We’d heard Raja Ampat described as ‘one of the most biodiverse places on earth’ – how could we not dream to go there?
And when your good mates from the other side of the world have a similar agenda for New Years, oh my yes, off we went!
Not ones to do things by half, we split our time between a 6-night (well, 7, but we bailed a little early) liveaboard, and 5 nights in a local guesthouse in central Raja Ampat.
Raja Ampat is a huge area – with over 170,000 islands – so you could never go everywhere in one go, unless of course you had months on end to spend. From the key divisions of North, South and Central, we made it to the latter two.
For the first half of our trip, we sailed – aboard the Black Manta – down to Misool in southern Raja Ampat, taking in the dive sites of Candy Store, Andiamo, Boo (as in bow and arrow) Window, Yillet and Yillet Kecil, Magic Mountain, and many more.
Not to mention a hilarious New Year’s Eve anchored off an island, which involved some rather unsafe fireworks launching procedures from the beach – no OSH regulations here!
We then headed north to Central Raja Ampat for our last couple of days on the boat and for our island stint at Lumba Lumba Guesthouse. The most distressing thing about heading back towards the more populated Raja Ampat was the increase in surface rubbish. An unfortunate product of lax urban waste removal is that whenever it rains, the rubbish collected and left near rivers outside the cities is washed out to sea – where it becomes the problem of the villagers of the small islands in the area (who weren’t responsible for the rubbish in the first place).
Thankfully, once you quickly submerged under the surface, the environment is still near-pristine.
Dive site highlights
From coral reefs to wall dives, the sites of Batu Rufus, Melissa’s Garden, Manta Sandy, Yangeffo, Moiskan, Blue Magic, Magic Mountain, Sardine Reef, Chicken Reef, Aborek, and Cape Kri were all, even on a bad day, up there with the best of them.
Rated #72 on Scuba Travel’s 100 Best Dives Sites in the World, this was where we got our first manta action. My favourite type of action, where they’re just going about their business and we were unobtrusive observers. As always, the mantas glide through the water so gracefully.
Comparing to Lady Elliot, there were probably a greater proportion of black mantas, but maybe this was just perception given our boat’s name.
It was also the location where we got to see Pilot Whales! We could hear them a little while under water, but just after getting into the runabout, we saw them also – all around us, a big pod making their away across the sea. Yay!!! Unlike the dolphins or humpback whales we’ve had surface encounters with before though, these beauties didn’t want to play with us. Which was fine, it was lovely just to sit in our little boat watching them cruise about. A great way to end a dive.
Well, we weren’t exactly sure if we got the right spot on this dive. But wherever we were, it was great. We started in an area that had a pretty strong current, and not great vis, but then, trusting our crazy Mimpi guide, we crossed over a barren ‘roadway’, and ended up at a good reef.
It was one of those dives where there were cool creatures to see under every ledge. Along with the usual scorpionfish, stingray, pufferfish etc, we also came across mantis shrimp, painted spiny lobster, and a really cute baby barramundi – and nope, we didn’t know that was what it was until after we surfaced (despite all the ‘yummy-for-my-tummy’ hand gestures going on while below).
This was a perfect dive for the morning after New Years Eve. Nice and easy just cruising around a reef.
The most memorable feature of this location was the comedy that the geography allowed. Many of the tiny islands in Raja Ampat have at least partially eroded under the surface, leaving either swimthroughs or large reverse ledges. Which makes some of them a bit like a ceiling on the water.
Or, if you’re a daily diver, a floor on which to practice your moon walking:
– Step 1: Remove your fins
– Step 2: Flip upside down
– Step 3: Inflate your BCD
– Step 4: pretend to jog across the underside of an island.
An odd sight. Especially after a few minutes when you kind of forget exactly who is upside down – is it you? or me?
Does what it says in the tin. It’s sandy, and there’re mantas. Comprising just a few boulders that form a cleaning station, it’s a wonder the mantas know where to come to, but they do. We were apparently lucky on the days we visited it, seeing 6-8 mantas both times. And lucky we felt. So gorgeous.
The site is so well known for its cleaning station that the local dive crews have set up a perimeter of coral and rocks to control somewhat how close divers get to the bommies, so as not to upset the mantas. Which is practical, but it does make it a little much like a theatre show for my liking (I prefer when you encounter creature more ‘in the wild’).
And on the subject of mantas, what we were really hoping to see at Raja Ampat (besides whalesharks, which we weren’t quite in the right area for) was oceanic mantas – Really Really Big Mantas, in laymans terms. And at Magic Mountain, we did. On both dives.
The site is a long reef, with pretty strong currents, so a bit of a workout to get around it. The top is also at about 12 metres, so you need to negative entry to get down and make sure you don’t miss the site. But you know what they say – No run, No fun!
On both of our visits, first on Black Manta and then with Didi from Lumba Lumba, it wasn’t til the end of the dive that we saw these beauties. Our first visit was graced by a juvenile, so it was about the size of a reef manta, but with pointier wings, but the second encounter was epic:
At the end of our dive, after 50 minutes pulling against the current, and some fun with a giant moray swimming blindly between hidey holes, we were just starting to float up to 5 metres for our safety stop. But then, the guide of another dive group also on the site point, flapped, and took off. So, screw safety stop*, so did we! Steaming full speed after the Guide, not really knowing if he actually had seen something, after a minute or two, we saw it: Majestic, graceful, and about 7 metres wide! So beautiful, it was party time underwater.
*No, not really, we then diligently resumed our safety stop after the manta departed.
Quite possibly, the prettiest dive site around.
Melissa’s Garden is home to an incredible forest of staghorn coral. Blue, green, purple, and just simply, gorgeous. And along with staghorn comes hoards hoards of pretty little fish.
It’s a very simple, and reasonably shallow dive, so you can stay down for ages, and enjoy the ambience. Which suits some people, less so others: our dive guide, for example, found it boring – ‘you never see anything surprising’.
Well worth the visit though – particularly if you come from one of the many many areas on the planet where coral is endangered, and patchy at best.
This is quite a small site, in that there’s a definite ‘sweet spot’ where all the fish converge. Most noticeably, school of really big bumphead parrotfish, noisily chomping their way through the coral.
We dive this site twice, but to be honest on the second dive, I was just waiting for the exit. Not because the dive itself wasn’t good, but because we got to superman! The current is quite ripping and down current is a shallow plateau, so to exit you get to fly across the top of the bommie for a good 100 metres or so (total guestimation, it just feels far), until you get spat out on the other side. Fun! So, at 4 metres under, you just get sped along above schools of little fish, including Nemo’s Dory, and wobbiegongs etc.
Night diving, in general, is either awesome, or a bit dull. On the whole, our Raja Ampat night dives were awesome. Two particularly great ones were:
– Yangeffo (according to my log book, ‘REALLY GREAT’, it was): We saw so many night-specific creatures hear. A slipper crab, dwarf cuttlefish (cuuuuute), deadly cone snail, hermits crabs, and even a couple of ghost pipefishes!
– Moiskan: where we saw a blue ringed octopus! So tiny, so cute, so ferociously eating a little hermit crab. Apparently not everyone’s aware that they’re quite poisonous, so there was a bit of ‘move your hand!’ gesturing as it jumped, oh-so-cutely, around the reef.
Raja Ampat is as famous for its above water topography as it is for is underwater-loveliness. The thousands of islands pop up out of nowhere, covered in greenery, and make for stunning photo-ops. Lucky then that Kristy had the 2014 accessory of choice – a selfie stick! Which, as it turns out, isn’t just good for photos. Now you can view our self-u-mentories! Hosted by Richard, or be Carolyn.
The most famous cluster of islands is Wayag in the north, but as we didn’t go that far, we went to Painemu instead. Where the locals had built a new stairway to a lookout, so we could selfie our hearts out.
Black Manta liveaboard
There are many liveaboards around Indonesia to choose from, but our travel companions Rach and Rich had twice been on White Manta’s workhorse, the Black Manta, so we turned up with confidence this was the boat for us.
As with any good dive trip, a lot of the fun is dependent on the crew. Well, this group of seagoers was brilliant. From the Dive Coordinator, Cecil (who we still love despite him ditching us as his team part way through), our replacement Dive Guide Mimpi (who was our Mimpi-nudi, and put up with endless calls of “Mimpiiiiiiiiiiii’ in our quest to be first-in, last-out every dive), the hilarious comedy stylings of DG’s Handri and Stanny – both above and below the water, to the lovely support crew like amazing videographer Nu Parnupong, and the cooking and cleaning staff, everyone on the boat was enthusiastic and dedicated to make this the best trip you’ve been on. Love it.
Unfortunately on our trip the Nitrox membrane wasn’t working, which the crew thought they could fix, but in the end couldn’t, so we had to dive on air for the trip. Which, at 4 dives per day, was a bit exhausting – resulting in lots of napping rather than chatty playtime on our surface intervals. I’d give you advice for avoiding this situation, but, not a lot that can really be done about that.
Lumba Lumba Guesthouse
To add a second phase to our holiday, we left the boat to be dropped off for 5 nights at a local, secluded, guesthouse – Lumba Lumba Guesthouse. Expecting just 3 bungalows, we’d expected to be the only guests – our own private resort!
However, as island arrangements go, it’s never quite that simple. Rockin’ up like rockstars off our liveaboard, we were greeted by confused frowns and remarks of ‘we didn’t expect you until tomorrow’. Concerning. And apparently in the time between us booking the accommodation and subsequently arriving, they’d built another bungalow. Okay.
But all was not lost – we had to bunk in to 2 bungalows the first night, until another was vacated the next day. Nothing that chucking an extra mattress in, and stealing a child’s mosquito net to cover it, couldn’t fix.
It’s a pretty basic guesthouse, with power only at night when the generator on, bore water being the only showering option, plenty of rats, and, no aircon – not for the fainthearted. But, what it lacked in amenities, it made up for in views, nearby diving, and DELICIOUS homecooked meals.
Raja Ampat is part of West Papua, which is part of Indonesia – but happens to be pretty much directly above Australia.
Which you’d think would mean it would be easy to get to, but nope, you first have to go via one of the airport hubs of Indo. So after flying hours further west than you’d think necessary, it’s back east you head, on a plane probably smaller than you’d really trust.
So after leaving Sydney at 2:30pm, we landed at Jakarta at 6:30pm, to wait for our 1am flight to Sorong, in West Papua. That we were meeting old friends in Jakarta eased the airport boredom, but we were all well tired by the time of our second flight. Thankfully, this was a direct flight.
Not so on the way home. We knew we had a stop off in Ambon, but contrary to our boarding pass, which said Jakarta was our destination, our flight landed again in Massakar! After beginning our journey 6 hours earlier, we weren’t overly happy about this. And especially not when, without explanation or apology, our connecting flight to Jakarta was 40 minutes late – seriously endangering our chances of making our flight to Sydney that was due to leave at 10:30pm.
So we arrived in Jakarta at 8:15pm, but by the goodness of the universe, our bags came out quick, the inter-terminal taxi took 5 minutes, and we were checked in with an hour to spend. Plenty of time for a final Bintang with friends.
So it’s an effort to get to, but that’s what ensures a beautiful reef and scarcity of tourists, so that totes fine with us!