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Raja Ampat Reloaded

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

 

 

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gorgonian corals, Mike's Point, Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Pacific
gorgonian corals, Mike's Point, Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean Image #: 124169

Heaven, I’m in Heaven...

Lying on my back, floating on the surface in a lazy, ever so slow current, I feel the warmth of the tropical sun on my face, the bright sunlight tingeing with an orange glow my closed eyelids. I flick them open at the startlingly raucous, loud cackle of a passing Eclectus parrot, just in time to glimpse a ludicrously bright flash of red and blue fly overhead, a splash of colors against the deep blue skies and the towering, silent clouds soaring far away. The water is warm and jade green, a few yellow floating dead leaves tickling my feet, here and there the glint of a reef fish below me. I lazily propel myself with a squid-like push of my hands towards the middle of the lagoon, still lying on my back. The only audible sound is the high-pitched buzz of the occasional mosquito and the faint splash made by an archer-fish, squirting a jet of water towards a small bug on a branch overhanging the still surface. Around and above me, I can see vertical limestone cliffs rising vertically towards the sky, eroded in abstract shapes by thousands of years of tropical rainfall, draped in mottled white roots, twisted clinging vines, precariously balanced dry lowland forest trees. Huge ferns and clumps of orchids hang everywhere, with a big swallowtail butterfly slowly flapping in the warm humid air here and there. Sitting under the stretched canvas roof in the boat, a few meters away, Antonella smiles dreamily, points her camera at me and clicks blissfully away. I close my eyes again, absorbing the sun’s warmth, submerging my ears just enough to listen to the distant clicks and snaps of the coral reef extending a few feet below me. Yes, this is heaven for me. Welcome to the Passage. Welcome to Raja Ampat.

Unsurpassed Diving

The Passage – a five-meter deep, river-like sea fjord, snaking inside the forest, the tree canopies often closing above it, strange purple sponges and gigantic orange sea fans almost reaching the surface, the sea and the sky above mirroring each other, mixing, inextricably blending into each other. An almost mystical place, rich in silent grottoes, underwater passages, submerged tunnels leading to still seawater pools hidden inside the forest, sun rays slanting down in the green darkness like light shining through a cathedral’s multicolored windows. The Passage – unique, and yet only one of the many wonderful dive sites found in Raja Ampat. Many, many others dot the area, close and not so close to peaceful Kri Island – Mike’s Point, possibly the most beautiful of them all and certainly one of the most scenic dive spots on Earth, a living multi-layered tapestry of pink and orange gorgonians; Sardines, an underwater promontory jutting out in the open sea where all the action is – raging currents, gigantic schools of fish, lurking wobbegongs waiting among the luscious corals; Cape Kri, marine life Grand Central, rated as the dive site with most fish species in the whole world, rivalling in sheer technicolored spectacle Sipadan’s drop-off and Palau’s Blue Corner; Myos Kon, an underwater wonderland of lurking carpet sharks, pygmy seahorses and schooling yellow-lined snappers; Chicken Reef, a thick coral slope of a thousand untouched shapes and sizes, crowded with enormous schools of fish; Manta Point, a cleaning station in the middle of Dampier Strait where one can dive – if lucky – with up to twenty gigantic mantas, each up to three meters wide (we had four, three of which were completely black – and it was simply amazing); Melissa’s Garden, by the remote island of Fam, a submerged psychedelic panorama of mushroom-shaped limestone islets draped in red gorgonians and bright purple soft corals. And fish - small fish, large fish - everywhere. Schools of fish, fish in the hundreds, in the thousands – jacks, surgeonfish, batfish, snappers, basslets, barracudas, emperors, giant bumphead parrotfish, spanish mackerels, rainbow runners – they’re all here.

The Sharks Are Back

And even sharks, despite the widespread local fishing pressure, put in an appearance – large, bottom-dwelling, exquisitely camouflaged wobbegong carpet sharks are everywhere, and so are the well-known “walking” Hemiscyllium coral catsharks, and huge, inquisitive, swiftly swimming blacktips Carcharhinus melanopterus: even the grey reefs Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, which had been conspicuously absent two years ago from these waters, now make their presence felt, often closely and threateningly buzzing divers on the reef top. In a world where truly wild shark sightings are going down to zero in many locations in a matter of weeks, it is incredibly rewarding being able to report that here shark sightings are actually increasing. Might this mean the actual numbers of these beautiful, endangered predators are rising also in Raja Ampat? True, the practice of shark fishing goes on unabated in the general area, but it is a fact that, at least in the proximity of Kri, blacktip and grey reef sharks (wobbegongs have never been an issue) seem to have found a sanctuary. The coral landscape does not show any signs of diver damage yet, and coral bleaching is almost unheard of in these waters. Indeed, on this, our second visit to these distant shores, the spectacular diving and technicolored marine life of Raja Ampat seem to us even more extraordinary than in the past. Oh, and of course we have to add that most of this occurs at shallow depth – most diving takes place in the 5-20 meters range – with the majority of dive sites less than ten minutes away from Sorido’s or Kri’s wooden piers.

Conservation Success

It’s quite obvious – good news for the environment, for once – that the presence of Max Ammer’s tourist operations – traditional, long-standing Kri Eco Resort and the more luxurious and recently completed Sorido Bay Resort – is actually making a difference regarding conservation. Local fishing communities seem to be accepting Max’s strict views on conservation, and the regular income his business is providing to many Papuans working there is clearly convincing them protecting nature might actually be a good investment for the future of their children. In fact, the whole of Raja Ampat is apparently being taken very seriously by conservationists worldwide, and even by the Indonesian government (to which West Papua is subject). Max recently wrote us announcing that “The Raja Ampat Regency Government in West Papua, Indonesia, has announced the launch of an annual tag system for visitors to their newly declared network of 7 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The annual plastic tag, modified from the successful Bunaken Marine Park tag, will be valid for 13 months from the 1st of each calendar year and will cost Rp500,000 (US$55) for international visitors and Rp250,000 (US$22) for Indonesian citizens. 70% of the funds will be managed by a multi-stakeholder team for conservation and community development programs. 30% of the fund will go to the Tourism Department for tourism development. The local government engaged the assistance of three major International NGOs - Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and WWF - to help define the most valuable areas of Raja Ampat for protection. Currently they are helping to develop management plans with the local communities and enforcement agencies appropriate for each area. The Coral Reef Alliance assisted with the development and socialization of the tag system with the diving community. Raja Ampat has been found to have the highest biodiversity of fish and corals within the Coral Triangle. All visitors to Raja Ampat will need to pay this fee. We will collect payment at our two resorts (Sorido Bay & Kri Eco) on behalf of Conservation International and the local government”. That’s great news for the marine environment – let’s just hope the funds will be properly utilized and not dispersed by the local government as it often happens in these cases.

The Place to See

Raja Ampat is in the news – it’s a hot destination, the place you cannot miss visiting. For those who do not know yet, this is a large area at the tip of Vogelskop (or Bird’s Head) peninsula at the western tip of the island of Papua New Guinea, which is itself equally split in the middle in two separate nations: independent Papua New Guinea proper in the East, and West Papua, a province of Indonesia once known as Irian Jaya, in the West. Raja Ampat itself comprises about 600 limestone islands and islets, the great majority of which are completely unpopulated and shrouded in virgin lowland forest, often with impenetrable, thick, blue-water mangrove belts surrounding them. Dugongs are often sighted in these habitats – occasionally in groupings - and I strongly suspect the presence of Saltwater crocodiles even if their presence is denied by the local Papuans. The karst nature of the rock – covered by an incredibly thin layer of fertile soil originated by decaying organic matter – is responsible for the very dry nature of the place, with abundant seasonal rainfall disappearing almost immediately in the crevices of the rocky substrate. Fresh water is a premium, and at the same time its scarcity is a blessing in disguise – as it makes development of most islands impossible. Max Ammer’s Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay Resort on Kri island currently are the only land-based operations, while Andy Miners has just opened his Misool Eco Resort, a long way further south-east on Batbitim island. A few traditional-style liveaboards also show up regularly in the area – but to all extents, this is a real frontier (the last one?) where daily ordinary maintenance is still very challenging, costs of living are still very high (everything has to be brought in by boat, from screwdrivers to fuel and from lightbulbs to boat engines) and where professional underwater photographers and marine life scientists from all over the world are busy congregating.

Summing It Up

As an exotic dive and nature travel destination, Raja Ampat has few equals in the world – spectacular marine life (all sorts of stuff including carpet sharks, mantas, dolphins, rare flasher wrasses and four different species of pygmy seahorses – bargibanti, denise and two undescribed ones, possibly pontohi and colemani), incredibly scenic topside views, unique land wildlife (Sulphur-crested cockatoos, Eclectus parrots, Cassowaries, Cuscus – a cuddly, small, tree-dwelling marsupial - and two Birds of Paradise!), colorful, spirited and very friendly local people, and finally a good all-year round tropical climate. Occasionally, currents can be extremely strong and visibility less than optimal, but these are – however bothersome to the underwater photographer – guarantees of a healthy, vital environment. No wonder all who can afford it are flocking there (well, flocking might be a big word – Raja Ampat currently gets less than 500 visitors a year), even if it’s a long, tortuous and occasionally unpredictable route: from Manado (Northern Sulawesi) on, you are advised to expect sudden flight cancellations and the like by the day. But it’s all part of the game – after all, Raja Ampat would not be the same without the unexpected, would it?

Sidebar - The Fact File

Raja Ampat (meaning “The Four Kings”) refers to four large jungle-clad islands (Batanta, Waigeo, Misool and Salawati) which are part of a 600 islands and islets archipelago west of the coast of the Vogelskop or Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya (this is the half of the island of Papua New Guinea politically belonging to Indonesia today). Culturally and historically rather similar to the Malukus (or Moluccas), the islands of Raja Ampat were ruled in the 15th Century by the Sultanate of Tidore, originating from Halmahera in the Malukus, and offer today unsurpassed topside scenic beauty, crystal-clear water and an unbelievable richness of marine life. The region can be easily reached with a short turboprop or jet flight by local airlines from Manado in Northern Sulawesi to Sorong, the harbour town from which transfer boats leave to Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay Resort. English is spoken almost everywhere at travel junctions and at the resorts. All necessary documents, flight reconfirmations and travel permits are obtained for visiting divers by the local staff of Papua Diving in Sorong and handed to you in Manado – remember however flight delays and cancellations are always possible due to a variety of reasons, so be prepared for the occasional hassle. While camera and video facilities in Kri Eco Resort are rather basic, Sorido Bay Resort is exceptionally well-geared towards professional photographers and videographers, offering communal fresh-water rinsing tubs on the jetty, Apple computer stations in a dedicated air-conditioned camera room by the library and recharging power banks in every bungalow. Bali-built fiberglass dive boats are very comfortable, sturdy and fast, being equipped with oxygen and a very welcome canvas roof. Nitrox is available in both Sorido and Kri. Electricity is 220 V, being available 24 hrs a day. Cerebral malaria is present in the area – especially if you go for land excursions in the forest – so always remember to obtain recently updated, reliable medical information and do not underestimate the very real danger posed by this deadly mosquito-borne illness: when we go there we take our Malarone pills regularly and never have a problem. Be advised that given the owner’s religious beliefs – Max Ammer is a Seventh Day Adventist – Saturdays are strictly observed holiday days with no guided diving until 7.00 pm.

Sidebar - It's a Bird, It's a Plane!

Raja Ampat offers exceptional opportunities for bird watching and WWII wreck hunting, two activities which can often become as obsessively absorbing as diving itself. Spectacular bird species encountered in the area include the common Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the large flightless Cassowary, huge Sea Eagles, shockingly colorful Eclectus parrots and naturally the incredible Wilson’s and Red Bird of Paradise Paradisea rubra, endemic to Waigeo and Batanta and reliably sighted if trekking with the local guides to a few protected sites in the forest (but be warned – you’ll have to wake up at 4.00 am on Saturday morning!). If wrecks are your cup of tea instead, you’ll go nuts over the incredibly well-preserved P-47 D Thunderbolt “Razorback” lying on its back in 20 meters of water off the Wai island reef. This US Army Air Force single-engine fighter-bomber was one of seven (“Tubby Flight” of 311th Fighter Squadron) which had taken off from Noemfoor Island on a bombing and strafing mission to Ambon Harbor and had subsequently ditched in the area on 21 October 1944 after having run out of fuel. The plane is in perfect shape with only a nicked propeller blade and all dashboard instruments and wing armament intact – a moving and fascinating testimony to the young pilots, both American and Japanese, who bravely flew, fought and often died above the sea of this area during the Second World War. Literally hundreds of other occasionally well-preserved wrecks – boats, tanks, airplanes - can be seen in the region, but most require special trips: Max however is a wreck aficionado (WWII relics are in fact the main reason for relocating to Raja Ampat from his native Holland almost twenty years ago) and will be happy to show you his collection of incredible photographs and artifacts – including rusty but still live bullets, airplane maintenance hatches, bomb aiming devices and even a couple of hefty Browning machine guns!