“Raja Ampat may well be the hottest diving destination on the planet right now. And there’s good reason for this. The diving can be spellbinding.”
Raja Ampat, with its incredible scenic island, teeming reefs, isolated and protected bays, has put Indonesia’s once West Papua province on the world diving map. Located in the eastern part of this vast island nation, it is an archipelago comprising the islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Wiageo.
Dotted with tranquil bays and roughly 1,500 majestic limestone rock islands or jungle-shrouded sandy cays, this destination’s incredible marine diversity gives it an impressive wow factor. So much so, that ocean conservation groups from around the world have banded together to protect, preserve and promote this special part of the sea called The Coral Triangle.
So what is the big deal here? Aside from the amazing natural beauty (Raja’s limestone islands look like Palau on steroids), this region is home to more than 1,400 species of fish, more than 100 of which were unknown in Raja Ampat until recently – four new to Indonesia. In addition, 700 mollusk species can be found in these waters.
The sheer numbers impress divers. In the Dampier Straits, site after site produces masses of fusilier shoals and current-fed coral bommies. Fish schools are huge and healthy. Sea turtles, manta rays and various shark species are commonly seen.
On one dive, I even saw a blue marlin casually crossing the current-swept Sardine Reef, one of the popular dive sites in south Waigeo. The deep waters around Mansuar produce sightings of other deep-water marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.
There are some mucky areas where the odd, ugly and normally tiny denizens of the deep take up residence, while divers marvel at their camouflage. Add some swift current drift dives such as The Passage, some novelty dives such as Bluewater Mangroves, where colorful red soft corals cling to the roots of mangrove trees, and Killer Cave, where divers can surface inside a stalactite-laden limestone cave, and you have the makings of an amazing dive trip where each dive seeks to outdo the last.
If one heads to Northern Raja Ampat, the idyllic islands of Wayag provide a scenic view of huge karst uplifts, secluded beaches and emerald bays. Divers can dive the equator on the way to Wayag and then visit isolated rocks and seamounts.
These sites are covered in fish life and huge patches of salmon-colored tube corals that bloom with yellow polyps when the currents move with the tides. A day of hiking up the karst for scenic views and lounging on the beaches is the reward for traveling to this uninhabited natural outpost.
The gateway city for Raja is Sorong, which is serviced daily by Garuda Indonesia flights. This port town can be fun to explore. Take a morning trip to the local market, Pasar Jimbutan Puri, and watch as people lay out fresh fruits and spices for sale. Fishermen arrive by boat to sell their morning’s catch, and there are even craftspeople who offer traditional woven bags and other West Papuan specialties.
The port here is the staging area for a number of live- aboard diving vessels. Generally speaking, most divers board a traditional Indonesian phinisi that has been converted for diving, providing all of the creature comforts divers need for trips that last anywhere from seven to 14 days. There is also a growing number of land-based resorts in the islands. Speedboats take divers for a two-to-three- hour ride to a rustic Raja Ampat resort.
Divers pay conservation areas to explore the popular dive sites to the north and south of this vast area. They receive a colorful plastic badge that attaches to their equipment. Many return year after year and have a colorful collection of these poker chip-sized medallions.
The fees are directed to the operational costs of Raja Ampat’s five Marine Protected Areas for patrols, administration, salaries and maintenance. Monies also go to community conservation and development programs.
The whole Raja Ampat area is considered to be an environmental success story, and one driving force behind that success has been a venture called The Misool Eco Resort, located in the south on the island of Batbitim. The visionary founders are self-described as a passionate group of divers, conservationists, eco-geeks and dreamers. The resort has only been in operation for a decade, yet is already famous for its conservation and education work.
Andrew Miners conceived the project in early 2005. He is a veteran of live-aboard diving and is well acquainted with Raja Ampat’s underwater riches. I first met Andrew and his crew while working on their first buildings. We visited Raja Ampat on the liveaboard Damai 1, and Andrew and his crew were invited on board.
I was amazed when they told me of their determination to only use recycled materials to create their dream. They are, today, quite proud of the fact they built the resort without cutting down a single tree, and all of the reclaimed wood was purchased directly from local villages. They milled the lumber on site with their portable sawmill.
Now, a short nine years later, the island holds a small, but thriving, resort that accommodates 32 guests in a combination of seaside rooms, private bungalows and a few villas. The resort and its ongoing environmental and educational verve, which has been embraced by divers worldwide, is one of the region’s great successes.
The abundance of marine life throughout Raja can, in part, be attributed to the area’s incredibly low human population density. Its remote location and lack of infrastructure have, so far, inhibited the growth of tourism.
The high marine diversity is strongly influenced by being between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Here coral and fish larvae are more easily shared between the two oceans. This is one reason why it has been made a global priority for marine protection.
One recent development is the entire 17,000 sq. mi./46 million hectares of Raja Ampat is now a shark and manta ray sanctuary. The economic value of these creatures is worth so much more alive to the people of Raja Ampat for visitors to see than dead in a fish market, so the government agreed and established the protective sanctuary.
A couple iconic Raja Ampat dives are south. Boo Windows is an amazing site for marine life. Underwater, windows carved naturally by the sea allow divers to swim through the small, rocky island. It is particularly amazing when the current flows, attracting large school of yellowtail fusiliers, shoals of plate-sized batfish and big bumphead parrotfish. Soft corals and barrel sponges abound. Hairy squat lobsters hide on the folds of the barrel sponges. I have also encountered a Saragassom frogfish drifting in the weeds at this spot. Then there is Magic Mountain, a seamount with a shallow top area of about seven meters (24 feet). This busy pinnacle is known for hosting reef mantas and the larger pelagic species at its cleaning station. Divers can look for Mr. Big here in the form of beautiful adult Napoleon wrasses, reef sharks and even barracuda schools.
There is no doubt Raja Ampat will be a major tourism draw for years to come. With divers constantly visiting to enjoy the vast diversity and Indonesians embracing their environmental treasures, the area of The Four Kings should remain sustainable and become a model project in Indonesia and other areas across the Indo-Pacific and Asia to follow.
Location: Raja Ampat islands are located in the northwest tip of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) in Indonesia.
Getting There: Fly into international airports in Indonesia such as Jakarta, Manado or Bali (Denpasar) and then connect by domestic flight to Sorong, Raja Ampat. The islands are normally accessed via Sorong and serviced daily by Garuda and some other domestic airlines. From Sorong to Raja Ampat, resorts can arrange a boat, and there are now some speedboats. The ride takes about an hour. Long boats take two-to-three hours. Most divers leave Sorong via their live-aboard.
When to go: Raja Ampat is best to visit during the dry season (late September to early June) when wind and rain are minimal. Winds make visiting the south difficult during the wet season, but North Raja Ampat islands and the Dampier Straits still remain fairly calm all year.
Where to stay: There are many land-based dive resorts and dedicated eco resorts from which to choose. Most divers use live-aboards to get to the diverse sites Raja has to offer.
Permits: Before being able to dive, all divers need a permit which is good for one year from the date of purchase.