Then there are the various species of fish in dizzying colors, among them swarms of yellow fusiliers, little orange anthias and a flock of batfish. Overhead passes a school of humphead parrotfish, oddly reminiscent of a herd of bison. Then you gasp in wonder and semi-fright: a banded sea snake, that highly lethal creature, is slithering up to the surface. Every once in a while, another diver in your group will tap on their tank to let others know they’ve seen something special: a giant turtle, a blacktip reef shark, a crevice full of lobsters, various nudibranches.
THE SPECIES FACTORY
Little wonder that marine biologists affectionately refer to this 5,000 square kilometer patch of marine wilderness, to the northwest and southwest of the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua, as a “species factory”. Raja Ampat (“four islands”) is home to more species of fish and coral reefs than any other single place on Earth. Even if you prefer to stay above the water, its remote, relatively pristine beauty will let you know you’ve arrived in a special place.
This explains why Raja Ampat is in the minds of many Indonesian travelers these days, even non-divers. Raja Ampat, it seems, is the Indonesian eco-tourism version of Beirut, a reportedly awesome destination to which few venture. In the case of Raja Ampat, this may change all too soon.
Two decades ago, the area was barely known outside its local area, except to a small group of scientists and adventurous tourists and divers. But since then, some widely published findings on its biodiverse marine life have put it on travelers’ maps. Already many entrepreneurs have stepped in to cash in on its marine tourism potential, opening new land-based resorts or operating new live-aboard vessels for divers.
Raja Ampat’s reputation among marine naturalists dates back much further. The great British naturalist and explorer – and an early proponent of the theory of evolution – Alfred Russell Wallace was in Raja Ampat in 1860 in search of birds of paradise.
He described it as “one of the most singular and picturesque landscapes I have ever seen”.
I can only imagine that what he saw then might not differ much from what I saw 150 years later. But then he was not equipped with a scuba.
SAVING THE FOUR KINGS
As its name implies, Raja Ampat is an archipelago comprising four main islands of Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool, as well as more than 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals. About 35,000 people inhabit the coastal villages scattered throughout.
In 2000, Conservation International conducted the first modern marine survey of Raja Ampat. The surveys suggest that the marine life diversity in the Raja Ampat area is the highest recorded on earth because of its location at an “intersection” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
It is believed that this region may partially seed the entire Coral Triangle, which spans Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea and is the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity.
Its stable climate has helped the reefs to thrive for millennia. In fact, it seems to defy the existing trends of bleaching and disease that threaten coral ecosystems around the world.
Thankfully, these findings have led to more concerted conservation efforts fronted by international and local organizations.
As part of the efforts to conserve the area, in 2007, the Raja Ampat local administration started to charge an entrance fee to visitors entering the archipelago. These fees – Rp 500,000 for international visitors and half that amount for Indonesians – are used to finance conservation measures and community development projects such as patrol boats and village-based health centers.
HAVE AIR, WILL DIVE
In 1990, so the now famous story goes, Dutch adventurer Max Ammer came to Raja Ampat to look for abandoned jeeps and sunken aircraft from World War II. He ended up staying longer, eventually building two eco-resorts on the island of Kri. Other dive operators, whether based on land or on vessels, have followed suit.
We stayed at Raja Ampat Dive Lodge (RADL), a resort that opened last year and is owned by the same company that runs the popular live-aboard dive fleets, the Grand Komodo. RADL is a charming, unpretentious eco-dive resort located on Mansuar Island at the heart of some of the best dive sites in northern Raja Ampat. The comfortable waterfront wooden lodges are equipped with air conditioners, Western-style bathrooms and all the modern conveniences.
In between dives, their Balinese cook Surya kept us well fed with delectable fresh meals and snacks, with dishes including succulent grilled fish, a perfect and warming bowl of vegetable soup and pandan-flavored rice flour cake filled with melted palm sugar to accompany our afternoon tea.
But the dives are what make this place truly memorable. The dive profiles in the north, where we stayed, are diverse, ranging from pleasant glides through coral gardens to thrilling drifts along the slopes.
One of the endemic species of the area is the wobbegong, the bottom-dwelling sharks that can be longer than 1 meter and have bold markings (hence the nickname “carpet shark”). This funny-looking creature, camouflaged by small weed-like whisker lobes surrounding its jaw, hides among rocks to ambush smaller fish.
For those who like their critters tiny, the waters thrive with species of nudibranches, flatworms and pygmy seahorses. Personally, I like the big beasts, so I happily parked on the sand at the “Mantas Airport”, waiting for the giant mantas to show up and gloriously flap their wings; in the meantime, I entertained myself by watching an intriguing Pegasus Dragonet sea moth drag itself along the sandy bottom.
Sometimes you don’t even have to move. At sites where the current is too strong, such as Cape Kri, we anchored ourselves to hard coral and surveyed the scenery of teeming schools of giant trevally, jackfish, dogtooth tuna and barracuda. Water movement nourishes the reefs, hence the dive guide mantra: “No current, no fish.”
We took breaks between dives on the white sandy beaches on deserted islands, munching on biscuits and taking dips in the crystal-blue water.
Although we didn’t find any walking sharks (one of the 50 recently discovered species in the area) while diving, during one of these surface intervals a guide saw one perched quietly on top of a rock, unbothered by the gawking humans. We marveled at it for a few moments, before it dashed off on its two fins.
Early one morning, we visited Gam Island to see the rare and elusive red bird of paradise. After a 20-minute walk into the forest led by the island’s ranger, “Pak Mayor”, we climbed onto a wooden plank set up for bird watchers and lay on our backs to watch the birds flying in and out of the surrounding towering trees. They perched on the tree branches, the males easily identified by their elongated black corkscrew-shaped tail wires.
(A word of warning, if you do make this early morning trip – the only time they can be sighted – the jungle mosquitoes are relentless. Make sure you wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, shoes and socks and smother yourself in mosquito repellent.)
To top it all off, on our boat ride back to the resort after our final dive, we passed a playful pod of 10 dolphins. They entertained us as we watched giddily from the stopped boat. When they ended their performance and swam away, we all gave them a standing ovation.
The dolphins were fantastic, of course, but we might just as easily have been applauding Raja Ampat itself, the lives that thrive in this magnificent place, the people who have lived there and guarded the islands to remain the way they are, as well as those who shared them with us. Simply put, we celebrated the Raja Ampat experience.
Arriving and departing: Most live-aboards and resorts serving Raja Ampat pick up guests by boat in the city of Sorong. Several domestic airlines serve Sorong, including Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Lion Air, Wings and Express Air daily.
Sorong hotels: There are several non-star hotels here, but if you want quality, Royal Mamberamo is the city’s newest and best hotel.
Best time to visit: October to April is prime season to dive in Raja Ampat. The Dampier Strait, which separates Bird’s Head Peninsula and the islands of Waigeo and Batanta, offers excellent diving all year round, but Misool in the southwest is pretty much inaccessible to divers from July to October.
Writer: Devi Asmarani