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August 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 26, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

The Raja Ampat Explained

what you must know before you go

from the August, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There were so many fishes around me in the water, at times I had trouble getting a clear view. There were no neat schools, just thousands of fishes positioned chaotically and darting. I had difficulty concentrating my camera on anything in particular. Profusion had become confusion. I felt like a predator distracted by too much prey.

I headed up to the shallows. Instantly, I was grabbed by an unseen force that sent me hurtling onward, past great herds of grazing bumphead parrotfish and other animals I might have liked to have stopped and photographed, if only I could. All I could do was control my depth but even this took serious legwork. We surfaced in a calm sea, which betrayed the speed with which it was moving. Welcome hands reached down to help me up the ladder of our little boat.

In the north, nutrients
rushing past in the
current can cause
an unsharp effect
so pictures can be
disappointing.

This experience was typical of diving in the Dampier Strait. The Raja Ampat or the Four Kingdoms form a group of islands west of the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua, formerly known as Irianjiya.

In the last decade, the Raja Ampat was discovered by adventurous divers after world-famous Australian ichthyologist Gerry Allen and famous underwater photographers Denise and Larry Tackett revealed it to have the richest reefs in the world. More species of coral and more species of fishes have been identified at the dive site Cape Kri that in any other part of the world. Cape Kri is a reef that runs alongside Kri island, home to diving pioneer Max Ammer.

Max went to Indonesia as a young Dutchman looking for war relics. He became a major source of parts for WWII Willys Jeeps after discovering where the U.S. Army at its withdrawal dumped hundreds of brand new jeeps after the Pacific War. He made West Papua his home and was soon running diving charters from Sorong. Eventually he settled on Kri Island in the Dampier Strait, believing this to be the epicentre of good diving in the area, and built an ecoresort, employing local labor and materials. His friendship with Allen, the Tacketts, Roger Steene and famous dive guide Larry Smith put Raja Ampat on the world diving map. More recently, he has been using his micro-light to explore the hinterland of West Papua and has encountered a number of villages with populations that have never had any exposure to modern society. On seeing him, they simply run away.

The Kri Eco Resort is still available to hardy divers on a budget, but Max has built a more luxurious resort, still using only local materials and labor, providing a standard more acceptable to us soft Westerners.

What makes these reefs luxuriate in so much life? The ocean currents from the Pacific combine with tides that force water up through the Dampier Strait where Kri Island acts as a foil to its flow. The currents and nutrients carried on the cold oceanic upwellings are what give the area its fabulous and prolific underwater flora and fauna. Be warned though that the currents at Cape Kri can send the unprepared diver whirling downward and bottoming out at 40m deep before he is released and spat out into the ocean.

One site, known as Mike's Point in honor of Max's young son, is at an island that has such strong currents around it that during the war U.S. Army reconnaissance spotters saw the wake produced by it and assumed it to be a Japanese warship heavily camouflaged with bushes. It was bombed to smithereens but now, more than half-a-century later, the broken rocks are covered in soft corals and home to countless fishes.

Between Kri and the much larger island of Waigeo, the channel is peppered with reefs causing ripping currents and over-falls. At the far end, at "Manta Sandy," you drop in, drop down, hook onto something secure and watch as the mantas dance in the flow. Once you've selected your position, it's nigh on impossible to swim to another, the current can be so strong. You just have to be patient and wait for the mantas to come to you. Sometimes the sand is whipped up in the current like an underwater sandstorm leaving your photographs unsharp and disappointing but if there is no current there will be no mantas. I dived it in slack water and photographed a number of large wobbegongs or 'carpet sharks' and a deadly poisonous enimicus devilfish instead.

Sardines Reef is so called because the fishes are densely packed. It's essential to get in the water upcurrent, away from the reef and head across the sandy seabed to the point where the current splits and it's calm enough to allow you time to take pictures. Once you move away, the stream of water hurtles you over the shallow reef top. There is nothing you can do to stop yourself. You travel at an alarming speed at the mercy of the elements.

Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay are so well-placed for all the spectacular dive sites of the Dampier Strait it makes sense to dive them by small boat, returning to the jetty for meals at either of the resorts, which you can consider just permanently anchored liveaboards.

Around the Dampier Strait, it's different every time you get into the water. I could dive Sardines Reef every day and never get tired of it but I know others have different tastes. The vast quantities of nutrients in the water can also disappoint the underwater photographer looking to produce that "clean" shot.

A huge number of liveaboards have moved into the area, and they all operate out of Sorong, the nearest town with an airport. Because most of us who travel so far to experience such diving normally expect to take underwater pictures, these liveaboard operators have ear-marked dive sites further south that are less demanding of a diver-photographer, but of course they are often less spectacular too. The reefs are covered with colorful gorgonia fan corals that are home to countless different types of pigmy seahorse.

Some of these liveaboard vessels are huge pinisirigged schooners, which means there are sometime a lot of divers on one site although that site itself may be seldom visited. All liveaboard operations tend to be divided between Northern charters and Southern charters and it's important to book on the one that's right for you. Some longer duration charters incorporate both areas but inevitably leave the diving in the Dampier Strait until last so that their passengers are well dived-up before attempting the more difficult sites. There is no point in frightening off your passengers at the beginning of a charter.

Typically, on leaving Sorong, they'll head for Batanta Island and some relaxing muck-diving. Then they'll head south to Boo Rocks with its caverns and famous window, and the Fiabacet Islands including the Misool Island Resort, another new eco-resort. The islands around Misool are jagged peaks recently thrown up, in geological terms, by volcanic activity and very spectacular above the water. The Misool Island Resort has eco-friendly bungalows built around a small bay on such an island. Close by are three sites - Small rock, Nudi Rock and Tank which sit in view of the resort and provide some stunning coral growth. Photographers at the resort can be shuttled back and forth at their heart's desire and the currents seem to be entirely manageable. Those on liveaboards tend to press on after a few dives, ever looking for something better.

Further north there are unique blue-water mangroves. Here you'll find gorgonia growing close to the surface in association with the mangrove roots and the insect-eating archer fish and cardinal fish that live among them. You might encounter a saltwater crocodile too if you're very unlucky.

The Raja Ampat is at zero degrees latitude and nowhere in the world is more tropical. The islands are truly in the Doldrums and strong winds with rough seas are rare. Temperatures vary between extremely hot and quite cool and can change almost moment-to-moment. Clouds continually roll across the sky obscuring the sun and it rains in biblical proportions, sometimes for days. This means that the light underwater lacks that contrast encountered in the Mediterranean or Red Sea, for example.

With ordinary ISO settings on my camera, I've often found I needed quite long exposures to get the background light in balance with my camera's flash. Down deep there is precious little natural light. In the north, nutrients rushing past in the current can cause an unsharp effect so pictures can be disappointing. That said, there's always plenty to photograph. In the southern area, things are easier but visibly and dramatically less dynamic. Remember, the stronger the current the more high-voltage the diving.

So, whether you opt to be island-based or travel by liveaboard, the Dampier Strait is good for adventurous diving and the southern area around Misool is better for more sedate underwater photography with plenty of macro subjects.

Divers' Compass: Travel to Sorong via Singapore and Manado or via Jakarta and Makassar (not recommended). Private boat transfer to the island resorts . . . Sorido Bay Resort at Kri/Dampier Strait. www.papuadiving.com. Misool Island Resort near Misool. Papua is a malaria area. Malarone is recommended. Cash is king. Indonesian Rufia or clean recently printed U.S. Dollar bills in low denominations. Euros may be accepted. There is an ATM machine in Sorong . . . Go anytime between November and May.

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