Raja Ampat Dive Trip Report
Diving over the Rainbow
By Andrea and Antonella Ferrari
Holding on to a piece of jagged rock, kneeling on the sand, I raise my right hand. An invisible wall pushes and vibrates against it, until my wrist is forced to bend back. Yet, I see no water around me – the visibility is so impossibly good that if weren’t for the stream of bubbles periodically whirling and hissing away from my regulator I could be crouching on a wind-swept promontory in the open air. Describing what spreads in front of us in a Cinemascope Technicolored view is almost impossible.
Lit by the bright slanting rays of the morning sun, enormous purple, orange and bright red colonies of soft corals swell everywhere like weird cauliflowers from outer space, dotting the large coral-encrusted boulders we’re holding on, shadowed by an enormous school of fusiliers which must number hundreds of thousands of individuals. Smaller schools of trevallies, emperors, bannerfish, parrotfish and batfish spread further away in the bright blue, painting an impossibly complex tapestry spreading 180 degrees in front of me.
Suddenly, the silvery curtains in front of me rip open with a metallic shiver, waving in the current, letting a patrol of at least ten huge roving Spanish mackerels zoom a few feet away like gleaming torpedoes. Their coming coincides with the undulating appearance of a two-meter long Wobbegong, a beautifully-ornamented beige and brown carpet shark which, somehow disturbed by the commotion, rises lazily from its lair among the corals to swim away, closely skimming the bottom until it comfortably settles on the sand a few feet away from me.
Dazed, hypnotized by the dizzying swirling curtains of fish surrounding me, I bask in the extraordinary beauty of Sardines, our dive site of the day, blissfully forgetting to raise my housed camera to shoot a few clicks. After all, we can always come back here tomorrow…Welcome to Raja Ampat, West Papua, the last frontier of over-the-edge diving.
Raja Ampat, the stuff legends are made of. A place so remote, so faraway, so pristine we like to refer to it as being “over the rainbow”. A place of untouched coral reefs millions of years old, of hundreds of deserted islands, of virgin forests where prehistoric-looking Cassowaries as tall as men walk at night and the sky is alive with the cries of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Birds of Paradise.
A 600 hundred plus island archipelago spreading in the ocean surrounding the Vogelskop or Bird’s Head peninsula in mysterious West Papua, that semi-autonomous, restless, fabled province of Indonesia we used to know by the name of Irian Jaya, a place where WWII Japanese Zero fighter planes quietly rust in the tropical sun and American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers sleep an endless sleep on the bright white sand, a few meters under the flat surface of an impossibly turquoise sea.
A place which fifteen years ago bewitched local legend and Dutch-born Max Ammer, a man with a dream who left his native country following the call of WWII wrecks. And he found many: forgotten, abandoned and undisturbed in the jungle or under the waves, from tanks to airplanes, till he decided he’d found the closest thing to paradise on Earth one man could dream of, and built his home first, and a thatched huts dive resort later, on the island of Kri.
Kri was remote, impossibly beautiful, and almost unknown, for a long time. Selected adventuresome divers would quietly share its secret, braving long uncomfortable trips to enjoy its wonders. The secret was well kept – for a long time very few travellers in the world heard about beautiful, simple Kri.
Now Max has also also built Sorido Eco Resort, a new upper-market resort consisting of six spectacular bungalows, just a few hundred meters from the original Kri Eco Resort, which still however exudes its irresistibile aura of tropical simplicity. Both give you absolute perfection on Earth, at least to our eyes. You want luxury, aircon, private ensuite bathrooms, Papuan antique works of art, restrained elegance, full camera and computer facilities, Nitrox and a very exclusive atmosphere? Then go to Sorido – and be prepared to pay for it.
You want simplicity, palm leaves roofs and bamboo walls, huts sitting on stilts above the richest sea in the world, bathrooms by the beach and the camaraderie of a select group of very lucky divers coming from the four corners of the globe? Then go to Kri. One is the perfect five-star sophisticated hideaway, the other nostalgically reminds us of the rustic atmosphere we used to have in Sipadan twenty years ago – but both are simply perfect.
All this, however beautiful, pales in front of the diving. Diving in Raja Ampat is diving right in the middle of the great vortex of creation – the final frontier, a forgotten world which is nowhere else to be found. Immense walls of fish surround you everywhere, numbering hundreds or thousands of individuals: literally enveloped by living walls of jacks, barracudas, sweetlips, surgeonfishes and fusiliers, how could we concentrate on the four different species of pygmy seahorses found here? Floored by the spectacular wobbegongs lying in ambush on the sand, how could we devote ourselves to the unbelievable macro life found on Raja Ampat’s virgin reefs?
There’s Kri home reef, where more different fish species congregate than in any other known spot of the globe (marine scientist and book author Gerry Allen counted more than 283 in a single dive here!), and then Manta Point (ever dived with 20+ mantas?), or the exquisite beauty of Mike’s Point (possibly the most beautiful dive spot we have ever seen in our whole life), or the mystery of the Passage, an atmospheric, tight sea channel running and twisting like a river inside the jungle (yes, it’s true!), and even more to be discovered yet.
And if the spectacular dive sites surrounding Max Ammer’s two resorts weren’t enough, a few well-appointed liveaboards are now starting to ply the waters of Raja Ampat, reaching its farthest corners – you won’t be able to rely of Max’s experience diving from those, but you’ll be able to explore secret unknown locations, feeling the thrill of discovery and adventure. You’ll find raging, exhilarating currents at the coming and going of the tide, and unbelievably friendly local people, great Papuan dive guides and wild adventure stories to be swapped in the evening, and a billion twinkling stars in a pure unblighted sky above.
How long will this all last? We hope for many years to come yet – Raja Ampat is extremely undeveloped, fresh water is scarce everywhere and supplies are very expensive. Getting there is not easy either – one has to spend a night in Manado and then catch a turboprop twin-engined little plane in the morning to Sorong, and after that it’s two or three more hours by boat to Kri. Malaria is endemic, so take your pills.
And let’s face it, the diving is not for everyone. In fact, we’d say it’s so incredibly good it’s only for those who already have seen everything else and dived everywhere else. This time leave the kids home. They would have nothing to look forward to, after having dived Raja Ampat…After having dived over the rainbow.
Raja Ampat (“The Four Kings”) refers to four large jungle-clad islands (Batanta, Waigeo, Mysool 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 flight by local airlines from Manado in Northern Sulawesi to Sorong, the harbour town from which transfer boats leave to Kri and Sorido Eco Resorts.
English is spoken almost everywhere 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 – remember however 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 are rather basic, Sorido is well-geared towards professional photographers and videographers, offering fresh-water rinsing tubs, computer stations and recharging power banks. Electricity is 220 V, being available 24 hrs a day. Malaria is present in the area – especially if you go for land excursions in the forest – so always remember to obtain recently updated, reliable information from local authorities: we took our Malarone pills regularly and did not have a problem.
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 Red Bird of Paradise Paradisea rubra, endemic to Waigeo and Batanta and reliably sighted if trekking with Max to a few sites in the forest.
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.