advisable to pick them up prior to your arrival in Makassar. If you forget to buy them, you may have time to stop in the town of Waisai for supplies, but there’s no guarantee of what you can find there.
It is possible to purchase mosquito spray, but usually in small bottles of not particularly potent brands, it’s advisable to bring a large bottle with you because mosquitoes can be rife with the warm, humid conditions. It’s also a great idea to ensure you have a hat, coral friendly sun protection and aloe vera lotions for protection and prevention against any sun damage.
You will need to pay the Marine Park entry fee, this is one million Indonesian rupiah and the card is valid for a year from the date of purchase. This money goes back into the protection and regeneration of the waters of Raja Ampat. Some of this money has been put towards incentives to protect the manta rays, ensuring only a limited number of boats can visit a popular dive site at any one time. One of the most popular dive sites is a cleaning station, these are crucial to the health and prosperity of the mantas and are one of the reasons they visit the waters in Raja. So these regulations play a very important role in the protection and health of their re-population as a species,. You can find out more about it here,
Sun cream prevents the sun from damaging our skin, but in the same way, when you enter the water with sunscreen on, chemicals like oxybenzone seep into the ocean, where they’re absorbed by corals. These substances contain nanoparticles that can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching. Check out these reef friendly sunscreen options instead!
So you haven’t dived in a while, why not take the time to go and refresh your skills before backwards rolling into the water? Taking the time to refamiliarise yourself with your buoyancy is an important skill which can save causing any damage to both coral and yourself. Knocking and breaking seemingly small amounts of coral can have huge impacts, as most corals will grow less than one inch per year.
Underwater photography is becoming a popular hobby for underwater fanatics, being able to capture memories is priceless after all, even if they don’t turn out to be of national geographic standard! We all have to begin somewhere, but it’s important whenever we are diving, to prioritise the right things. We will be posting a special underwater photography blog next month, you can read it here! But for now, remember three key things:
Do not put yourself in danger for a photo
Watch out for your depth, NDLs and don’t lose your buddy by chasing a shark.
Do not damage the reef to get the shot
If you can’t keep your buoyancy in check and you are struggling to get the shot, don’t take the photo. Leaning on or breaking the coral for the photo is a counter intuitive move and not within the divers code of conduct to protect and preserve the environment, don’t do it. There will be plenty more opportunities to get great photos that won’t leave you feel guilty when you look back on it.
Do not distress or aggravate marine life
Marine life are not used to flashing lights and shining torches underwater. They are incredibly bright compared to their natural environment. The heat and power from these lights can blind or kill smaller marine life and in particular, mantas are sensitive to flash so it is always advised that you do not use them. Never move something to get the picture, touching marine life can harm yourself and the creature, we host an array of bacteria not present in their environment, which could harm or kill them.
Do not use reef hooks
There is no need for a reef hook in Raja Ampat, in fact along with gloves they are not permitted to be used within the Marine Park. But worry not, as the style of diving doesn’t require you to hook in at any site, you either drift with the current or the current is weak enough for you to simply kick gently to stay in one spot. Komodo is really the place where these are needed!
If you are given a reef hook and decide to use it, please do so with great caution. There is a place for a reef hook and that is not on coral of any kind. Don’t confuse a coral bombie for rock, when in doubt get your dive professional to show you or hook it in for you. Never hook in on top of a cleaning station or in a place which impedes the entry of a manta to a cleaning station.
If the line from the hook to your BCD is not tense, then you don’t need a reef hook. Do not lay on the coral when using a reef hook, you should be inflated enough to allow you to float above the reef in the water.
The two fingers only rule
When you are approaching an object on a reef, do so slowly and maintain perfect buoyancy. If you should struggle, only place one or two fingers on a rock or the sand to stabilise yourself, then push yourself back and away from the reef gently with them. Never use your whole hand to lean on or grab coral.
Protect Raja Ampat’s endangered Coconut Crabs
The sale of coconut crabs on the Piaynemo viewpoint is a crucial example, here the locals are capturing these endangered species to sell them to tourists. Your purchase of them or any other product on the stall is helping to fund the resources to capture more of these critically endangered species. Please be sensitive to locals but do not encourage this trade.
Raja Ampat has to be one of the most remarkable places to dive, with so much to discover and such a thriving diversity of life both above and below the water, be sure to add it to your liveaboard bucket list!
For more inquiries on the Raja Ampat Liveaboard and Safari Trip, please do not hesitate to contact us on: email@example.com