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. First breakfast 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.

Here's the Bingo card.

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 Bahasa 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*.

*Now that they're out with it, that sparkly keepsake is in the shape of a cat on a silver band... 

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.