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September 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, Indonesia

not all the great diving here is only by liveaboard

from the September, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

One of the BungalowsTing ting! Rico Londam, my dive guide, rapped his steel pointer on his tank. Blacktip reef sharks were down the coral slope. Ting ting! Guide Jamie Lambaihang tapped his own tank. Bumphead parrotfish were grazing the top of the reef. Ting ting! A school of yellow-tail barracuda. Ting ting! Several hundred horse-eye trevally whirled in a slow silver vortex. Ting ting! Come look at this pygmy seahorse! Ting ting! Ting ting! My head was swiveling off my shoulders, and I was making no progress in our drift along Crossover Reef in the Dampier Strait of Raja Ampat. How could I possibly be expected to see the entire reef if we stopped every minute to see a new wonder, or in the case of schools of fish, thousands of wonders? This was my last dive of the 19 I made at Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, and there were four guides in the 83-degree water with me and my partner, the only two guests at the lodge that week in July (it was entirely booked for August).

Earlier that day, we started our first dive pulling ourselves by hand over the coral into the current at Cape Kri. The lodge brochure recommends bringing gloves but I didn't wear them until I sliced my thumb open hanging on at Chicken Reef. They also advise you to bring your own reef hook. My partner didn't have gloves (she accidentally left them in Singapore) or a hook, so one guide would precede her, hook the reef and pass the cord back to her. She would pull herself to the hook, where a second guide waited with the cord to his hook. In this leapfrog fashion, her "dive sherpas" got her through the initial rigorous minutes.

Many dives began into the current, the logic being that if we started the dive drifting with the two-knot current, we'd blow right past the reef well before we got to the end of our 60-minute dive time and end up in blue water. So we typically pushed into the wind until we went around a corner or ascended to the top of the reef where, likely as not, the current would change vectors for a gentle drift back in the direction we had come. We would take a five- to 15-minute safety stop on top, passing over luminous displays of purple, yellow, orange and ecru dendronephthya soft corals, dotted with bi-color crinoids and packed with juvenile fish. And fish is what you will see. My count: six species of triggerfish, five species of sweetlips, four kinds of trevallies, three of barracuda, two tunas, various batfish, turtles, more butterflies than I'd ever seen, barramundi cod and so on. Of sharks, there were just black- or white-tip reefs and the ornate wobbegong, but they were on every dive. If you get tired of the big stuff, the guides will find dozens of different nudibranchs, sea horses, pipefish, shrimp, eels, etc.

Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, IndonesiaThis profusion of life is not easy to get reach. We flew from New York to Singapore and decompressed before flying all night to Jakarta, Makassar and Sorong, where we were met by Jamie and another guide, Kris Pinustena, at 8 a.m. After shopping for snacks, they took us to the dock for a two-and-a-half hour boat ride to the resort. We passed through a large pod of dolphins and a pocket of marlin before gliding up to the hilly island of Mansuar, with its palm trees lit gold in the noon sun. Just east of Mansuar is Kri Island, home to Kri Eco Resort and Sordido Bay Resorts. Despite our being the only two guests, the lodge, built in 2009, still had a full complement of 40 staff members. When short of divers, it offers locals from Sorong rooms at half price for the weekend. Eight Coast Guard men arrived with their families on a patrol boat, which they used to ferry the kids to snorkeling spots.

Our superior room faced the ocean, but coral, rocks and mangroves prevented any beach entry. Standard rooms were located in a row behind our two-unit bungalow. The A/C and ceiling fans provided respite from the dense July humidity. The queen bed was firm and its mosquito netting came in handy. I took Malarone as a malaria prophylaxis, and my typhoid and tetanus shots were up to date, but there's no preventative for dengue fever, so I used the netting inside and bug spray outside. The large but spartan bathroom had a roomy shower in which, water pressure being at a premium, I ran around to get wet. Staff changed towels every other day, linen at mid-week, and they cleaned rooms and made beds daily. Bottled water was provided and we were urged to refill our empties from coolers in the open-air dining room.

I had signed up for four dives a day but was chagrined to learn that the fourth dive was either a Mandarinfish encounter off the dock at 5:30 p.m. or a night dive at 6:30 off the same dock. The Mandarins popped out on cue, but the dock area was lousy with lionfish, and I constantly checked my position so as not to bump into one. I finally cajoled the staff into two afternoon boat dives, but didn't get back until 6:30 p.m. when we had to hustle to clean up for dinner at 7:30. I usually knocked off after the third dive and did my logs -- quite a task when there are hundreds of species to identify but only one well-thumbed, three-volume set of fish books in the lodge. Evening would find us sipping a Bintang beer on the dock, watching the clouds turn slowly pink then tangerine. For alcohol, it's Bintang or nothing. Alcohol is not sold in airports, or rarely anywhere else, so BYOB from home.

When there are more guests, meals are buffet style, but our solitary status earned us table service. Breakfasts included eggs, beef bacon or sausage, Asian noodles, fruit, cold cereals and toast. Chef Donny Indrawan pulled out all the stops at lunch. After an appetizer of cold or hot spring rolls or salad, there would be chicken or beef satay in a spicy peanut sauce, grilled calamari, chicken curry or sauted shrimp in garlic, veggies, and a dessert of black rice pudding or ice cream and cake. Dinner followed the same pattern, with a Western dish like baked spaghetti or tenderloin of beef substituted for one of the Indonesian dishes, then fruit for dessert.

After dinner, I would chat with the dive guides who dropped by to use the wi-fi in the lounge and confirm the following day's plan. The TV room was always occupied by staff members watching Indonesian shows, so I would wander back to my room to read and fall into the Land of Nod before awakening to the snare drum percussion of rain on the corrugated roof of the bungalow, followed by a rattle of branches and the tympani of the odd coconut or two. June through August is the so-called dry season, but this year, it rained every day at one time or another. We were lucky; we had two glorious days of sun and four overcast days when it rained on and off.

The Lodge's Dive BoatAt 7:45 a.m., I would pull on my damp suits and shake my booties. I'm referring not to the sway of my posterior, but rather a method of dislodging any insect having sought overnight refuge in my footwear. No kidding. Once, I found a cricket the size of my forefinger in a dive sock. When I unknowingly stuck my foot in, I thought it was the dreaded Black Scorpion of Mansuar, to the great glee of my partner.

Our gear would already be set up on the boat. The aluminum 80s were always filled to 3300 psi by a new electric compressor 150 feet upwind of the diesel generator. By 8 a.m., we were off on a 30-minute ride on mostly flat seas to nearby reefs. By 12:30 p.m., we'd be back for lunch, rinsing our suits in the tank reserved for rubber. However, by mid-week, I figured out that suits were the only things being rinsed. My regulator and backpack were given just a quick hose-off on the boat, and the wings slowly whitened with salt. There was a separate tank at the shop for cameras and computers, one for suits, one for booties, and another for masks, fins and snorkels, but only the suit and camera tanks were filled. The dive shop had an open storage area with a milk crate for each of us, and a shower allowed us to clean up before lunch. The camera room was never opened, nor was there a photo pro on site.

After a dive, handing up my weights and BC before climbing the narrow ladder made a lot more sense than trying to wedge myself and my gear under the lowhanging sun cover. After banging my head several times on the pipes supporting the cover and conducting an ad-hoc class in colloquial English, I also learned not to stand upright in the boat.

Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, IndonesiaThe guides were friendly, attentive, interested in our wellbeing, and adept at finding macro life, but they were guides, not divemasters or instructors. While the boats had first-aid kits and DAN double oxygen kits, there were no radios. Communication with the lodge was by cell phone. When I asked what they would do if a diver was lost, they said they would call the lodge manager, who would in turn phone the authorities on Sorong, and then make individual calls to the Kri lodges and liveaboards in the area. Several times, we surfaced to find the boat hundreds of yards away and had to use our Dive Alerts in unison to get their attention. We were often within swimming distance of land, and liveaboards and other craft were in the area, yet watching the driver pull the starter cord on one engine a dozen times before it caught made me cognizant of where I was.

An all-day, three-tank trip to the north end of Gam Island was nixed because of rough water, so Kris took us to his favorite spot, Citrus Ridge, a saddle between Gam and Yangelo where the "bommies are full" of yellow and orange soft corals, open and feeding in the current. We stayed with a banded sea krait, a poisonous sea snake with a tiny mouth, for five minutes as it foraged in the coral heads.

At Manta Sandy, a line of rocks denotes a highway down which the rays are supposed to pass on cue. However, no one told Manta Central Casting, so my partner wandered off on her own and then frantically banged on her tank when the manta swam through the 80-foot visibility, while the rest of us were amusing ourselves watching the blind shrimp and goby show in the sand. I spotted a large scribbled puffer hanging above the reef and slowly sidled up next to him until we were side by side, only two feet of water separating us. The fish at Raja have no fear.

Between dives the boat would stop at a village or small island, and the guys would serve coffee or tea, cake or fruit, and large bottles of water. At the islet of Friwen, hundreds of giant fruit bats wheeled overhead in a perfect blue sky. That afternoon at Chicken Reef, the guides motioned me to a vantage point behind a small coral head form, where I watched three black-tips and three giant trevally thrash a school of baitfish.

Passing a vast field of blue coral at Kembuba Reef, we parted a river of thousands of yellowtail fusiliers, one bank blending into the blue beneath us, one burnished bronze by the sun above. Rounding the northeast corner, the slope was darkened by clouds of small-toothed emperors accompanied by a few dozen long-nose emperor guards. Further on, blue triggers consorted with humpback unicorns aided by blue surgeons. Rising to a pastel seascape of soft corals, we surfaced at a deserted white sand beach, and rested on calm water near arching palms.

Is it remote? Yes. Is it hard to get to? Yes. Does it lack a few amenities? Yes. Could the dive operation benefit from an on-site professional? Yes. Was this flat-out the most outrageous fish-and-critter-rich diving I have ever done on the healthiest reefs I have ever seen and do I wish I was there now?

Yes.

-- D.L.

Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, IndonesiaDivers Compass: I booked with Diversion Dive Travel, the Australian agency that handles reservations for the lodge ( www.diversiondivetravel.com.au ); the rate through the end of 2013 for a superior room with four dives a day and all meals is approximately US$2,400 per person, but if you only want the morning dives, $2,175 will suffice . . . The resort's website notes a special through the end of 2012 that will save $350, but you need to contact Diversion for an exact quote . . . The lodge operates on a Friday-to-Friday basis (if you wish to arrive on another day, they will charter a boat for you for $1,000), so your departing date needs to be thought out, unless you want to spend a day or two in Singapore or Hong Kong; you could stay in Bali for a few days, but the connecting flights from Bali to Sorong requires an overnight in Ujung Padang (Makassar), and flying from Manado to Sorong means backtracking to Jakarta or elsewhere . . . The cheapest JFK-Singapore flight I could find was $1,155 on Delta going through Tokyo; the cost of flights within Indonesia varied widely depending on routes and airlines, but I ended up paying about $1,120 round trip Singapore-Sarong on Sriwijaya Air . . . Singapore Air did not charge extra for our dive bags, weighing in at 27 kilos each; if you tell the Indonesian airlines that your bags are scuba gear, they may exempt extra fees as well . . . If you do overnight in Jakarta, I highly recommend taking a Club Room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, because by then, you will need a gin and tonic . . . Two excellent resources are Underwater Paradise by Ricard Buxo, which covers all aspects of Raja Ampat diving and traveling, including health issues, and Diving Indonesia's Raja Ampat by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, available on the Books page at www.undercurrent.org . . . Website - www.komodoalordive.com/RajaAmpatDiveLodge.htm

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