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June 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Damai I, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

luxury at a big, big price

from the June, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

While diving Kri Island's reef, I was in the midst of a fish "rush hour." Actually, with schools of fish going in every direction, it was more like underwater gridlock. A yellowfin tuna made a left turn, a bumphead Napoleon wrasse appeared to be stalled. Crisscrossing in the mild current were multiple species of fusilier and schools of diagonal-banded and many-spotted sweetlips. Parrotfish 7 spit exhaustive clouds of chewed reef. Oversize barracuda appeared trapped in a roundabout. A black-tip shark met up with buddies for twilight reef patrol. Angelfish and red snapper went in every direction, while spadefish coasted in neutral. This was just an ordinary dive in Raja Ampat. Its 50,000 square kilometers is considered the heart of the world's marine biodiversity. Scientists have identified more than 1,300 species of reef fish here, swimming among more than 50 percent of the world's soft corals and 70 percent of the world's hard corals. It is breathtaking.

Five years ago at this location near Kri, I spotted two blue-ring octopuses during a night dive. This time, the unusual critters included one of the recently- identified walking, or bamboo, sharks, an unidentified grey nudibranch, and the colorful finned tiny oscillated or Scooter dragonet. Home for these critters, especially around Aljui Bay's Channel Island, included a glorious rainbow-like reef of soft and hard corals.

"A crew of 18 cared for 12 divers,
and they did everything humanely possible."

The route on the luxurious 130-foot, sixcabin Damai I took us from West Papua's city of Sorong to the port of Tual on Kri Island. Captain Iskandar motored the handsome teak and mahogany phinisi south toward West Papua around Bird's Head Peninsula. We usually traveled from one site to the other during the night, while moving in the day only if weather conditions dictated. The Damai I is the real deal when it comes to "concierge" diving. A crew of 18 cared for 12 divers, and they did everything humanly possible. They helped us suit up and carried our gear. They washed and either hung my gear to dry or folded my skinsuit or 3-mil wetsuit, my preference for the average 83-degree water temperature. Puto, in charge of the dining salon, passed glasses of water on a tray before and after each dive. My only responsibility was carrying my mask to the tender and determining which camera lens to use.

Cruise directors Simon Marsh and Andrina Bindon, two former Peter Hughes trainees who are about the best in the business, commented when I presented my c-cards, "When you spend this much money for a scuba trip, we know you're certified." The same level of trust might be said about the Nitrox fill percentages. I observed them using gauges, and saw the percentage posted on the briefing board (there was no self-analyzing) that also noted our tender order number and buddy assignments, which rotated daily. Simon told me, "We believe in unlimited diving. The amount of time spent underwater on our three daily dives is your discretion; it's the quality, not the quantity of dives. We aren't going to look at the amount of air left in your tank." I normally stayed down 60 to 70 minutes, but one couple regularly averaged two-hour dives. They provided one divemaster for each four guests. Three divemasters were excellent, especially at critter sightings; the fourth appeared more interested in his own underwater photography than serving his divers. He needs to serves his guests, not himself.

Damai IOn our first dive (hardly a checkout, more to verify our buoyancy), there were half a dozen tasseled wobbegong, a large 100-pound wahoo, a school of sweetlips puckering in the current, the rare cometfish, a three-foot moray having a ruckus under a boulder with a wobbegong (the eel swam away), tridachna clams large enough to swallow a diver, and even a school of grouper. A yellow symmetrical flatworm was the only loner.

After a unanimous vote, we passed on diving Manta Sandy, a feeding station so popular that with 40 liveaboards now operating in Raja Ampat, there are frequently more boats and divers than mantas. (Nearly two decades ago, Undercurrent was the first publication to visit and write about Raja Ampat. There were no liveaboards and only one resort, Camp Kri -- now Kri Eco Resort -- built by Dutchman Max Ammer, who subsequently built Sorido Bay.) Our unexpected reward was an unusual encounter at Blue Magic. A graceful 15-foot oceanic manta, displaying its black T-shaped stripe outlined by a white lip, circled for 20 minutes with a reef manta, identified by its spotted underbelly. Also circling us were schools of barracuda, trevally, silversides, horse-eye jack and one nippy juvenile damsel. There were also the rare orange mantis shrimp, bumphead parrotfish, and schools of red snapper and sweetlips.

After diving Arborek Jetty, we took a stroll around the fishermen's tidy village. Children followed us, singing and dancing. Refreshingly, they were not looking for a handout. During a night dive at Arborek Jetty, before my flashlight went out and my purge valve stuck, I spotted a tiny blue-ring octopus, so small it looked like it had been born that morning. I also spotted a minute pygmy squid, a few popcorn-like squat anemone shrimp, and a juvenile blue lobster, its white feelers giving away its rocky nook hideaway. As we did our safety stop in the darkness of the night, my light illuminated a dark blue bobtail squid scurrying across the sand.

Alblulol's No Contest and Farondi's Three Sisters offered more variety, with bottomless walls, mobula rays and large schools of silversides. Goa Farondi had two caves, one at a depth between 30 and 100 feet, and a second cave with a wide opening that surfaced above the waterline, not unlike a cenote experience. An irascible current required us to descend to the smaller cave, where, as if in a washing machine, we were swept in one direction, then another, while trying to maintain our buoyancy in upward and downward currents. Neptune Fansea's drift dive was milder than the usual current. The edge of the channel, enhanced by perfect sunlight, had mature fans measuring at least 20 square feet, large whips, colorful purple anthias, six-inch garden eels peering out of sandy areas, and even a rare species of red nudibranch.

Damai I, Raja Ampat, IndonesiaMisool Eco-Resort controls the area, requiring boats to reserve mooring times. The resort owners were responsible for eliminating shark finning in Raja Ampat (see our article about that in the January 2014 issue). The area is now a nursery for black- and whitetip sharks. Bayangan's Magic Mountain is a shallow reef at 60 feet. While none of the anticipated mantas were sighted, there were many juvenile white-tips, and a large two-foot walking shark sharing a rocky nook with a peacock stingray. The site was so productive, we returned the next morning for a stronger current filled with schooling barracuda and spadefish, plus many more white- and black-tip sharks.

Specifically designed for divers, the Damai I has a large dive deck with individual cubbies and rinse tanks. While there is a camera-drying air hose on the deck, there is also a dedicated camera room off the salon with separate workstations and many outlet choices. The Damai's utilitarian tenders were not much to look at. With no gunwales, a rubbercovered bench with six tank holders, and low to the water, it was easy to backroll. There was a sturdy, flip-down, potentially finger-pinching ladder. There was always a boat waiting when we surfaced. Prior to dinner, during several sunsets, we took lagoon trips on the tenders. Surrounded by giant tropical plants, we explored the narrow channels with overhanging trees. I spotted a pair of hornbills and a grey cockatoo.

My group was interesting and amiable. There was a New York vet with his wife. A female U.S. government employee, based in Kabul, Afghanistan, was a repeat diver. Her diplomatic U.S. passport, which clearly impressed immigration officials, went on top of the pile when required for customs. Another New York couple both boasted PhDs; he worked for an algorithmic hedge fund. Also onboard was Tadd Frye, a private chef who cooks for the rich and famous, primarily in the Turks and Caicos. He was consulting for the Damai on food preparation -- and as you'll read later, they need it. A Swiss English-speaking couple on their third Damai voyage had a bow cabin on the main deck (#6), with a private balcony, separate toilet and a walk-in shower.

Damai I, Raja Ampat, IndonesiaI enjoyed a single cabin with a "real toilet" and plenty of storage space. There were drawers under the bed, a large corner cabinet with hangers and shelves, a desk with drawers and a chair. The large bathroom had a wood-slatted floor with rainfall shower. Included were upscale, Four Seasons-style amenities of soap, lotion, shampoo and moisturizer. My cabin was next to an always-on-four generator that vibrated my comfy bed. In desperate need of sleep when I arrived, I commented about the room to Andrina, "I paid a premium for this?" She replied, "In three days, you won't notice it." She was right. But I did notice rainwater leaking from the salon ceiling into the stairwell.

The main flaw in Damai's luxurious standards is the food preparation. Puto set the table for each meal with cloth napkins and placemats, and we'd sit down for dinner, placing individual orders. Prior to my departure home, I had dinner at a restaurant near my Sanur hotel. At first bite, I realized what the Damai food had lacked: flavor. Indonesia is a land of exotic, flavor-filled meals, yet chef Tadd Frye was onboard to help Chef Wayan Kadek "westernize the food." Overall, the food was overcooked, and heavily salted and peppered. A tuna fillet was well done and tasteless. A nondescript pudding was gelatinous. Unappetizing snacks were offered following the third dive. I was never even tempted. In all fairness, it was the chef's first week on the boat, and I am not sure about the availability of ingredients. His poached eggs were good, the fresh fruit was delicious. We were served a lovely dinner on the top deck. None of the divers drank. The conversation was so interesting, I don't think anyone cared about the food.

Indonesia food was available on request, but it was primarily rice, noodles or curry, all of which were better than the Western alternative. At Damai's price point, they desperately need Tadd's advice. Each morning when the chef cooked sambal, a spicy chili sauce, the heat of the spice in the air was a throat tickler and forced a mass departure from the salon and 12-seat dining area. (Why didn't he make it while we were underwater?) The shaded upper deck was the perfect escape. Canvas-covered wicker lounge chairs and outdoor beds were located in front of the fully equipped bridge. There was an "off limits" finicky single cup coffee machine, brewing bitter rather than full and robust coffee. They also offered a press as an alternative or a teapot. Frankly, if I'm going to be so decadently spoiled, and they have to make individual cups of coffee, how about a coffee mug with a wakeup call for the 7:30 a.m. dive?

Leaving Raja after six days, we entered the Banda Sea and dive quality diminished. Each village required permission -- and either Coke and cigarettes or money as payment -- to dive its rubble reefs with rusting, snagged fishing lines and nets. Our first stop in the Kurkap area was at Taka Kurkap, a rubble coral seamount. We were on the hunt for hammerheads, but unfortunately, there were only several turtles and an octopus.

Geologically-created, channel-like strong currents tended to split and change directions. Two dives were literally in the "middle of nowhere." Much of the area lacked the visual island beauty of Raja Ampat, and many of the seamounts were damaged by dynamite. At the same time, the Banda Sea had sparkling blue water with great unlimited visibility, sandy white bottoms and many schools of fish. Raja's plankton-rich waters may not enjoy the same visibility (50 to 75 feet), but it surpasses in its beautiful underwater terrain and marine life.

On one exploratory, no-name site, we were distracted by thousands of schooling barracuda swimming circles around us. Using my reef hook to watch them, I suddenly saw an eight-foot gray reef shark coming at us like a torpedo. He veered away at the last moment and was gone in a blink of the eye. Startled, we kept on diving, hoping the shark was now miles away. At another site, where zebra sharks and cuttlefish had been previously sighted, I saw a cockatoo waspfish, two olive sea snakes that looked like they had swallowed a pufferfish, a hairy crab, Halameda ghost pipefish and fields of hard corals.

Is Raja Ampat worth the time and hassle of the travel required? Flying 30 hours each way, I took a total of 11 different flights with three necessary overnight stays. I paid overweight baggage and multiple "exit" fees. If I just recall the memories of Raja diving, I can overlook the jet-lag ordeal. However, returning home to another day at the office, I just don't know. Raja, according to my current passport, shows that, like childbirth, I forgot the pain of the travel for the beauty of the experience. After all, it is the center of planet Earth's marine diversity, but maybe once, or twice, is enough.

PS: I made a slide show of the great critters I saw on this trip; you can view them at www.kizoa.com/slideshow-maker/d10493408k6061070o1/damai-critters. Also, Two of my long-time diving buddies were aboard the Damai two weeks after I was. One told me that even though the boat had just left dry dock, it "leaked live a sieve" in a heavy rainstorm. Rainwater flooded into lower deck rooms, even into her bed. The flooded wooden stairwell was steep, slippery and dangerous; rainwater even poured into the camera room. The other friend, who was in the cabin next to the one I had, slept with his door open because of engine fumes, as did the guest in that cabin during my trip. The price of a Damai trip is too expensive to have to face these problems.

-- N.M.

Damai I, Raja Ampat, IndonesiaDivers Compass: Preferring Cathay Pacific Airlines, I flew a 20-hour, one-stop flight (Hong Kong) to Bali (most divers flew through Jakarta), I had to overnight both ways in Denpasar, Bali, as well as in Makassar, and I had to take three flights between Tual and Denpasar; most internal flights are in the middle of the night . . . While Damai's booking agent, Wayan, was helpful in securing internal flights and transfers, I found it less expensive to book my hotels through Agoda.com . . . Be sure to get rupiah prior to leaving the airport, as neither U.S. dollars nor credit cards are accepted anywhere . . . Also be prepared for departure taxes and high extra charges for excess baggage; Damai gives you a full kit of gear, gratis, thus a good reason to leave your dive gear at home . . . The nearest recompression chamber is in Manado, which requires the liveaboard to find an airstrip to get evacuation, no easy trick here; therefore, one must dive more conservatively than ever . . . Website: www.dive-damai.com

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