Field Journal: Raja Ampat Diving and Snorkeling Tour Redefines Boundless Beauty
Posted by Giovanna Fasanelli
in Asia & Pacific and Expeditions
One magical reef after another, four times a day, day after day, for a whole fortnight. It wasn’t long before we had all exhausted our supply of satisfactorily descriptive superlatives to relay the inexpressible beauty of our underwater experience. Words such as magnificent, awesome, incredible, glorious… they all seemed somehow hollow and frustratingly inadequate, for the aquatic wonderland that is Raja Ampat truly does defy description.
The four large islands and over a thousand smaller islets that comprise the Raja Ampat archipelago hang off the western end of the great island of New Guinea, the ultimate Mecca for the underwater enthusiast. Long recognized as possessing outstanding marine riches, the area’s pre-eminent biodiversity was only quantified a decade ago, when the renowned Pacific ichthyologist, Dr Gerry Allen, was invited to survey the region by the international conservation organization, Conservation International. His surveys yielded startling results: over 1400 reef fish species and a full three quarters of all known hard corals, firmly entrenching Raja Ampat’s reputation as sheltering the richest reefs on Earth. It was this biodiversity banquet that Apex’s inaugural Raja Ampat expedition set out to sample.
The bustling port of Manado in north-eastern Sulawesi made a perfect base to recover from our long-haul flights, with two day’s exploring the famous walls and reefs of nearby Bunaken Island. The sheer number of reef fishes, especially butterflyfishes, in this marine national park is striking, with every color and form imaginable busily darting back and forth on the coral-encrusted reef tops. A pair of black Giant Frogfish, docile Hawksbill and Green Turtles, and an arresting, yellow-lipped Banded Sea Krait (a kind of sea snake) were among other highlights. But before long we were winging eastwards towards the busy port of Sorong on the mystical Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea, the portal into our heavenly Raja Ampat diving and snorkel adventures.
A short transfer across the Dampier Strait brought us to picturesque Sorido Bay Resort, on the north-eastern end of Kri Island, whose fabled house reef of Cape Kri holds the coveted accolade of “world’s richest reef”! It was here that Dr Allen recently clocked 374 species on a single-tank dive, and we spent four jam-packed days uncovering the delights of the local dive and snorkel sites. All delivered their promised gifts of stunning hard and soft coral aquascapes laden with fishes and invertebrates of all kinds. Schools of barracuda, spadefish, snappers and fusiliers, patrolling sharks, and a plethora of sneaky dottybacks, confusing cardinal fishes, and minuscule pygmy seahorses were all tallied, but perhaps the greatest discovery of all came from the vigilant snorkel team: a 10-foot Salt Water Crocodile, lying atop a perfect bed of stag horn coral, in 15 feet of water! This soon became the talk of Kri island, a surprise to even the longest serving dive guides, and an unprecedented sighting for the area. Our lazy drift past Friwenbonda’s coral-encrusted wall touched us all, the variety and vivid colors of soft corals and sponges rendered a truly soul-stirring experience. What with wobbegongs and walking sharks, and coral heads pulsing with glistening fish swarms, we left the island paradise with brimming memory banks and a renewed appreciation for the astounding bounty of protected coral reefs.
Our final chapter saw us boarding our deluxe Indonesia liveaboard, the Indo Siren, where we kicked off our eight-day exploration of the remainder of the archipelago at a Manta station. These veritable ocean giants performed as promised, angelically circling their favored cleaning stations, as snorkelers viewed their barrel-rolling antics from above and divers from below. A superb start to what would become one of the greatest weeks of aquatic discovery of our lives! Before sailing south to Misool, we visited some spectacular sites along the western end of the great northern island of Waigeo, where we found yet more swaying soft coral wonderlands and fish cities. Citrus Ridge was one site that stood out, named for its breathtaking pastel orange and yellow coral gardens, adorned with innumerable schools of glittering fishes, where rays of filtered sunlight lifted the unfolding scenes into new heights of heavenly glory. This beauty was such that it seemed to be impossible, hard to believe, and even harder to take in. Cameras could do no justice to that which the eye saw.
Our southward journey stopped first at the Penemu islets, which offered two of the trip’s standout highlights. Melissa’s Gardens set the benchmark for perfect hard coral kingdoms, and Rainbow Wall lived up to its name, a never-ending kaleidoscope of gorgeous Gorgonian fans and swaying soft corals. On arrival into the southern archipelago of Misool, we found yet more perfection in sites such as Wedding Cake, Whale Rock and Magic Mountain, where Oceanic Mantas, some 15ft across, glided overhead in gin-clear water, alongside more fish than one could dream about. And it was here that our persistent quest for a blue-ringed octopus finally met with success, two of these venomous, golf-ball-sized cephalopods adding to the nocturnal critter list of frogfish, basket stars, seamoths, bobtail squids, pygmy cuttlefishes, giant nudibranchs and the endemic Raja Walking Shark. The Indo Siren was perfectly equipped to handle enthusiastic photographers, whose efforts captured everything from pygmy seahorses to giant mantas, and, spurred on by the ever-expanding awe that grew within us all, our trip’s fish list swelled to no fewer than 629 species, a breath-taking indicator of the phenomenal richness of the “Four Kings”! Our Raja Ampat diving and snorkel adventure had delivered on its promise, ensuring all our aquatic explorers a no-holds-barred, intensive immersion into one of the planet’s great marine wildernesses, and we sailed back to Sorong with wrinkled skin and grins as wide as the rainbows that followed us throughout our pilgrimage.
Explore this incredible destination yourself on our upcoming Raja Ampat Diving and Snorkel Tour.