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Diary of a paradise found

Raja Ampat Text and images by Fiona Ayerst

“There are more marine species to be found on one remote Indonesian reef than in the entire Caribbean.” David Attenborough, Planet Earth Documentary.

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The unprecedented beauty of the underwater world. December 2009/January 2010 • SUBMERGE 13


feature 1 December

I am tired. After too many airport check-ins, my irritation is compounded by heavy dive gear and underwater camera equipment, and I need to sleep. I am, however, on my way to the paradise I have been reading about in so many scuba diving magazines. It is “the place to visit” and so I am on my way. Raja Ampat here I come!

3/4 December

Raja Ampat is a world heritage site and contains a network of about 600 largely unexplored islands with 48 000 inhabitants, lying on the equator in the Pacific Ocean on the Western fringe of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). The name Raja Ampat means “The Four Kings” and is a reference to the four main island groups, namely Salawati, Batanta, Waigeo and Misool. The region’s full marine biodiversity is still unknown, with new species being regularly discovered. Currents from the nearby Philippines, Maluku Islands and Australian seas converge, bringing nutrient-rich waters to the surrounding reef. From the rich coral reefs, steep walls, deep water trenches and underwater volcanic mountains, to the World War II wrecks and endless variety of life, Raja Ampat truly is an awesome archipelago. My temporary home away from home is the luxurious live-aboard MV Odyssea. On the way to Raja Ampat, we motor past hundreds of islands, which were previously known as the “Spice Islands” where cloves and nutmeg proliferated. Today, one will find subsistence farmers tending to their cassavas and yams. The islands are known collectively

Abundant with life, this scene proves why Raja Ampat is one of the best dive spots.

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as the Moluccas. Apparently the forests harbour about 31 species of parrots and I hear one or two squawking but never actually see one.

5 December

And so I find myself at the beginning of a week in the paradise that is Raja Ampat. I begin my adventure at the Kawe Islands. Our first dive is at Single Tree Rock, so named because the site is a pinnacle jutting out of the ocean topped with a single distinctive tree. The hard and soft corals around the pinnacle are incredibly colourful, but we barely reach them as the current insistently rips us off the face of the pinnacle like feathers in the wind, and tosses us back into turbulent, blue, swirling waters. Teased by Mother Nature, I get a brief glimpse of paradise and I am left yearning for more... We move to Batu Hitam, another pinnacle rising out of the seabed, surrounded by large beds of glorious soft corals all waving wildly in a raging current. We encountered millions of scads, fusiliers and rainbow runners skimming over the reef. There are charming and busy fish towns with fish darting about the business of their day. Next we are at Eagle Rock. Eagle Rock consists of three rocky pinnacles which are joined underwater. My buddy and I fight the current to the sea-facing side of the mount and we are rewarded with breathtaking walls of fleshy, soft corals, huge schools of fish, a large school of oriental sweetlips, millions of orange anthias and the best treat of all, an overly friendly giant trevally. This awesome fish (170cm long) either sees us as a meal or is just curious as to what we are doing.


feature It hovers around us completely unafraid, owning the water. It is the sighting I have been waiting for and an encounter that is becoming all too rare in our troubled oceans. Maybe Raja Ampat really is paradise? The next six days will tell. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Tonight we find ourselves at the Ju Islands, at a site called Hey Jude. I find many different crabs everywhere and some great commensal periclimenes shrimps in a humongous anemone. Amongst the crabs I see harlequins, ghost pipefish and a bobtail squid. I find lovely, red arrow crabs and many tiny shrimps and decorator crabs scurrying all over the reef, briefly disturbed by my torch. After 70 minutes of indulgent fun, I fill my 4GB memory card and head for a hot shower and dinner. This was a great day of diving and the future bodes well for some spectacular dives still to come over the next six days.

6 December

The day’s diving reveals some superb hard coral plates and jutting staghorns on Tanjung Penemu in the Penemu Islands. The water is clean and clear with the rays of the early morning sun filtering through the surface. This is a drift dive along a coral-adorned slope. Drifting gently along with hundreds of electric-blue, striped schooling fish of all sorts; fusiliers and snappers abound. The vertical wall is lovely and just teeming with life, brimming full of movement and colour. It truly is richly adorned and the current pushes along it fiercely, bringing more nutrients to the growing corals. There is an

inviting cave swim-through to end off the dive and I decide that this dive was, all in all, a good, appetite-building dive. Life is good! Up at the 5m safety stop I am in awe as I stare at the fairytale scene of hard coral castles with thousands of tiny juvenile fish going about their business. It is a scene from the movie, Finding Nemo. We push on to Air Bore Jetty at Air Bore and I am thrilled to see a huge herd of humphead parrotfish with at least 40 individuals and some fit-looking males. We have a constant audience of locals jumping in and out of wooden dugouts with small goggles on, and skin diving down to about 4m to look at us. My dive concludes with a bed of giant clams arranged on the slope.

7 December

Today we are diving in the areas of West Papua at Manta Point at Air Bore. There are famed to be groups of up to 25 mantas that come in for cleaning and krill. Unfortunately, it is not to be today. I am placated by a wobbegong shark under a rock, peering out through frilly fringes and a large herd of humphead wrasse who are munching at the coral continuously. Due to the non-appearance of the mantas, we decide to move to Tanjung Kri Barat off the south east side of Kri Island. At the correct tide, the point of Cape Kri pumps with activity. Huge schools of surgeonfish, batfish and barracuda block out the sunlight as they move down the length of the reef. I am excited to see the pelagics because, apart from the couple of massive giant jacks on Batu Hitam, I have noticed a shortage of the biggies. We also see

A typical island scene of Raja Ampat.

A school of fair basslets making an already colourful reef even more so. December 2009/January 2010 • SUBMERGE 15


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Sun rays fall on one of the many beautiful reefs at Raja Ampat.

some smaller silver jacks and wahoos. Amongst the hydroids we find a furry-looking pygmy seahorse, no bigger than 5mm, with a yellowish body and a reddish head. Pygmy seahorses are most certainly plentiful around these parts. We move on to Tanjung Kri Timor for a night dive under the jetty near the Eco Resort in Kri. There are lots of weird and wonderful things under that jetty, and 65 minutes just isn’t enough time to enjoy it. I could literally spend hours and hours under there. What bliss! I spend a good 30 minutes watching and photographing a pair of hairy orangutan crabs, squinting at me tirelessly through bottlebrush pink fur.

8 December We start the day off at Chicken Reef, which is also off Kri Island. There is a huge current but I find distraction in a friendly porcupine puffer at 20m and take countless shots of his face. We come across a graceful, green turtle and thousands of garden eels in a huge field of sand. We move on to the best site I have dived here, Mios Kon, off “fruit bat” island, so named due to the fruit bats that fly around there in the evenings. Everything you could ever wish to see is here – from tiny commensal shrimps to giant wobbegong sharks, and anything in between. It is impossible to move too far away for fear of missing what is condensed into a small area, so I spend 85 minutes on a few square metres. What an unbelievable wide-angle photography dive it was too. Everywhere I looked there were thousands of busy fish. There was just so much life it was utterly amazing. I can truly say that this is the type of dive I was hoping for in this area. We do a night dive around another jetty at Saunek Besar. This is a big, chunky jetty with many legs and loads of soft corals and black sea urchins with very long spines. The night dive is full of the “usual suspects” 16 SUBMERGE • December 2009/January 2010

– crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs, squat lobsters, crocodilefish, hermit crabs and literally thousands of nocturnal animals, all crawling around, feeding and interacting.

9 December Today we are treated to a whole day at Kabui Straits. The straits are a long and narrow passage between Gam and Waigeo Islands. There is a strong current that pushes down the centre of the passage. The sides are lined with steep cliffs bearing ferns and trees and there are also mangrove swamps pushing into the flatter areas. The bright purple and red soft corals grow from 20cm down to about 10m. There are awesome photo opportunities of the soft coral underwater with mangrove trees on the surface just behind. You will also find the interesting, insect-eating archerfish here. These fish hunt flying insects by spitting at them as they fly over and then grabbing them as they struggle in the water. I came across a stunning grotto in the late afternoon. The light that floods in through the gap in the rock is simply breathtaking, turning the water to a vivid cerulean. The topside is volcanic-looking and the water is cobalt and indigo concurrently, depending on the depths over which the tenders scud. There are also hundreds of different nudibranchs wandering around this haven. The reef is looking astutely healthy for a “mangrove swamp”.

10 December The sun is shining again in this idyllic island setting. Today, as with each day, we awake to the warbling of birds in the jungle filled with coconuts and pine trees, tropical lianas and all kinds of ferns competing for space and light. These islands are fringed with pure white beaches; it simply is what dreams are made of. There really is no other way to describe it. Continued on page 19.


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Schooling fish swimming through the filtering sunlight below a jetty. December 2009/January 2010 • SUBMERGE 17


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A clownfish protesting at having its picture taken.

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feature Continued from page 16.

We start the day off near Saunek Island at a dive site called Batu Lima. This is a slope and mini wall and I find a few bommies surrounded by swirling glassies, fodder for foraging tomato-red rockcod. The fish are literally swarming around the shallows. Next, it’s on to Mike’s Point in the Dampier Straits. There are some great overhangs with swim-throughs and caves filled with corals and glassies. I chance upon a massive school of fat oriental sweetlips just hanging out at about 30m. The place is simply teeming with fish of all sorts. To my disappointment, there is a surprising lack of anything larger than about 60cm. I speak to one of the local guides about this and it seems that maybe we just haven’t been diving the currents the correct way. He tells me there are lots of large napoleon wrasses too and I am utterly pleased to hear this news. Well, it just means I will have to come back to find these big schools of big fish! This area still seems relatively untouched. One of the local boat owners complained to me that it was getting too busy. He indicated that a few years ago there were only four live-aboard boats that ply their trade in this area but now there are many more. I guess that properly managed tourism could have financial benefits for the locals and consequently also for the inhabitants of the reef.

11 December We have not dived one wreck yet, but today that is going to change. We drop onto the P47B Bomber plane at Wai lying upside down at about 27m. It’s one of seven planes that went down near Wai. Another lies at 45m, while a third is just pieces of rubble in the shallow, hard coral gardens. Our second dive of the day is in the lagoon around the same island. My overall impression is – massive schools of bream, seahorses, jetty, dead fish and rubbish, crabs in half coconut shells, locals in stilt houses. It is then on to Batanta Island on Arefi Point near a swamp of mangroves. From 1m down to at least 30m, the reef is particularly rich and vivid soft corals festoon the walls in luscious pinks, purple, red and yellow. I get some pictures of a most unusual creature, a two-spot goby. I watch two of them picking up sand in their mouths and then spitting it out again. It is evening, and the most spectacular bright orange and violent red sunset of the trip appears over the tree-lined hills. The mangrove swamps surrounding us are filled with the last cries of the many birds in protest to the crimson sun’s adieu.

An octopus hides in an empty shell for protection.

12 December The last two dives of the trip are upon us and are done at Matan Island. This site is very close to the bustling port of Sorong. This is our final day on board the comfortable boat and I am not looking forward to the three day trek I have to endure to get home. The boat was beautiful, the crew was attentive and kind (one of the best I have experienced) and the diving was first-class. As they say in the classics, all good things must end, and so I come to the last day of my dive trip in paradise. My last two dives were easy macro dives with plenty of tiny critters to see. A pair of pink pygmy seahorses, perfectly camouflaged in a sea fan at 21m nod goodbye. What a spectacular ending to the trip. S

IMPORTANT INFO: •

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How to get there: The islands are located northwest of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). Fly to Manado from Singapore. Then fly on to Sorong. You can also get there via Hong Kong/Java/Manado and then motor up by boat, diving along the way. Language: Bahasa Indonesia, although many dive operators and their crew can speak simple English. Currency: Indonesian Rupiah, although US$ can be exchanged; traveller’s cheques and credit cards are generally not accepted. Visas: Visas are required. Some nationalities (including South Africans) may purchase a 30-day visa at the airport. Check with your local embassy or travel agent. Visibility: 10m to 30m. Health warning: Malaria risks, so get the necessary vaccinations before departure. Best time to dive: Raja Ampat is on the equator and is diveable all year round. Water temperature: Water temperature is about 24˚C on the southwestern areas, and can reach 28˚C throughout the year in the centre and northwest. Diving conditions: Mid-July to mid-September sees some small surface swells, but not usually big enough to interfere with your trip. Try to avoid full moon if you are concerned about currents.

A close-up of the coral reef paradise to be seen at Raja Ampat.

A cuttlefish looking smug as it poses for the camera. December 2009/January 2010 • SUBMERGE 19

Diary of a paradise found - Raja Ampat  

Fiona Ayerst writes article on the underwater world of Raja Ampat

Diary of a paradise found - Raja Ampat  

Fiona Ayerst writes article on the underwater world of Raja Ampat

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