Raja Ampat Central and North

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Raja Ampat Central and North

As we continue from Raja Ampat South...

January 28

Day 6: Dive 17 at Melissa’s Garden with Abner. 70ft, 61min

After motoring all night, we’ve left Misool and are now in the Pyanemo (central) region of Raja Ampat, and this is our first dive in the area. You'd think no dive pioneer would name an unsightly reef after his own daughter, and indeed, this reef is home to some of the most beautiful hard corals we’ve yet seen. Small fishes darted in and out of the staghorns, and a school of spadefish lazed about a cleaning station, unperturbed by our approach.

Underneath one of the bommies we saw a WOBBEGONG for the first time!

We’re back with Abner, and no further mishaps for now.

Dive #18 at My Reef. 81ft, 49min

In preparation for the stronger currents yet to come, the divemasters had us practice a negative entry here (where we’d dump all the air out of the BCD before back rolling off the boat). We’re handed our cameras, and 1-2-3 go – no false starts and we all made it.

We stayed close to the reef and were fine, though at times it was hard to find a clean ledge to latch the reef hook onto – every bit of free space was covered in coral! Chewie found another sleeping wobbegong underneath one of the ledges.

Dive #19 Rainbow Reef. 63ft, 68min

Rainbow reef is a certainly a colorful one. We kept relatively shallow and spent most of the time drifting, along the way finding some shrimps and xenocrab on a whip coral, squat lobster inside a sponge, and a couple of spotted sweetlips. “Diagonal-banded sweetlips,” corrected Andy. And as we floated by the ledges near the end, Grace began to gesticulate wildly – she’s found a banded sea krait! Nineteen dives in, we’ve completed the first row of our bingo card!

On this dive Abner jumped in and forgot his mask. For a few seconds I thought he was just going to descend without one and be very, very impressed (and a bit alarmed).

Dive #20 Yeben Besar. 56ft, 68min

Chewie reports of a tassled – or was it banded? – toadfish sighting, along with a variety of squat lobsters. Abner found a bobtail squid, which apparently bury themselves in the sand, leaving only their eyes out to hunt.

I sat this one out for a massage instead. Deibby, the boat housekeeper, is a most excellent masseuse.

January 29

Day 7 Dive #21 Citrus Ridge near Yanggefo, with Coco. 67ft, 63min

At the dive briefing we’re cautioned that we’d be facing more current the farther north we go, and so we did; the first part of the dive was a slow swim in the sand channels (home to plenty of shrimp-gobies) from one ridge to another. Once we reached the shallows, there was life aplenty: we saw another wobbegong, octopus, a Papuan goby that looks like it’s missing latter half of its body, a Laing island flatworm, and plenty of bannerfish (with the occasional pair of co-schooling Moorish idols).

Dive #22 Batu Dalam. 95ft 47min

We had our first real negative entry here, a race to the bottom. The current wasn’t overpowering but enough to keep us finning throughout. Around 80ft down Coco found a pair of Bargibanti pygmy seahorses, and after blowing way too much of our air trying to photograph them we resolved to stay a bit shallower. But then Coco found another pair, this time Hippocampus denise, so to the deep we go… In the shallows all the lilac-purple corals hanging down from rocks reminded me of a wisteria garden.

Side note: for the entire duration of the trip Michelle, to our befuddlement, has been mixing up pygmy seahorses and nudibranches… it’s the word “pygmy.”

Also, someone wrote their PhD thesis on pygmy sea horses! We really didn’t think our lives through, did we…

Dive #23 Manta Ridge. 37ft, 68min

Here again we did a negative entry for a chance to see MANTAS! Along the leeward side of the reef we swam for about 10 minutes before arriving at the cleaning station. We hooked in and waited (with a periodic kick to the face by our neighbors in case we got complacent) … and out of the blue appeared one manta, then two, then more! We counted up to six at some point, including an almost entirely black manta, a Raja special. Andy had advised us to make eye-contact with them, though I’m not sure what that did, other than maybe encourage them to tail whip us some more. We'd forgotten to ask, do they have stingers??

We were wondering what on earth Matt was doing the whole dive. Turns out he’d read somewhere that some mantas liked to be tickled by diver bubbles in their underbelly…

These creatures are elegant (and goofy looking) as they are powerful. When they got close we could feel the currents move with each flap of the wing. Perhaps it was the eye contact – they seemed not to mind our intrusion, into what must be the most satisfying of spa visits in nature.

Dive #24 Arborek Jetty. 46ft 63min

This was a dive I almost sat out on but was so happy not to have skipped. We were just awash in signaling lights: in rapid succession Coco’s found a bobtail squid! A cuttlefish (or two?)! A blue ringed octopus! In our excitement we spent so long away from the jetty there that I thought we’d never actually make it there. But we did, and below it were schools of spadefish and juveniles, an enormous map puffer, and sundry other creatures. And then Chewie found more squids. By the time we saw a regular reef octopus, it was just yet another cephalopod. Oh another walking shark! Coco was on fire! We were the envy of everyone else’s group.

In his logbook Chewie scribbled, “most epic night dive!

January 30

Day 8 Dive #25 Friwen Bonda with Andy. 68ft, 66min

Some more motoring overnight, and we’ve arrived at the Dampier Strait, famed for its strong currents and biodiversity (a very interesting article on the Indonesian throughflow here), and less so for the visibility.

After dropping in at the head of the reef finger we drifted along… a bashful shark here and there, a tangle of triggerfishes flitted by, and a small family of bumphead parrotfishes materialized from the murk. Enormous as they are they seem to be pretty wary of us.

Dive #26 Mioskon. 64ft, 64min

A beautiful drift dive full of life (and puri on the lee side), among the residents here are a tiny Moya’s dragonet, banded pipefish, more wobbegongs, and a slightly too teethy clownfish. To my delight we swam into a massive school of topsail chubs (!) mixed in with snappers, bignose unicornfish, and the occasional giant trevally. Back on the boat, Andy wryly remarked of the chubs: “I was hoping for a misidentification… then I was hoping one would get eaten.” 

Dive #27 Yenbuba Village near Kri. 76ft, 65min

We floated, per a gentle current, with the utmost effortlessness for the first half of this dive. Then the current ended and we had to ahem, swim. In addition to regular – red tooth triggerfish, puri, chromis and anthias in the shallows – we spotted another peacock mantis and a white leafy scorpionfish.

Dive #28 Yenbuba Jetty. 47ft, 68min

This site was similar to last night’s dive at Arborek Jetty; we saw here more marbled shrimps, porcelain crabs, an ambiguously not very blue ringed octopus, in addition to an orange (!) mantis shrimp and white toadfish. Grace claims to have found a phantom bobtail squid that no one has any photographic evidence of. At the end of the dive a pelagic juvenile fish with a goofy face floated by.

Andy forgot to put batteries in his torch on this trip and had only a dim backup light, so we were largely left to our own devices. It seems like we did okay finding things!

January 31

Day 9 Dive #29 Sawadarek Jetty with Tamrin. 59ft, 71min

Unfortunately I’ve come down with a cold and sat this one out, which was probably the right decision but not made without immense regret:

Dive #30 Cape Kri. 62ft, 62min

This is the site where the ichthyologist Gerry Allen supposedly counted a record-breaking 374 species in one dive. By now we know what that means: currents. We got down quickly; however, Tamrin deemed this wasn’t the best day to stay put at the head of the reef, so off we went with the current, through a balled up school of jacks and giant trevallies eyeing us incredulously, into an extended blitz of parrotfish poo. As we surfaced, a small shoal of mouth mackerels darted about, their jaws comically agape.

Dive #31 Sardine Reef. 72ft, 53min

Like Cape Kri, Sardine Reef is one of the most famous sites in the Dampier Strait. This time, we worked against the current for a good 15-20 minutes to get to the “sweet spot” where fishes congregate. We were rewarded with sightings of quite few reef sharks, rock groupers and brown marbled grouper (“Nope, Malabar”), barracudas, moray eels, napoleon wrasse, a giant bumphead parrotfish, as well as a surprise visit from a free-swimming wobbegong! I wish the visibility were better, but this reef was resplendent with life!

Dive #32 Tapokreng Jetty with Andy. 47ft, 67min

For the New England divers among us, this site at first glance wasn’t unlike all the shore dives off of Cape Ann in Massachusetts: sandy bottom, rubble, with a good number of flounders. But look and listen a bit more closely, and suddenly the sand was staring right back at us with gleaming eyeballs, and tiny feet scuttled across the ocean floor. We saw so many critters here: hairy octopus (Matt, having missed it earlier, still hasn’t seen a blue ring), spotted flatheads, a white mantis shrimp, two giant hermit crabs eating a dismantled head of a hammerhead shark (how on earth did that come about?? Well the hammerhead technically is on our bingo card), a white mantis shrimp, a mated pair of red frogfish (that Chewie and Paula witnessed release an egg raft), a Bobbit worm on the hunt, and for all the waspfish I missed earlier they’re out in full force. And according to Andy I saw something rather special: a pair of slender errr Pegasus sea moths* that should’ve been on our Bingo card instead of, say, Rhinopias… that doesn’t live here.

Incidentally it’s the night of the super-blood-blue-moon. Lucky us, we were treated to a spectacular display of thick clouds and darkness.

February 1

Day 10 Dive #33 Chicken (Nugget) Reef with Abner. 76ft, 62min

Somehow our days have become all melded together: time flies when all we do is eat dive sleep and repeat. When is it going to end was a question I never wanted to ask, but alas this was going to be our last set of morning dives.

We spent much of the dive swimming in the current, directly against or orthogonally, as perhaps the SCUBA equivalent of “going to school uphill both ways, in the snow.” Here were the usual: barracudas, bannerfish, jacks, pyramid butterflyfish, and reef sharks, but even on the last day there are new fishes for me to learn: many-spotted sweetlips (it’s a pretty accurate name for Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides), and a grouper (possibly a strange-looking long-fin) that stumped even Andy. At the end we noticed a peculiar looking fish, leaf-like and swaying in the surf. “A juvenile rock mover wrasse,” duh!

Dive #34 Blue Magic. 88ft, 55min

Still thinking at point that our flights were 24+ hours away (should've checked for cancellations!), four of us, plus the Germans and Argentinians, all piled into one dinghy for the last dive. Our negative entries have increasingly taken on a sense of urgency, and this one no less so. We took a straight shot for the bottom (much like the stock market these days).

There was a bit of everything: a careless white tip reef shark came within striking distance before nope’ing out of my reach, a couple of mantas teased us from afar, all the while a hawksbill turtle blithely chomped on, completely ignoring our bubbles in the increasingly strong current.

And so ended a most magical trip. We’re thankful for many things, most of all the warm and welcoming crew of Samambaia (this entire time we thought it meant something in Indonesian, it’s actually the name of a Brazilian flower that the boat owner liked). There’s Zainul, who makes coffee every morning (and saved me from botching an instant Mie Goreng ramen or two), but spends his free time reading and re-reading the fish books, and nothing excites him like a snorkeling expedition. There’s the Javanese crew – captain Puji and his machinists (also doubling as musicians), Bono (from Solo) and Bethur – who have been working on the boat since November. While we slumbered they motored, sometimes through the entire night. There’s chef Akee, who conjured up beautiful meals in a kitchen the size of a bunk bed, and stuffed us like geese destined for foie gras. He notes everyone’s food allergies and preferences on a little white board next to where he plans out the menus. There’s Arfah, who, along the rest of the crew, welcomed us back from each dive with an enthusiastic “raaahhh,” and after things are squared away, liked to dance. There’s Deibby, who worked variously as housekeeper, kitchen helper, and masseuse, and is immensely proud of her entire diving family. Each of them – along with the rest of the crew – work long hours on extended trips away from their families for weeks to months at a time, and we could not be more grateful for their kindness and dedication.

We spent the last day on the deck listening to them belt out one Indonesian pop song after another. In the incandescent light of the late afternoon we got all the guides (our very own raja ampat) and the entire group together for a celebratory photo (or fifty) of jobs well done. We’d spent over 30 hours underwater, saw more fish and invertebrate species than... probably not 1,500 but many. We learned how to handle currents a bit better. (And might I say, I kind of like them?) How to do negative entries and use reef hooks. The mood was festive… but as is with every happy memory, tinged with a drop of bittersweet. So long, four kings!

Here are some thoughts on Samambaia, per Chewie (I tend to concur):

Our experiences were beyond spectacular. The boat itself is absolutely beautiful. The passenger rooms were spacious and comfortable, with strong AC and ensuite bathroom complete with an awesome rainfall shower that got seriously hot. Amenities on-board were seemingly endless with unlimited soft drinks, snacks, and espresso available 24/7. The deck was well-arranged with each diver having their own designated bin for equipment and separate rinse tanks for wetsuits/boots, masks, and camera gear. There were even on-deck showers for a quick rinse immediately following the dive. The camera room with abundant electric outlets and counter space made it very convenient to setup the dive photography equipment and keep things charged and ready to go. 

The crew services were similarly well thought-out. Between each dive there was either a meal or snack. I don’t think we were ever hungry during the entirety of the trip. They even had glasses of hot chocolate waiting for us after our night dives! The crew carefully prepped all of our dive equipment, including cameras, and transported to and from the dive tenders for each dive. Needless to say, we felt pretty pampered. Each night, our wetsuits were washed and hung to dry for us and at the end of the trip they gave all of our dive gear a good rinse and dry. 

We’ll be back.

We didn’t get a chance to meet the owner of the boat, Gian Paolo, but his wife Anita was an absolute delight. We’d been corresponding with her for months asking endless questions, and found out only shortly before departure that she was coming on the trip with us. Ironically, Anita doesn’t like anything to do with water – scuba, swimming, beaches, or otherwise, and we’ve no idea how she puts up with all of this. Always gracious and full of smiles, Anita has some incredible life stories to tell, should you meet her (and you should).

One more thing: Andy, whose wry sense of humor has grown on us, likes to understate and undersell everything from dive trips to bird-of-paradise treks. So in that spirit we’ll put in a plug for the new shop he’s opening in Alor. If you ever find yourself in that far-flung corner of the world, go see Andy Shingler. It’s called Lazy Turtle Dive. In his own words, “there’s no internet, electricity is unreliable, and there’s probably no running water.” But there’s plenty of fish, and he knows a fish or two.


*Corrigendum: It's less than 24 hour since this post went up, and Andy, true to form, has scrutinized our fish ID and found something amiss about that sea moth. What was that about having no electricity and internet in Alor?

I feel compelled to point out the strikingly obvious mistake of referring to your seamoths as slender!!!! These fish have many names http://www.whatsthatfish.com/fish/dragon-sea-moth/340 but slender is not one of them! Pegasus Seamoth is my fav name. Slender seamoth is very skinny and usually dark brown/black.


Andy 🐙

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Raja Ampat South

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Raja Ampat South

Ever since our first trip to The Similans onboard The Mariner, we’ve been itching to go on another sea adventure; and whenever we talked to other divers, Raja Ampat would inevitably come up as a favorite. An archipelago spanning over 1,500 islands and more than 40,000 km2, Raja Ampat (Four Kings) is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world: over 1,500 species of fish and 600 species of hard coral have been documented here, representing over 75% of all coral species known worldwide (!!). Its relative remoteness has also left its reefs relatively intact and pristine, and so our Raja Ampat dream was borne.

Taking advantage of our Bonaire group (Matt, Jenn, Grace, and Michelle) of friends' withdrawal from warm water diving, we spent a few weeks in late July scheduling, emailing, Whatsapping, and spreadsheeting in a frenzy before settling on the Samambaia (more on this later).

January 22

We boarded the Samambaia this morning, finally, after what could only be described as an exquisitely painful journey from Boston, via Dubai, via Jakarta, to Sorong. We left Thursday evening Boston time, and after 25 hours of discontinuous flight, 17 hours of layovers, and a disorienting cycle of dark-dark-light-dark-dark-omni-days, we’ve finally made it here… amazingly, with all of our bags. To our relief, Michelle, the sole member of our group traveling from LA, after being radio-silent for the entire duration of her trip, greeted us with a giant smile onboard.

Once all the guests have been collected, we headed to Misool, another nine-hour ride south from Sorong. The seas aren’t exactly calm, and still very much jet-lagged, our entire group was wiped out before dinner.

January 23

Our first day of diving began with the clanging of hand bells at 7am sharp. Most of us were already awake, quietly making our way through coffees and a light first breakfast (yes there’s also a second breakfast). It’s a ritual to which we’d become accustomed in the coming days. 

Dive 1: Romeo near Misool with Abner. Max Depth: 78ft, Time: 55min.

Romeo is not a particular challenging site for our check out dive. We back-rolled off the dinghies on a count of three, and it feels good to be back in the water. Here we saw plenty of anemones with shrimps and clownfish, and already a peacock mantis and a humphead wrasse in the distance. Breakfast One notwithstanding, I was starving about 20 min into the dive, which is a pretty terrible feeling when you’re 60ft underwater and mmm fish everywhere.

Dive 2: Yilliet Kecil (Small Juliet). 66ft, 56min.

Yiliet, spelled variously Yillet, Yuliet, or Yilliet, is the twin site to Romeo. Topographically it’s quite similar, with beautiful gorgonians and soft corals lining the walls. Here also are an astounding number of different anemone species each with their associated fish and shrimps. Our guide Abner spotted a pair of pygmy seahorses (Hippocampus bargibanti) on a sea fan, but even with his pointer inches away we’re not entirely sure what we’re staring at …

Dive 3: Boo North. 62ft, 47min.

Maybe it’s that we just finally woke up after lunch, but this felt like the first dive where we truly appreciated the profusion of life that’s in Raja Ampat. We descended to about 60ft, and the wall just keeps on going. Along it streamed schools of blue and yellow fusiliers and triggerfishes. In the blue we saw two black tip reef sharks swim by – not an uncommon sight here but very much special for us.

Dive 4: Yilliet Corner. 60ft, 57min.

It’s our first night dive (and Michelle's first ever!), and we headed out as the sun hovered barely above the horizon. We dropped down upon a patch of staghorn corals, amongst which Abner pointed out many colorful nudibranches, including a flabellina (the only thing we knew about flabellina is that on our Bali trip from a few years ago it got some people inordinately excited). Shiny eyes in the dark glared back: shrimps everywhere!

By the time we surfaced the skies had cleared, the Milky Way dimly visible amidst a thousand brighter stars. Down below, the sea pulsated with the pale blue light of countless dinoflagellates.

January 24

Dive 5: Puri Pinnacle with Coco. 84ft, 50min.

This was our introduction to seamount dive sites, where the reef forms an underwater mountain that doesn’t break the surface to make an island. Aptly named, this site is a series of sea pinnacles surrounded by clouds of puri, or tiny glassfish. And way above them – literally and in the food chain – big eye jacks and trevallies stalked the waters. We swapped dive guides today. At our safety stop Coco showed off his favorite trick with bubble rings.

Dive 6: Karang Bayangan (Shadow Reef). 84ft, 45min, but forever if I could…

This has got to be our most exciting dive even before we got in the water: on the dinghy ride out leaping dolphins and a thick school of spadefishes, their dorsal fins sticking above the water, captured our curiosity. Almost immediately after starting the dive we saw our first oceanic manta.

From there we followed a ridge full of fish, coming across a few blacktip and grey reef sharks. A little while later, we arrived at a cleaning station and there were not one but three mantas! Giant trevallies and big eye jacks circled the waters too but it’s so hard to pay attention to them when there are mantas…

Back on the boat, we’re waiting to pick up the remainder of our group when Matt surfaced and called out: “whale shark!”

Oh but years of deceits big and small have inured us to Matt’s wild proclamations. Grace, Chewie, and I only had to look at one another to arrive at a consensus, “don’t listen to him Coco, Matt’s full of shit!” “Yes, Matt always lies!

While we didn’t trust Matt a whit, Abner surfaced to tell Coco the same thing. He put back on his fins and without another word plunged back in, and so we followed suit. What a wild surprise! We got to snorkel with the most majestic of sea creatures – a WHALESHARK!

Dive 7: Boo Window. 83ft, 54min

In the afternoon the currents picked up a slight bit, and at times this site felt like a drift dive. We’re beginning to get acquainted with the usual denizens: black tip and grey reef sharks, schools of red tooth triggerfish, giant trevallies chasing fusiliers…

As we came up a brief storm washed over the area. For five minutes raindrops bounced and splattered on the ocean surface: a luminous layer of delightful little dances.

Over snack break I finally got around to making the fish & critters bingo card. We’d talked about species we wanted to see en route to Sorong, but never got around to writing them down. We should probably have consulted one of the guides before making the card though, because when we showed it to our cruise director, Andy, he responded matter-of-factly: “Loggerhead. That’s a turtle… that doesn’t live here. Rhinopias, Mola mola (it’s actually Mola ramsayi), hammerhead shark… don’t live here. What else is on the list?

But against all odds, we’ve already seen a whale shark (the DMs have each done several thousand times in this area and even for them a whale shark sighting can be counted on one hand). Oh well. I’ve made my card and I’m sticking to it!

Dive 8: Romeo, reprise. 54ft, 56min.

This one wasn’t unlike last night’s dive: Shrimp eyeballs and swollen phyllidias – or was it phyllidiellas?? –  everywhere. I lost my group for a while and gave Chewie a good scare, because I mistook someone else with giant camera rig for him… oy vey. Tonight we also had our first encounter with the terror that’s the lion’s paw sea cucumber.

January 25

Dive 9: Camel to Whale Rock with Tamrin. 77ft, 56min.

This is the dive where Chewie fell off the boat on a false start… I’ve got nothing else to say about this site.

Just kidding, this was actually one of the most beautiful sites we've yet seen. So much coral, so much life, so many colors!

Dive 10: Fiabacet Corner. 67ft, 64min.

We spent much of the dive along a coral-covered steep wall, home to a multitude of tiny transparent shrimps. On this dive we also saw our first hawksbill – decidedly not loggerhead – turtle.

Dive 11: Neptune Sea Fan. 76ft, 57min.

Neptune was a very fun drift dive. At ~70ft down we found a coral outcrop, known as a bommie, shrouded by clouds of puri. We let the current push us past the sheer walls of this site, and watched Tamrin find octopuses, lobsters, and other critters in their holes. At the end of the reef, the shallows come up to ~6-7 feet below the surface, and just as Chewie was about to run out of air, Tamrin made a ball motion with his hands: beneath us there was a violet anemone rounded into an almost perfect ball, on which are at least ten shrimps!

After the dive we embarked on an excursion to see the nearby islands. From the dinghy we watched flying fish, startled by our motor, leap out of the water but not into the mouths of the circling kingfishers and frigates, as Sir David Attenborough would like to have you believe…

Dive 12 Wayili. 65ft, 62min

I sat this one out in favor of a glass of South American red wine, which, to my chagrin, was met with amused disapproval from our new Argentine friends.

Chewie reports that the dive was equally relaxing, between some critter sightings and the jelly sting to the face.

January 26

Dive 13: Barracuda rock with Andy. 69ft, 64min.

Very fun morning frolic: we swam along a gently sloping wall with plenty of hidey-holes. I chased a small coral grouper into one, but the coral-banded shrimps inside were not so pleased to see this unbidden customer. As usual, there are schools upon schools of rainbow runners, barracudas, chromis, fusiliers, jacks… And a blue dragon from the bingo card! At the end, we spent a bit of time in the shallows by the island, a mesmerizing scene of purple corals and cerulean light peaking through from underneath the ledges.

Dive 14: Four Kings. 92ft, 42min.

Raja Ampat means “four kings” in Indonesian, named after the major islands (Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo). But for our purposes this site – four ocean pinnacles in the open ocean – may as well be the kings of dive sites: there are so many fishes, each hunted something bigger: fusiliers, big eye jacks, Spanish mackerel, giant trevallies, skipjack tuna… and even the lovely potato grouper. At the end as we circled back to the initial pinnacle, so did a manta!

(On our endless flights home we binge-watched Blue Planet II, where we learned that giant trevallies can leap out of the water and engulf birds. Yikes).

Dive 15: Nudi Rock. 82ft, 64min.

Not to disappoint the nudibranch enthusiast, but this site is so named because the island roughly resembles a nudibranch (think trees as gills). Here we met a bit of current (and the fishes that come with it) and tried out our reef hooks for the first time. Towards the end we happened upon a huge patch of brilliant (and probably fluorescent) red anemone… so red it blew out the red pixels on our cameras and I had to de-saturate a bit in Lightroom.

Also, lots of elephant ear and table corals here.

Dive 16: Nite Delight. 46ft, 66min.

This has got to be one of the most fun night dives. From the beginning to the end it was just a procession of critters: giant moray eel, wart slug, a family of painted lobsters, reticulated chromodoris, blue spotted stingrays, tiny lionfishes, and THREE walking sharks on the hunt! There were also squids and a tiny baby octopus that Andy found on his computer, which we subsequently passed around like sambal at the dinner table.

And that's our last dive in the Misool area!

January 27

The boat has to cover a bit of distance so no diving today. Just as well since quite a few of us are starting to have a bit of ear issues. Instead, we headed for some no-less-watery outings. The first stop was at Tomolol Caves: a surprisingly long swim from one end to the other. The ceilings are beautifully decorated and reminded us of diving in the cenotes. In the muck Matt lost his macro lens but managed to find a nice keepsake for Jenn.

From there it’s about a ten-minute boat ride to a secret jellyfish lake (but you and I know no secrets are safe from Google). Before coming on this trip we were distraught to learn that in 2016 a severe drought, combined with El Niño, had killed most of the jellyfish in Palau. For now, Misool is home to at least three of dozen or so known jellyfish lakes in the world – this was such an unexpected treat!

Since the lake sits on private land, while we were spelunking Anita went to get the property owner for permission to enter. As we approached he pulled out a machete from under my seat (say what?). A few hacks later the makeshift twiggy gate fell away to a narrow jungle path. If we didn’t get permission the locals would shoot us with arrows, says Anita nonchalantly. Beg your pardon?

The jellyfish lake was somewhat magical. These goopy creatures, ranging in sizes from couscous (they will go through the snorkel) to grapefruit, bumped into us and one another constantly.

It’s not a long hike back from the lake, but it's well past our normal second breakfast and lunch time. Six candy bars later we went on the final leg of the excursion: a pretty well known vantage point for that classic picture of Raja Ampat. Yes it looks like every other photo on the internet but to get to it we had to climb something like 290-ish steps (though some could be argued to count double), instead of say, just using Matt’s drone that he secretly bought and tried to fool us into buying too. See how Matt's an unreliable trickster?

We’re almost half way through our trip, and have gotten to know everyone a bit better. In addition to the six of us there’s Johannes and Annika, a lively couple from Berlin. In this strangely small world we found out that Johannes and I were grad students in the same department some ten years ago, so it’s quite likely we’ve crossed paths before. They’re veterans of multiple liveaboards, but we’re working on convincing them to join us on our next Bonaire trip. There’s Hans and Raphaella from Italy but really Switzerland. Hans is arguably the most useful guest onboard, as he builds/remodels lasers (racing dinghies) for a living. He also takes some amazing macro photos and gleefully shares them every evening. There’s Paula and Carolina, a buddy pair from Buenos Aires, who have earned the moniker “mermaids” as they don’t seem to need to breathe underwater. (Paula, a psychologist, assured us after a twelve-day observation that we’re all outwardly normal, no outstanding mental problems.) They’ve in turn convinced us to do a liveaboard off of Socorro with wild tales (and backed up by pictures) of dolphin and hammerhead shark encounters. And then from Philadelphia there’s Dave and Jim, another buddy pair who originally met as landscaper-client. Jim flooded his GoPro on the first day, and lent his housing to Paula and Carolina who lost all their bags in transit. Now he looks at their photos wistfully …

And by now we’ve also dived with each of the guides. Coco is the perpetual jokester, who likes to croon “happy birthday” to any- and everybody everyday. He’s told us variously that he’s 18-40 years old, which may have briefly fooled some not once but twice (don’t worry Coco your secret is safe with me). He’s tried to show us how to make bubble rings in the water, but we’re terrible students. Coco’s been diving since 2015 but has managed to wrack up a lot of experience in a relatively short time.

Abner is from Bunaken in Sulawesi. Coco says talking to him is like talking to a bygone era (he’s in his 50s). Abner’s had a string of bad luck on this trip. On one dive he forgot his fins, next his mask, then his high pressure hose burst, and then his fin strap broke. Side story: we mistakenly thought “mace” (pronounced maché) meant fins in Indonesian and had been enthusiastically calling out “mace” to remind Abner whenever him boarded the dinghy, only to be told days later it means something like grandmother or madam. So a new nickname was born. Abner is perhaps the camera-shiest of the four, but almost every evening regales us with a surprisingly good singing voice. Also, apparently any mention of his passing resemblance to some mediocre magician sends him into bouts of uncontrollable laughter.

Then there’s Tamrin, who started diving in 2001 and estimates he dives ~1,000 dives a year (he’s long lost count). That he has zero scary stories to tell speaks of his impeccable safety record. Before joining this liveaboard he and Coco worked together before at a well-known dive school (Tasik Divers) in Manado. As the more senior guide on the boat Tamrin carries himself with a tiny bit more seriousness. Or perhaps it’s just the slightly more deliberate, measured way by which he counts off 1-2-3 that caused Chewie to mistime his back-roll. Apparently Tamrin makes a really impressive whale call underwater to grab your attention (how did I miss that). He plans out and draws many of the wonderful site illustrations, and like everyone else, also plays the guitar and sings. What can’t Tamrin do?!

And finally there’s Andy from the UK by way of Mozambique and more recently Bali, our cruise director on-loan, a man of few extra words and a calm, muted demeanor that’s only belied by the unabashed joy that he finds in all things fish; who, at over 9,000 dives still logs each dive with notable fish sightings. Over the course of the trip we’ve settled into a routine where we’d show Andy photos from each dive (or he’d peek over our shoulders). “That’s a Cockatoo waspfish.” “That’s a juvenile rock-moving wrasse.” “Moorish idols usually swim alone or in pairs,” he’d pronounce. And without Google Andy’s word was law. Indeed he was seldom wrong (one day I aspire to be like Andy). He was amused by our bingo card except for the chubs: “Gray fish. Boring.” “One time I saw a trevally eat one and spit it out because it was so distasteful.

Here's the Bingo card.

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Isle of Shoals


Isle of Shoals

The Isle of Shoals is a collection of more rocks than islands straddling the borders of Maine and New Hampshire. About six miles off the New England coast, it's home to a colony of harbor and grey seals and considered one of the best sites in the world for diving with seals and sea lions. So naturally and to our dismay, most of the summer local charters had booked up long before we had any inklings of this secret pinniped haunt so close to home. But with a bit of luck, we found Bob and Jeanne Foudriat, an absolutely lovely couple who just recently started running a boat charter (Cyntillation Aquatics) out of Newington, NH. And they had room. 

It wasn't hard to find a few more divers to join us. With our Bonaire buddies, Grace and Bernd, we piled eight LP80 tanks, 120lb of lead, and sundry gear and camera equipment into our very, very overstuffed Subaru Impreza. A little over an hour later, we passed some stately houses with big green lawns and arrived at a well-concealed marina. Bob and Jeanne were already there, waiting for us to load up. 

The ride out from Great Bay Marina was fairly short but a bit surge-y. As we pulled up to Duck Island (on which were indeed lots of birds), we could already see dozens of smooth, speckled heads peering out at us from the ocean.

We splashed, and after a bit of snafu on Ann's part (RIP weight pocket), we were underway. Per Bob's suggestion we swam along "Jimmy's Ledge," which probably would have been a really nice site on its own had we not been so distracted by 1. seals, 2. cold (our computers variously recorded ~50-56F) but seals! and 3. the wonderful green algae bloom that makes–oh look a seal!–NE summer diving so special...

These guys were equal part shy and curious, and as Bob warned us, loved to sneak in from behind. It seemed like every time we turned around, we'd just see the pod of stalkers scatter into the green murk. 

By the time we got back up on the boat, the surf had picked up a bit and not all was well... Bob and Jeanne took pity on us and drove over to Star Island (here of all places we met a chatty lama from Tibet... the world has truly globalized) for a nice long surface interval. A stint in the sun and solid ground did wonders to our morale and core temperatures. We were ready to go again!