Raja Ampat Photography and Field Journal
Posted by Jonathan Rossouw
in Asia & Pacific and Expeditions
Spectacular Raja Ampat photography
Our mandate for this Apex adventure was simple: to showcase the unsurpassed diversity of Raja Ampat and Northern Sulawesi, a region that’s been termed the “Bull’s Eye of the Bull’s Eye” of the world’s marine realm!
Like all Apex Expeditions, our itinerary had been painstakingly researched and meticulously planned. Both the culmination of decades of personal marine exploration throughout the Indo-Pacific combined with the publication of Conservation International’s marine RAP (Rapid Assessment Program) reports proclaim this area’s reefs as the very richest on Earth.
Diving Bunaken Marine National Park
Our group of intrepid Apexers gathered in North Sulawesi, kicking off with a day in Bunaken Marine National Park. Spectacular coral walls played host to the full gamut of reef fish families, notably an amazing 28 species of butterflyfishes, offering a first taste of the riches that lay ahead. The next morning’s exploration focused on a very different environment, a fringing reef on Sulawesi’s mainland, where a recent survey conducted by Conservational International’s fish guru, Gerry Allen, tallied an amazing 310 species in an hour, the third richest total ever! Our own exploration was more about slow appreciation than frenetic counting. The area’s richness was clearly apparent, with particularly high diversity amongst damsels, wrasses and cardinalfishes, and a couple of rare sightings in the form of Saddled Snake-Eel and Stocky Anthias.
But the mother lode still awaited us. Dawn the following morning found us winging eastwards across the Molucca and Halmahera Seas towards Sorong, a port on New Guinea’s Birdhead Peninsula serving as the gateway to Raja Ampat. A short transit of the Dampier Strait delivered us to magical Sorido Bay Resort, where we were warmly welcomed for a few days of intensive exploration in the very heart of the “Four Kings”!
Exploring Kri Island’s reef fish and coral gardens
These are hallowed waters, indeed, for it was here on Sorido Bay’s house reef at Cape Kri, during another survey in 2009, that Gerry Allen logged an all-time record of 374 reef fish species on a single dive. We wasted no time in savoring this richness first-hand! Legendary current-washed, mid-Dampier sites were alternated with tranquil backwaters and shade-loving, soft coral walls, culminating in a high-voltage exploration of Cape Kri itself. From endemic Raja Ampat Walking Sharks to bizarre Tasselled Wobbegongs, assorted colorful nudibranchs to cryptic pygmy seahorses, confiding gangs of lazy spadefish to current-charged schools of hunting trevallies, snappers and barracudas, and sun-drenched coral gardens to the psychedelic magic of fluro diving, we eventually surfaced from our time at Sorido thoroughly satiated by the sheer jaw-dropping, mind-blowing abundance of it all!
Sighting Birds-of-Paradise on Waigeo Island
Above the water, highlights were many and varied in this beautiful corner of Papua, our terrestrial daylight hours spent in hammocks overlooking the aquamarine lagoon and our nightly discussions with Raja Ampat pioneer, Max Ammer, interrupted by visits from portly “Fat Norman”, the resident Papuan Cuscus, or standoffs between pugnacious Mourning Geckos and Beaufort’s Bare-backed Fruit Bats! Pre-dawn excursions over to Waigeo Island allowed avian enthusiasts to experience West Papua’s two endemic Birds-of-Paradise: the raucous, plumed Red BOP, and the outrageously bizarre Wilson’s BOP, considered by many to be the most glamorous bird on Earth!
Sailing Raja Ampat aboard Indo Siren
It would have been difficult to depart Paradise, were it not for the fact that we were stepping aboard the dive liveaboard Indo Siren, for a further week of exploration of Raja Ampat’s riches. Comfortable as this exclusive charter proved, its real luxury lay in the freedom to roam wherever our hearts desired. We wasted no time in heading west to the tiny islet of Aerborek, where oddities like Gold-spec Jawfish and Cockatoo Waspfish swelled our burgeoning fish list! Citrus Ridge’s name suggests some of the glory of the next morning’s experience–the magnificence of the saffron corals exceeded only by the kaleidoscope of fishes, before we retraced Alfred Russell Wallace’s historic transit of “The Channel”, a tortuous passage separating Waigeo from Gam Island, gliding over lettuce coral gardens, past posses of Archer Fish aiming through clearwater mangrove roots… surely one of the planet’s greatest drift-snorkels!
An open ocean transit brought us across Lydekker’s Line to Kofiau, one of the least visited of all of Raja Ampat’s islands, renowned equally amongst fish and bird aficionados. Despite a day of unseasonal torrential rain, we achieved all our goals, enjoying fantastic critter-hunting in Kofiau’s sandy channel throughout the day and into the night, as well as locating another “bird of paradise” at dawn: the gorgeous Kofiau Paradise-Kingfisher, a creature seen by a mere handful of people ever!
Discovering Misool’s marine abundance
Our final chapter aboard the Indo Siren centered on a picture-postcard-perfect archipelago that trails off the coast of Misool, the southernmost of the “Four Kings”. Magnificently remote, with a real sense of wilderness, these rugged, limestone karst islets formed our playground for four glorious days. From Farondi’s soft coral luxuriance, complete with cryptic Comets and pygmy seahorses, to the gamefish-filled profusion of “Four Kings” and “Magic Mountain”, Boo’s arch to the sun-kissed splendor of “Andiamo” and “Candy Store” in the Daram group, new discoveries and exotic names blurred together into a glorious expression of marine abundance!
We finally departed Papua, skins wrinkled by over 50 hours of marine saturation, which yielded countless happy memories… and a staggering 664 species of reef fishes, testimony to the unrivalled diversity of these reefs. We truly experienced the magnificence of the true “Bull’s Eye of the Bull’s Eye”!
Discover Raja Ampat yourself on our upcoming Raja Ampat Diving and Snorkel Tour.